Friday, October 8, 2010

Why the World Needs Picture Books

(from Maggie and the Pirate by Ezra Jack Keats)

There was a disturbing article in the New York Times yesterday about the perilous future of the Picture Book. (You can read article here). The article addresses the dwindling sales of picture books as well as the shrinking number of them being published. It also talks about parents pushing children away from picture books because they wrongly see them as too simple.

Now having worked for years in Children's Publishing as a major buyer of Picture Books for Scholastic's Kindergarten Book Club, I can say with confidence that in the past fifteen years there have been WAY TOO MANY picture books published. When too many titles are published, there are undoubtedly terrible titles making it to the market and the good titles suffer. I see this happening in the YA market currently. It also happens in music. And unless a consumer has the time (and who does except for us fanatics) to devote endless hours to research, it may be hard to weed through the bad to find the quality titles. So more selective publishing isn't a bad thing in my opinion.

What really frightens me is the other aspect of the article. Picture Books are not simple. Not the really good ones anyway. Picture Books are extremely valuable for children. The marriage of text and pictures is how we learn to visualize a written story and how to let our imagination expand the story. Certainly there is also a need to have children read chapter books. I LOVE chapter books. But they serve a completely different place in the learning to read process.

Chapter Books are perfect for encouraging independent reading. But independent reading is only part of the child's learning to read process. Learning to read can't simply be about vocabulary and testable skills. The key to raising a child who loves reading and not just a child who can read, is the magic of storytelling. Picture Books are some of the most perfect examples of storytelling that we have developed as a culture. They are not simply for teaching toddlers the alphabet or to count or that apples are red. There are many complex and rich stories contained in that section of the store, not to mention many of the finest pieces of art produced in the last century.

Next time you're in a bookstore, do yourself a favor and spend some time in the Picture Book section. Pick one up instead of that new James Patterson or Nicholas Sparks novel...I promise you'll get infinitely more from its pages.


  1. I think its all about who is doing the shopping or maybe its because I'm in the business of finding the perfect picture book for each lesson that I haven't noticed a drop but on the contrary I'm finding more and more picture books. Also I have seen and know of 1 (one) child in the last 5 years that was ready for a chapter book in kindergarten. Picture books are growing and being use quit often at least in my school. Heck, I use them with my 3rd and 4th graders during math tutoring sessions and they love it!

    I think its more media propaganda but I don't know the point of view of the publisher houses.

    **I did post this answer on another blog - hot topic today.


  2. I went back and read the whole article and I'm just angered by the whole thing. There is so much to reading a young child a picture book. Today in class I read a Clifford book - Fire Safety and a Apple Counting book. I wanted to draw attention to the red items because our spotlight color was red. The children love that - I read the lines then we discuss the pictures and how they work with the story. How do parents plan to teach their children to dream and visualize chapter books in their head if they don't read picture books first!

    And the women from San Antonio that said her son would rather be lazy and read a picture book but they MAKE him read chapter books - I only live 3 1/2 hours from San Antonio so I may have to go kick some butt.

    Oh I'm just fuming now. :(


  3. Love the images. As the saying goes A Picture is worth .. and in a good picture book, both go together to stimulate and spark new ideas and associations,

  4. I read the article too, we have always had pushy mums but I feel that the demise of the net book agreement brought many changes detrimental to the picture book. Discounting meant that small independent book shops could not survive putting all the power into the hands of just a few. Maybe new technology will herald an exciting new era?

  5. I don't know if it's necessarily pushy moms so much that there is a completely misguided view of early reading in the U.S. due to the weight put on standardized testing, which creates a classroom environment that shuns the value of a Picture Book.

    I do however agree with the booksellers about the cover price of Picture Books. $15-$20 is quite a high price, especially when the chapter book and easy reader market is dominated by $3.99 paperbacks. Not that the prices aren't justifiable given the artwork, however it's still quite a large gap for people to straddle in tough economic times.

  6. Totally agree!
    Why pressure them at such young age, more over isn't it too harsh?
    Let them do want they want cause and let them enjoy their freedom as a child. Pretty much, every child is unique and therefore has the capacity to learn things on their little unique ways.

  7. Here! Here! So well and succinctly put. I especially appreciate your perspective as someone who is part of the industry and is willing to say that too many books were published, ensuring subpar books making it onto the shelves of bookstores. In this time of economic downturn, is the pendulum swinging back the other way? Will publishers tighten their belts and, if they do, will the cream rise to the top? Maybe we are headed into a 15 year period where a new Chris Van Alsburg will emerge???

    PS - Thanks for the awesome Hilary Knight illustration. "Eloise" has been an inspiration to me since I was a kid. I even made a shoebox book report of the very scene you posted when I was in 4th grade. A great example of the complexities that make up a brilliant picture book.

  8. I hope more selective publishing will mean raising the standard, however I'm also a little worried that it mean that simply the lowest common denominator will make it the market. We'll see.

    Eloise is one my favorite characters too. And well chosen, that spread certainly has the makings of a great diorama.