Friday, October 08, 2010

Childhood is the Prime Time for Picture Books

This is surely, one of the saddest articles I have read in a very long time. New York Times: Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children by Julie Bosman.

It must be in the air
I have encountered many people recently who, in a hushed voice but with great pride, have told me the age their children started reading. It has happened so frequently in the last few weeks that I have wondered if I have tumbled into some kind of Reading Readiness drinking game. Apparently the age for exceptional kids to start reading now, is three years of age, four years old if they are late bloomers, I guess.  When Bosman wrote that Amanda Gignac's "youngest son, Laurence, started reading chapter books when he was 4," I felt like I should hoist a tasty beverage to my lips.

For years I've had discussions with parents who have assured me that their little "Hortense" or "Horatio" must quit checking out picture books and move up to "chapter books" because picture books were just too doggone easy for them.  I changed the name of that section in my library from "Easy" to "Everybody" for just that reason.

Not so easy
Picture books are NOT easy books.  Limited (usually) to thirty two pages, only the best words and writing will do. The illustrator imagines and creates pictures and layouts and colors and textures that carry the story forward.  In the best picture books the illustrations and text work seamlessly together.  They offer a feast of ideas, art and story that engages the brain and the eye. 

The Language of DovesI have a very warm memory of handing Rosemary Wells's Language of the Doves along with a box of tissues to one worried but willing mother.  Greg Shed's warm illustrations glow with the love between a grandfather and his granddaughter in this story. Thirty two pages later, the mother was mopping tears off her face. " Not an easy book, is it?"  I asked her.

The Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies (A Golden Classic)Without experiencing the joy of picture books, a child's imagination may never learn to supply the mental pictures needed to carry them through those much vaunted chapter books. My most vivid memories of books from my childhood are of Garth Williiams's mermaids, elves and fairies, Leo Politi's swallows, and Eloise Wilkins's children and families.

Saint George and the Dragon 
 Trina Schart Hyman's fierce and elegant renderings of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon are probably responsible for the birth of another legend in my household.

What gives?
Is this trend away from picture books an economic thing, a bizarre equation of  Value = number of words per dollar spent?  Picture books are more expensive.  Are they too much for families who are weighing every penny during these hard times? Perhaps.

Stuart Little (Spanish-language version) (Spanish Edition)Are parents evaluating books by the number of pages now?  Why not just hand the six year old Atlas Shrugged then? That is a 1200 page value. Stuart Little for a 4 year old seems equally daft, to me.

Parents!  Picture books are read over and over and over and over and OVER again.   Value = time  x  #of re-reads  x enjoyment= Priceless

Is this some kind of parental competitive one-upmanship?  Why push kids in this part of childhood that begs to be enjoyed and savored?

Certainly we should offer new reading challenges but to exclude a child from picture books if they want to read them seems just plain foolish.  Our media saturated culture encourages passive, eyes-glazed-over reception.  Picture books train the eye to engage and discern.

My home is stuffed with books of all kinds and many, many shelves are filled with picture books.  My entlings are amazing readers and have never ever been labeled "reluctant."  I think "voracious" is a better description.

Technology has made this a golden era for beautiful books.
The discovery of literature through picture books during these years is a wondrous thing.  

Picture books are a gift to the intellect and imagination of every child.  Do not cheat them out of this experience.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget "The Invention of Hugo Cabaret"! It's a almost entirely pictures. I almost cried while I was reading it.

-Entling no. 2

tanita✿davis said...

I read this and got quite upset, then read MotherReader's post where she pointed out that the NYT does not know all. This is true.

It does seem to me, though, that people do take an inordinate amount of pride in pushing their children beyond what other children are doing - because it feeds their narcissism. My mother is the director of a preschool which has "early childhood education" in the title, and she's always a bit amazed at the people who want their five/sixes to be beyond the baby books they have on the shelves there. Yes, they're preK kids, but even Kindergartners can read picture books and it's OKAY.

anne said...

you are exactly correct, about how kids / parents want to run from picture books. Our area is catalogued as jE, but I like the E for EVERYBODY --- gonna steal it for our public library soonest!

Jennifer Morian Frye said...

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, CAMILLE!!! I am ALWAYS telling people these exact points....although I may not be as articulate or eloquent. Picture books contain some amazing stories, not to mention the beauty of some of the illustrations. From Mo Willems, with his simplistic drawings, that fit the hilarious stories perfectly, to something as exquisite and detailed as the paintings in Ruth Sanderson's The Crystal Mountain (one of my favorites), picture books are wonderful and should never, never be discounted as "easy". I wish our library had a separate section for "easy readers" and picture books. It would be wonderful. I read picture books to fifth graders very often, and remind them to never let anyone tell them that they are too old for picture books! Challenge, yes, great, but enjoy too!

marjorie said...

BRAVA! Amen! Standing O!

That mom who said of her six-year-old, “He would still read picture books now if we let him, because he doesn’t want to work to read,” just broke my heart.

Camille said...

@Marjorie That mother's comment just made me cry too. And he is described as a "reluctant" reader now. Tragic.

Jess said...

Apparently that quote was taken out of context -

I agree that there are fabulous picture books for older kids - or any age - and that they should be encouraged to continue reading them (or listening to them). Since I do a toddler storytime and am always on the lookout for great younger books, I always seem to run across these perfect-for-elementary-school books and am disappointed when I can't use them!

Camille said...

I saw Gignac's post about her dismay at having her comments taken out of context. Memo to self: don't joke while talking to a reporter.

MotherReader said...

I've seen the Reading Game as played by parents for many years. But that's one of the reasons that I take issue with the NYT article attributing the current decline in picture book sales to parents pushing their kids to read older books. Because, again, I've seen this for at least the ten years I was working in the library. This isn't some new fad of 2009 or 2010. So saying that's why picture books are fading is pretty suspect. Titling that article as Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children is ridiculously alarmist.

I like what you are saying about discouraging the Reading Game and I know that we all can continue to support and promote the wonder of picture books.

Entling No. 1 said...

Remember when you made me Una's dress (the princess in St. George) for Halloween one year? I think I still have the tiara somewhere...

Gail Gauthier said...

Camille--I had to laugh about the Reading Readiness Drinking Game.

When my children were young, the feeling was that for most kids, very early reading was the equivalent of a party trick. Whether a kid learned in pre-school/kindergarten or by Christmas of first grade didn't matter a lot, because, except for all but the most gifted, everyone would be reading on a pretty similar level by third grade. I don't know if that's the current thinking, but we parents of the first-grade readers took great comfort in it.

When my children were in elementary school, we'd run into parents who casually let drop that their second graders were reading John Grisham or Michael Crichton. I definitely had a feeling it was considered a sign of status.

I guess we should be glad that people put this kind of value on reading.

Lisa H said...

I LOVE seeing my own 10 and 8 year olds nosing around the shelves where we keep our picture books. I hope this never stops.

Some adults - parents and teachers - forget that reading is a pleasure, a habit, and a hobby to be nurtured in children - with picture books! For many, reading is first and foremost a skill and a key to competing in school.