"Goodnight Moon is nice, honey, but how about we read War and Peace tonight?"
Many readers of Julie Bosman’s article “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children” in the New York Times recently probably shrugged to find out that picture book sales have been decreasing. The economy’s bad: what else is new? As the article went on, the reasons appeared to be a bit more complicated, probably having as much to do with Waiting for Superman (the documentary about education reform out now by Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth) becoming a hit as it does the poor economy. Parents, “mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools,” are electing to shorten their children’s exposure to picture books and are pushing them towards chapter books with more text. WTF???
Bosman interviewed Dara La Porte, children’s department manager at Politics and Prose in DC, who said of the situation:
They’re 4 years old, and their parents are getting them “Stuart Little”…I see children pick up picture books, and then the parents say, “You can do better than this, you can do more than this.” It’s a terrible pressure parents are feeling–that somehow, I shouldn’t let my child have this picture book because she won’t get into Harvard.
Lord knows there are an awful lot of picture books (I’m certainly overwhelmed every time I take my kid to the library). And, yes, the industry is probably suffering from a glut of them. But still, the reason they’re not selling as well as they used to seems a tad insane.
Thankfully, picture book champions aren’t taking the situation lying down. Lisa Von Drasek over at Early Word wrote a post meant as a corrective to parents who think their children are just screwing around while looking at pretty pictures with a few words:
Those parents overlook what picture books can do for young minds. Think of Jon Scieszka’s perennial favorite The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf (Viking Childrens, 1989) with its sophisticated unreliable narrator. To enjoy and understand this story, kids need to know the classic Three Little Pigs, they need to comprehend the lying language of Alexander T. Wolf, and have the visual literacy to peruse Lane Smith’s collage art for contradicting evidence of the verbal story. These critical thinking skills are strengthened through reading and rereading picture books.
Drasek goes on to offer a list of reasons why picture books help develop important critical thinking skills and why parents should think twice about pushing their kids into reading books with plain text before they’re ready. And she offers a call to arms among librarians to print out the NYT article along with a few points rebutting the assumptions of parents that have led to the trend, such as:
- The text of picture books is often written at a higher reading level. Children need to hear this higher vocabulary to acquire language before they can read it.
- The pictures give children practice in visual literacy. Excellent picture books are ones that you can go back to again and again, discovering something new every time.
- Early series chapter books are great for reading practice but their vocabulary and sentence structure are simplistic and their plots formulaic.
It’s quite an interesting controversy. I’d be interested to know what MobyLives readers think–parents especially.