Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Value of Picture Books

A recent New York Times article links the decline in picture book sales to parents' push to read chapter books are increasingly early ages:

The economic downturn is certainly a major factor, but many in the industry see an additional reason for the slump. Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.
Parents are saying, ‘My kid doesn’t need books with pictures anymore,’ ” said Justin Chanda, the publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. “There’s a real push with parents and schools to have kids start reading big-kid books earlier. We’ve accelerated the graduation rate out of picture books.”
I wonder how much of this really is related to the economic downturn.  I have a huge picture book collection, but almost all of it was purchased before I actually had children - either for me and my sister when we were kids, or because I saw them in a bookstore and loved the art or the story.  Now that I actually have children, and the resultant budget crunch, I almost never buy new picture books - or books of any kind, for that matter.  Almost everything we read is borrowed from the library, purchased used from an online book dealer, garage sale or used book store, mooched on BookMooch, or handed-down from someone else.  I don't think that extrapolating from a decrease in picture book sales to a decrease in picture book reading is necessarily accurate.

That said, what if it's true?  What if children are being asked to read chapter books at an increasingly early age as yet another way to urge them towards higher academic achievement?  I think that would be very, very sad.  First of all, most of the chapter books for early readers that I've seen are painfully written and full of dialogue as a way to move the story.  I do not find them to be rich in narrative, or particularly compelling, at all.  My daughter can't stand them, and neither can I.  But even the good ones are missing something that picture books offer.
Just yesterday, I substituted for the Elementary One teacher who needed to take an afternoon off, and she left some reading for us to do together.  Frankly, I did expect the books to be text-heavy, but they weren't.  What they did do is engage the children, keep their attention, and encourage them the depart the text, make predictions, ask questions, learn vocabulary, and appreciate the artistry of the illustrations.  One book in particular, Some Things Are Scary by Florence Parry Heide, Illustrated by Jules Feiffer, led to an amazingly rich and powerful discussion.  The book starts out with what you would expect - swinging too high is scary, holding someone's hand and then realizing it's not your mom is scary - but then it turned to more complicated social situations.  Seeing people laugh and thinking they're laughing at you is scary.  Finding out your best friend who has a best friend that isn't you is scary.  Thinking you might not be picked for either team is scary.  
The mood in the room turned contemplative and serious as the children shared stories of times they had felt left out, awkward, unwanted, not good enough.  They felt free to share their thoughts and feelings, and their friends held the safe space for them and listened to their stories.  I listened to what they had to say, but I didn't have to try to resolve the problems or offer solutions, because simply being able to get these things off their chests and knowing that they weren't alone, that everyone feels this way sometimes, was therapy enough for them.
This was a discussion that never could have happened any other way.  The funny illustrations and situations in the book (drinking something and then finding out it wasn't what you thought it was is scary - "That's not scary, it's gross!") kept the mood light enough to facilitate such a serious discussion without getting bogged down in it, in a way that no conversation or chapter book could have.  It was amazing how easy it became to work through real and tough issues of kindness, friendship, and safety with this book as a tool.
Maybe, when we're talking about things like plot, character development, and independent reading, there is a need for the chapter books.  But when we're talking about the intangibles of literacy, not to mention the intangibles of humanity, nothing beats a good picture book.

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