Recently, The New York Times published an article by Julie Bosman titled, “Picture Books: No Longer a Staple for Children” which kicked up a lot of dust – and not from the picture books on the shelves.
For the sake of all those panicking parents out there who now believe that everyone else out there is reading Moby Dick aloud nightly to their progeny, someone needs to set the record straight. You can relax. It’s not happening.
I spent fifteen years in publishing and worked as a literary agent for some amazing children’s book writers and illustrators including Dav Pilkey, Cynthia Rylant, Paul Zindel and Judy Blume. In addition to Mommy Lite, I contribute regularly to many parenting websites including HybridMom.com, ParentsAsk.com and Shine. But most relevantly, I am the mother to three children - a ten year old girl, and seven and a half year old boy/girl twins - AND a volunteer in my children’s public school library.
From my 360 degree perspective, as well as the perspective of almost every parent out there I know, picture books are still very much staples for children.
Articles about the children’s book industry are often so frustrating and inaccurate. Reporters who aren’t in the trenches every day believe that sales numbers from book stores and publishing houses are indicators of the health of the industry on the whole. Sales go down and the assumption is that people aren’t reading. That’s like saying that gourmet food sales are down so people aren’t eating.
Here is the simple fact. Picture books are expensive. REALLY expensive. A beautiful hardcover, the kind we all love buying, giving and sharing with our children, costs a small fortune. $18 is not an impulse purchase. Not the way a $5 paperback is or even a $9 board book.
Many parents see plunking down $18.00 for a picture book as a luxury. Sure they’ll pay $24.99 for a hardcover for themselves, but for a thirty-two page picture book their child will outgrow in a few years? Not so fast. When the money is tight, these sorts of luxuries are the first thing we parents cut. But that doesn’t mean we’re not reading them to our kids.
When times are tight, parents turn to libraries, garage sales, regional on-line parenting groups where members are practically GIVING boxes of these away, and of course, Ebay. Do you know what the results were for sales of children’s books on Ebay this morning? 878,908. And some of these were for collections of books.
What surprised me most about this article was the complete brushing off of the fact that this drop in sales coincided directly with the recession. Sure parents are anxious about their child’s education. More than ever we are fighting to prepare our children to compete in this world. But this “trend” didn’t suddenly pop up a year ago. This has been going on for over a decade.
And let’s not forget the most obvious point debating this reported “trend.” Spending significant time in the evening (let’s say even just a half hour per child) reading large chunks of illustration-free, heavy prose is simply something we as parents know is not the norm. I don’t know about you, but I have laundry to fold. Plus? The kids would never stand for it! Okay. Some kids stand for it. But I want to know if Ms. Bosman has ever pinned down a five year old and made them listen to a chapter of “Ol Yeller.” Has she even met a parent who’s been able to achieve this feat? I haven’t. But if she has, I won’t lie…I’d like to know their secret.
I am happy (and proud) to concede that my 2nd grade twins are reading “Henry and Mudge,” “Captain Underpants” and “Magic Tree House” books. My son even attempted “The Lightning Thief.” (He bailed forty pages in, but still – it was impressive). Their classmates are all reading chapter books at school during reading time. But that doesn’t stop any of them from coming home from “library day” with a picture book about crazy guinea pigs, girls who love purple, and monsters in need of haircuts.
Laughter, amusement and imagination never go out of style. Picture books provide that for children. A small escape, a fun story, a beautiful world that draws them in and transports them. And parents want to be there with them. Holding their hands as they experience these things.
Reading a picture book together is one of the most beautiful experiences of the parent/child relationship. Whether it’s a story about a child with salt in his shoes, or a dog with bad breath named Hally Tosis. Picture books are the cornerstone of the childhood experience. For parents and children. No recession can squelch it, no need to compete can trump it, and nothing - not tv, not movies, not video games - can replace it.
In my opinion, picture books are here to stay.