So Deeply Sad: RIP Picture Books?

OK, it was there on the front-freaking-page of the New York Times, so I had to talk about it. Even though I feel like I am preaching to the converted, never a good use of one's time.

I mean really? You want your kid to learn to read, so you don't let them look at picture books? Can this even be real? But of course it can. The human race is just so ridiculous that this is only a mild surprise, really.


Here's the gist of it (for those of you unwilling to follow the link): picture books sales are way down, in part, they surmise, because people are trying to get their children reading earlier and earlier, and they don't want them to waste time with baby books.

Of course, that's like saying you shouldn't sing them Twinkle Twinkle Little Star because it's a baby song. And you shouldn't talk in a baby voice. And you…whatever. I mean, as if you have to choose, anyway. As if baby is really an insult. How did that become an insult? How did we get to a place where earlier seems better? "Sorry dear, no No David for you, we have to read The Wind in the Willows." Why can't you read both? Why can't you let them be kids for a few years? A good friend strongly believes that we're in a phase of infantilizing our children when they could be independent—not letting them go places on their own, to which I would add not letting them choose what they read—while at the same time pushing them to be far more grownup than they're ready for. And it seems dishearteningly true; it's as if we have some sort of repugnance about the idea of a really childish childhood, complete with naiveté, dorkiness, and clueless innocence.

But it's so, so wrong. So entirely misguided. Kids can happily read picture books well into middle school, even if they only do it on the sly. There is a great comfort to be found in picture books, a wholly imagined world. Just look on the top of our toilet, and you'll find Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. My kids are 9 and 11 now, and as far as I can tell both of them have been enjoying it over the past week. (Of course, now that I've written that, you don't really need to look on top of our toilet, where it's probably not as clean as I wish it were.) At our stoop sale last week, I got to see a friend of Diana's—a girl who is the epitome of cool, with a cell phone, a bra, and a major attitude—poring over a picture book copy of Rapunzel.

Picture books help you understand what it is to read. They make you a better reader. But that's not why we should let kids read them. We should let kids read them because they are wonderful. They're interesting and silly and intriguing. We are only given life for a little while, really, and childhood is even shorter than that. It seems so wrong to keep snipping parts of it away.

For more, I refer you to Dombey & Son, a Dickens novel in which a young boy is sent to Mrs. Pipchin's , a terrible place with a creepy pedagogical philosophy, described thusly:  "It being a part of Mrs. Pipchin’s system not to encourage a child’s mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster…."

I just can't believe that that's the right way.

17 thoughts on “So Deeply Sad: RIP Picture Books?

  1. Don’t panic! The NY Times is always trying to find idiot trends (see their dedication to printing articles showing that women are better off not having careers when they could be having children at aqe 22).
    The reason picture book sales are down is because they are very expensive and the economy has crashed and burned. Mobs of people are going to the library and getting stacks of picture books out for their kids! They just can’t afford to pay for them these days.
    This is also a sad trend, but it isn’t a story that the NY Times thinks is very exciting.

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  2. Yes! It’s true! Whenever I read the Times and it’s something I actually know about I realize they’re wrong, so I should also remember that they’re probably wrong when I don’t know the situation well either. It’s just something that’s been pissing me off in general, and to see it get painted as a “trend”…ugh

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  3. Yeah, I am going to bet that picture book sales are way down because of the economy; people are using libraries and buying secondhand. I took all my outgrown to a yard sale and people were buying them like crazy. BOGUS TREND!

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  4. I was about to email you this story and proclaim my undying love and support for picture books. I love my kids – I have GREAT readers – but it breaks my heart that other children will miss the whimsy of Graeme Base, or Richard Scarry, or a bazillion other books that could transform them into Book Lovers.
    I teach Pre-K, and I have seen parents who push their kids into chapter books before they are ready. So in my class, the shelves are filled with nothing but big, bright, wonderful picture books. And the kids LOVE them. They ask to read at any given opportunity, and flop on the floor with astronauts, mice, ships, fairies, dogs, butterflies, or kids just like themselves.
    I really hope this IS a bogus trend. (steps off soapbox)

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  5. Honestly, I’m one of the “picture books should be left behind” crowd. Nothing pissed me off more as a 5/6th grade teacher to be encouraged to use “picture books” in the classroom instead of chapter-based books.
    They have their place, and very rarely that may go past 1rst or second grade, but I just don’t think that the time spent on chapter books once past 6/7/8 is on par with that reading chapter books. I do think find it infantilizing.
    To be fair, this position is affected by the fact that it was a huge point of pride for me to be the ONLY child in my K class allowed to take out chapter books. Once I abandoned them, I never looked back. As a teacher, I’ve found a few cute stories that have value past that age, but I will encourage my daughter to discard the picture books for the chapter books as soon as she’s ready.
    I think both positions have value, but I feel pretty strongly about mine. However, being a mom is different from being a teacher, and I may have a different opinion as a mom…and I’m open to that as time passes.
    I don’t, however, think picture books are in danger of disappearing.

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  6. But c, the article is talking about 4- and 5-year-olds spurning picture books. Not elementary schoolers.
    It might be a faux-trend. A real one is that picture books hadn’t been innovating as much the last decade or two because the costs were so high they would only take chances on, like, celebrity authors. So only a few new writers were getting a shot. I don’t know how that affects sales.

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  7. Also, can’t the two coexist? In K Diana was reading way out there beyond anything that made sense, James and the Giant Peach etc, but she loved, too, an illustrated ABC. It just don’t think either should be taken away, everything should be around and kids can enjoy as they see fit.

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  8. Even if the trend is real, it won’t last. People have a relationship with the picture books they read as a kid and that will always bring them back around. On the other hand, would it be okay to hope that if this is a trend and if there is a temporary reduction in picture books, it results in a wider selection of chapter books for young and precocious kids?

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  9. Have you bought a picture book at Barnes and Noble recently? $17. Easy.
    They’re the last thing I’m going to buy for my 4 year old, simply because I can get stacks at the library for free (or for the price of my late fees).
    Now early reader books, they’re more like $3-4 a piece and are often available in the Target dollar bin. While I know these books won’t be treasured the same way, I’ve bought a handful for the price of one picture book.
    Disclaimer: We have an ENTIRE bookshelf devoted to board books, picture books and the like. It’s not like I need to spend any more money on books…

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  10. I love picture books. A good one is a pleasure even for adults, with good art, something new to notice and enjoy, as well as the pleasure of reading a favorite story all over again. (And yeah, do we have to choose? I can have Samuel Pepys one day and Calvin & Hobbes the next; neither detracts from the other.)
    Much as I love the Gray Lady, I TOTALLY agree that the NYT is guilty of “bogus trend” stories, and, as Kate Harding mentioned, in particular a certain subset of these, which I like to call “how the rich live” (there was one in the past year or two about helicopter parents obsessively monitoring their children’s time away at camp). And, yes, picture books are crazy expensive, while my son, at least, has unpredictable tastes and goes through jags of one interest or another. So we are totally relying on the library at this stage of the game.
    There is an unnerving general trend where people try, I think, to make up for lack of face-time spent with their children by supplementing with fake-educational stuff. Exhibit one: Baby Einstein videos. But I don’t think civilization is on the verge of collapse yet.

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  11. The pictures add so much — we read good ones again and again and notice backgrounds, silly expressions, details overlooked (“did you notice the wolf stole the pig’s wig?)– and a level of beauty too. Ahh, that article is ridiculous. My kid can read, but picture books, really great ones, they bring us such joy on multiple levels. And so long as they keep my daughter excited about reading, I’m still going to buy them. Sure, we get ones with more words now, but they still have illustrations, paintings, collages, photos, mixed-media art. Art and reading a good story — what’s better?

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  12. You are SOOOO correct here. I saw the article and my heart sank into my stomach. Picture books are essential in our home! The humor, the vocabulary, the ILLUSTRATIONS!
    I linked the article to my online discussion board for a graduate literacy class I’m taking. You know, so more teachers could add to the OVER 380 comments on the Times website for this article!

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  13. I’m 44, an English professor, and I was in a certain bathroom recently with DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS on the top of the toilet tank, and let me tell you–excellent book, excellent read, thoroughly enjoyed it.
    Also, in the last week, I’ve reread HOP ON POP. Which was not even in the bathroom. I just like it.
    Oh, the horror of depriving children of these joys! You know that Bennet Cerf, the great editor at Random House, said his only real genius author was Dr. Seuss. (He was publishing, like, W.H. Auden at the time.)

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  14. I don’t know if I can really add anything, but I just wanted to say that picture books are my favorite books. FAVORITE. And, I am 40. I teach reading to college students. I think that picture books are such a great asset. The precise language and the incredible art… I am at a loss for words for those who think you ever grow out of these wonderful books. What a disservice they are doing for their kids, and for what reading is all about: Making Meaning and Connections.

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  15. I think the real trend is parents who push their children too quickly, thinking they’re helping their child grow intellectually faster than their peers. What parent wouldn’t be proud of their 4 year old reading chapter books? These are parents who think they’ve earned some sort of achievement every time their child hits a milestone before all the other kids her age. Mrs. Pipchin, indeed.
    I don’t know that I’ve ever spent more than $10 on one book for my son. I go to thrift stores, and I buy a load of them there. My son can read picture books as long as he wants to. Granted, he’s two, so he’s not reading them yet- I am, but still. I’m not planning on forcing him to learn how to read. He loves books already, and he’ll learn to read them when he wants to. When he wants to read chapter books, we’ll read them, but I’m not going to discourage him from picture books and tell him they’re for babies. That’s ridiculous. I’m totally appalled at the woman referred to in the article who refuses to give her young daughter picture books even though the child wants to read them. It is not infantilizing to allow a 4 year old to read picture books. In proportion to the rest of her hopefully long life, the child is barely out of infancy.
    Obviously, I could keep going on and on about how ridiculous I think this is, but I won’t because it appears I am preaching to the choir anyway.
    I love your site, by the way. I’m a long time lurker. I really can’t wait until my son is old enough to read a lot of the books you review here.

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