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.