Saturday, October 9, 2010

Picture Books

Sales of picture books for children are down. I scanned this headline at the NY Times yesterday and figured, well, sure, so many little kids have computers now, and video games, and there are cartoons on TV 24-7. Then today I looked at Julie Bosman's story, and she actually says something else. While acknowledging the distraction of computers and television, she claims that many parents are pushing their children to read chapter books instead:
“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.”

“They’re 4 years old, and their parents are getting them ‘Stuart Little,’ ” said Dara La Porte, the manager of the children’s department at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington. “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.”
This is probably a bogus journalistic trend made up from half a dozen chance encounters in New York and Washington. It did set me thinking, though, about what I read to my children.

I just finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to Ben, who is starting the second grade. He loved it, and I loved reading it to him and reliving the wonders of J.K. Rowling's world. This was the first weighty book he and I have made it through together. I tried him on a couple of longer books last year, but he didn't really follow them. So through the first grade we read picture books and Deltora Quest, a series of little chapter books that introduces kids to the wonders of bad Dungeons and Dragons. I was a little impatient to get through this stage, but only because he is my fourth child and I have already exhausted our local library's store of animal books and fairy tales.

If you ask me, though, the reason picture books don't sell well, and so many of them "languish on the shelf," is that they aren't any good. Really, of all the picture books in our local library, there are only about hundred that I have enjoyed reading, and most of them were written before 1970. My favorite things to read are fairy tales: East of the Sun and West of the Moon, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Seven Ravens, Cinderella, Anansi and the Talking Melon. A lot of other people seem to agree with me, since they keep bringing out new, lavishly illustrated versions of these classics. Another one of my favorites is Rikki Tikki Tavi from Kipling's Jungle Book, which was the first long story my ADHD elder son sat through. I like the early Dr. Seuss, two or three stories by Bill Pete and, of course, Where the Wild Things Are. Otherwise I find the pickings thin. If I just grab a book at random off the picture book shelves, I usually end up shuddering with horror at the utter banality and shoving it back. A book like If I Ran the Circus or Where the Wild Things Are shows the pyschological and artistic richness that a little picture book can achieve, but there don't seem to be many authors who can do it. By comparison, the riches of chapter books that one can read to children are pretty much inexhaustible, and it excites me to think of all the things Ben and I can read together over the next few years.

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