Picture books aren’t going anywhere

If you know any librarians, writers, or avid readers on Twitter, you’ve probably already heard about the recent New York Times article “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” You may have heard about the concern that picture books are dying. You may have heard the concerns from a quoted parent whose quote was taken out of context.

You may have heard any number of panicked voices worrying about picture books and children and what not including BigThink’s ominously titled article “Love Goodnight, Moon; Forget About Harvard” worrying that we don’t know what will happen to children who don’t read picture books. Happily this article does bring some sanity back to the subject by reaffirming that reading is about quality and not about quantity.

You also might have seen Mother Reader’s very wise post reminding everyone that this is not the first, nor will it be the last, time that the New York Times has gotten something wrong in literature for young people. (If you read this blog you might remember the bad parents debacle and the remorseful reading catastrophe–I know I do.)

What you haven’t heard yet, are my thoughts. So here they are with the caveat that I very much agree with Mother Reader that this article isn’t the end all, say all about picture books. That said, I was so struck by the audacity of the article that I find myself unable to let it pass without an extensive response (you have been warned, this will be long). And honestly I didn’t take a bunch of journalism courses in college and concentrate on youth services/literature in grad school to let things like this slide.

This article reminded me a lot of what I am going to go ahead and call the Graphic Novel Ghetto in its talk of parents pushing (or letting or whatever depending on what the real context of quotes was) children to read “real” chapter books instead of picture books.

The Graphic Novel Ghetto is essentially the idea that reading a graphic novel/comic book* isn’t valuable because it doesn’t have as many words as a “regular” traditional prose book or because it’s seen as simpler in concept/content. There are parents (and tragically still some librarians) who think reading a graphic novel isn’t “real” reading or of any intellectual value.

The Graphic Novel Ghetto’s close cousins are the Chick Lit Stigma and the YA Ghetto** which have marginalized many fine and literary books. Another relative of the Graphic Novel Ghetto is the Junk Food Shame. Namely, if a book is “easy” or, dare I say, fun to read it can’t be a “good” book with any literary merit or redeeming intellectual value of any kind. Ally Carter recently said on Twitter (I don’t have the link and I am so sorry about that but Twitter ate it) that this is essentially a flawed idea because what books are really meant to be hard. And I agree.

I hate hearing about people who are apologizing for reading a silly book like The Daring Italian Businessman and His Ravishing Secretary (made up title, you know the book series I mean though) or a vampire novel, or a series like Geronimo Stilton or any number of formulaic series books. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.

Reading is a skill but it’s also kind of like a muscle. You need to use it; you need to exercise it. Frequent use counts as exercise. Who am I to say that the girl who readers 25 mangas in a week isn’t doing as much reading or increasing her reading skills as much as the boy who reads Around the World in Eighty Days over the course of three weeks (made up figures but you get my point I hope)?

How are we defining challenging or at level reading? When I was 12 I read all of Louisa May Alcott’s books and other classics. At 14 I read The Lord of the Rings. By 16 I had Ella Enchanted and was discovering the wide and wonderful world of YA. That is neither here nor there except to say I adored all of these books. They changed how I viewed the world and they made me who I am today as a reader. Ella Enchanted inspired a whole scholarly article in college (which you might have seen already because I link to it often).

But I don’t, in all honestly, think any of those titles helped my grades in school or my vocabulary for standardized tests. This is a bold statement, but I don’t think any books can inherently prepare a child to do well in school or on tests. My mother did.

My mother did all of that (partly by being a brilliant parent but mostly) by introducing me to the library and giving me the freedom to read voraciously as I saw fit and raising me as a reader.

Children naturally move away from picture books and part of being a parent is, of course, letting that happen (as the BigThink article mentions). The thing the New York Times ignores is that a lot of children will come back to those picture books later in life. Some of them will remember their favorites fondly. Others will reference them while starting their own careers as writers and artists. Others will remember them as librarians and publishers. Like any book, picture books are a part of our culture and you can’t just erase a cultural event like that (I’ve never even seen a real eight track tape, but I still know about them–see what I mean?).

As to parents not buying them, well I still have issues with buying books that I am working through. Not because I dislike books or think they are dying (they’re not) but because I read books very quickly and they are expensive. The cost if I bought each book new is too much to sustain. Imagine the expense of buying each picture book you or your child wanted to read? Actually, don’t imagine it, go to the Library Savings Calculator and see for yourself. For myself I know in the past few months I’ve looked at about twenty picture books for work and this blog. If I had to buy them all, that would have cost 300 dollars (and that’s at 15 dollars a book–many cost more). I can’t afford that and I’m a single woman. What family can afford to buy books at that rate in this economic climate?

The article in the NYT addresses a real situation but as any student of statistics can tell you, correlation does not equal causation. Where are the libraries in this article? Where are the parents who come to the library every week to return a stack of twenty picture books only to immediately borrow twenty more? Where are the librarians who have story hours every week for babys, toddlers, and children? How, in a time when libraries are seeing more use than ever, can any responsible article say picture books are no longer a staple for children?

Even without those basic issues though, picture books (like graphic novels) are huge as learning tools and teach just as much about reading as traditional (all word) chapter books.

What this NYT article (and I guess the parents worried about test scores?) fails to mention is that reading a picture book isn’t really just reading a picture book.

First of all, most picture books are designed to be read aloud–they’re too complex to be read by a child on her own. Parents, caregivers (or perhaps librarians?) are meant to read many picture books to a child and work through the books with them.

Picture books are about interaction and analysis. That’s why we have the huge spectrum of books ranging from the wordless (like the recent Caldecott winner The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney–save for sound effects) to the longer works of Chris Van Allsburg which in addition to being lengthy texts introduce complex concepts like distinguishing between real and imaginary. That isn’t even addressing other picture books like Mostly Monsterly that deal with socialization (and being yourself) or How to Catch a Star which explores the more abstract concept of finding a friend or books that build vocabulary not through flashcards but through everyday like My Heart is Like a Zoo which introduces children to words and concepts including bothered, rugged, frightened and thoughtful. That isn’t even to mention the rich, advanced literature found in picture book adaptations of myths, folk tales and legends.

Second of all, when you read a picture book you are not reading one story. You’re reading at least two: the one told in words and the one told in pictures. Writers and illustrators of picture books often do not know each other and don’t even meet face to face while working on a book. For that reason they both bring many different elements to the story being told.

A picture book–even a simple one–isn’t an illustrated story or a series of captioned pictures. A picture book is an interplay of text and images. (Even when it is written and illustrated by the same person because writing a book is a different task than illustrating a book.) You read both and you draw conclusions between the two (and if it’s a graphic novel style book you also learn sequencing which is a whole different skill). Kevin Henkes’ books are a great example of this. Go, take a look at Kitten’s First Full Moon. First look at the pictures. Then look at the words. Can you tell the whole story without both?

Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, reading is never about quantity. Reading is about quality. It is about an individual experience and individual progress. What a child reads isn’t, I think, as important as the fact that they are reading. Any book–every book–is a gateway to more books. To imply that reading picture books won’t help a child with standardized tests is like saying learning to count isn’t helpful in understanding math. Reading is qualitative. It’s about building comprehension and learning textual literacy (and visual literacy for picture books) but it’s also about enjoyment.

My issue with the NYT article isn’t that it was wrong or nonsense (although I really do think it was the latter) it’s that once again the New York Times is trying to tell people what they can and cannot read.*** Some kids will move to chapter books as soon as they can. Others will stick with picture books or illustrated chapter books. Some kids won’t read until they are much older. Some might never like to read. And all of that is okay. In a world with so many wonderful and varied options for books, why does anyone have to choose just one format or one genre? Why isn’t all reading created equal?

*I could get into the differences (and if anyone wants to hear about them please tell me in the comments and I will oblige because I wrote not one or tow but three essays about the merits of graphic novels in grad school) but for all intents and purposes the terms are interchangeable and I will be using them interchangeably here.

**In short: Writing By Women Authors Isn’t Real Writing At All and Writing For Teens Instead of Adults Isn’t Real Writing At All respectively. I wrote a huge manifesto about both a few months ago if you want more info/links.

***Not to mention implying that every post-Twilight paranormal romance was inspired by the Twilight books. Hello? It’s called a sub-genre.