I was dismayed by the article in the NYTimes today that described the decline of picture books for children. I found the article a bit suspect, possibly falling into the “phony New York Times trend” category. After all, the empirical data cited in the article is a bit thin. Still, some of the information points to a general trend away from picture books:
At Scholastic, 5 percent to 10 percent fewer hardcover picture books have been published over the last three years. Don Weisberg, the president of the Penguin Young Readers Group, said that two and a half years ago, the company began publishing fewer titles but that it had devoted more attention to marketing and promoting the ones that remain. Of all the children’s books published by Simon & Schuster, about 20 percent are picture books, down from 35 percent a few years ago.
I appreciate the move for early literacy, even the goofy “infant reading” quasi-scams. Still, there’s much value in teaching reading with pictures, and the propagation of junk science has led many parents to make ignorant decisions about their children’s reading:
Some parents say they just want to advance their children’s skills. Amanda Gignac, a stay-at-home mother in San Antonio who writes The Zen Leaf, a book blog, said her youngest son, Laurence, started reading chapter books when he was 4.
Now Laurence is 6 ½, and while he regularly tackles 80-page chapter books, he is still a “reluctant reader,” Ms. Gignac said.
Sometimes, she said, he tries to go back to picture books.
“He would still read picture books now if we let him, because he doesn’t want to work to read,” she said, adding that she and her husband have kept him reading chapter books.
As an avid early chapter book reader and a big proponent of content-heavy canonical reading curricula, this kind of derision for picture books as “easier” or “lazier” than chapter books is beyond idiotic.
Picture books help students learn vocabulary quickly, relate more closely to the story, grasp highly abstract concepts, etc. We use pictures to communicate or enhance written words all the time. We have structure models for chemistry, diagrams for mathematics, paintings and photographs for history. Treating “chapter books” as inherently superior to “picture books” misunderstands how reading functions.
If your kids would rather read picture books, pick good ones! Pick picture books with high vocabulary levels or important messages. The key is broad content area learning, not particular focus on the medium.
The unfortunate characterization of picture books as “kids’ stuff,” by parents and educators, has led generations of American kids to believe that they should be ashamed of picture books. And yet, picture books help students learn — social studies, chemistry, current events, and yes, English. Picture books help us visualize distant lands or kingdoms. Picture books introduce us to the interplay between symbols and ideas.
I would rather have students read We the People: The Story of Our Constitution than Twilight.