Are picture books dead?

June 1, 2011

The picture book is dead.

Long live the picture book.

There is a raging debate in literary circles about the fate of the beloved storybook. For those of you who have been too busy checking homework, driving carpool, getting to work and putting food on the table to keep up with this imbroglio, let me get you caught up.

In October, the New York Times ran a front-page story headlined “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” The story quoted booksellers, publishers, authors and parents. Among reasons cited for the demise were high cost (consider that “A Sick Day for Amos McGee,” the 2011 Caldecott winner, has a list price of $16.99 for its 32 pages) to the notion that, well, picture books just aren’t challenging enough for kids.

Then in December, Publishers Weekly fired back with statistics and quotations of its own, purporting — perhaps with exaggeration — that the Times had been as wrong as the Chicago Tribune had been in publishing its infamous “Dewey defeats Truman” headline.

Who’s right here doesn’t matter much. But the why of the brouhaha requires some parental self-reflection. Could we really be preparing to mothball yet another simple pleasure of childhood in pursuit of a fat envelope from Harvard?

It’s easy to demonize parents here and say that they are pushing their kids too hard too soon. Especially parents such as Amanda Gignac, a blogger who was quoted in the Times story as lamenting that her 61 / 2-year-old son who can read 80-page chapter books “would still read picture books now if we let him because he doesn’t want to work to read.”

Reread the last three words of that quotation. The notion that reading should be work for a 6-year-old takes my breath away.

To be fair, Gignac and just about every parent out there is trying to do the best for their children. Finding the right balance between play and performance, between challenge and choice keeps most moms I know up at night. And because my kids are 15 and past the picture-book stage, I wondered if perhaps I had missed a new educational trend. Had a new pedagogy emerged that deemed picture books the educational equivalent of potato chips: tasty but empty calories? In other words, were picture books for slackers?

Actually the opposite is true, according to Susan Modak, the librarian at the Noyes Library for Young Children in Kensington.

Independent reading, Modak says, “is made much easier by exposure to lots of different picture books. Through picture books, children see things, can talk about things, can ask about things. So that when they get to the point of being able to read, they have the enormous well of knowledge for understanding what they’re reading.”

Dara LaPorte, former manager of children’s books at Politics & Prose, agrees and points out that picture books can be educational well beyond the world of the word.


“Picture books expose children to unbelievable, world-class art. There’s incredible variety in children’s books. Pick 10 picture books at random and you’ll get 10 different styles. You’d have to go to different wings of the National Gallery to get the kind of exposure to styles of art that you can get from several picture books.”

LaPorte and Modak agree that picture books actually expose children to a wider vocabulary than some early chapter books because words and imagery combine to allow kids to understand more complex words and concepts than they can absorb simply on a printed page.

“Parents feel trapped by the idea that they’re doing their children some harm by not getting them the hardest thing possible,” LaPorte says. “A child should be as comfortable as possible with reading. You should continue reading picture books to your child through 8 or 9, and parents should continue reading to their kids into teenage years if possible.”

So here is your homework tonight: Pick up a picture book (one of the ones recommended here or a favorite in your home) and read with your child. All the while that your daughter is learning about art history, world cultures and developing a vocabulary that will earn her a perfect score on the SAT in a dozen years, she will be snuggled next to you, in the crook of your arm, loving the warmth of your embrace and the lilt of the language.

What more could a parent want?

Tracy Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week. Send ideas and rants to grantt@washpost.com.

Online poll

g What is the right age for children to give up picture books? Let us know what you think in a poll with this column at washingtonpost.com/advice.

Tracy Grant

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