Are picture books languishing?

by Vicky on October 10, 2010

This week the New York Times reported that picture books are “no longer a staple for children,” asserting that the decline is only partially due to the shrinking economy.  The article seems typical of the corporate mindset and uncritical fear-mongering that passes for news reporting these days.  The reporter interviewed book store owners and spokespersons from publishing companies and quoted from posts on a book blog and a parenting website—but somehow didn’t think of interviewing any librarians.

Even if the NYT had asserted only that picture books are no longer a staple for publishers and booksellers, this begs the question of what is happening in the publishing industry in general.  Noticed any bookstores closing lately? any publishing companies declaring bankruptcy?

I thought so.  Somehow I don’t think it’s just because of a decline in picture book sales.

The article’s main argument centers on parent-bashing:

The economic downturn is certainly a major factor, but many in the industry see an additional reason for the slump. Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.

This would certainly be alarming if true, but, judging from the numbers of picture books we check in and out at our branch every day, and the negotiations I witness between children and their parents over how many and what kinds of books they can borrow, I’m not worried about the demise of picture books.

Children develop at wildly different rates, and their tastes—in reading as in everything else—are utterly individual.  Most of the parents and grandparents that I encounter are happy to let their kids choose books they like, while always providing opportunities to broaden their horizons.  The parents who worry me the most (who are also usually the ones pushing their children to consume ever more challenging literary works) are people who clearly do not themselves enjoy reading.   Actions speak louder than words, and their children have absorbed only too well their parent’s feeling that reading is hard work.

In a state ranked 49th in the nation in fourth grade reading proficiency, I am worried about reading education and about education in general.  But that is another story.

Many commenters to the NYT story point out that they cannot afford to buy new picture books, but instead check them out at the library and/or purchase used books.  A librarian went to the trouble of crunching the numbers to assess picture book circulation at her library, and discovered that there was actually a 10 percent increase this year, and a 15 percent increase the preceding year.

The American Library Association has reported that:

a January 2010 Harris Interactive Poll (PDF)…provides compelling evidence that a decade-long trend of increasing library use is continuing — and even accelerating during these economic hard times. This national survey indicates that some 219 million Americans feel the public library improves the quality of life in their community. More than 223 million Americans feel that because it provides free access to materials and resources, the public library plays an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed.

For my own part, I am bringing all of the arts plus a soupçon of legerdemain into getting kids excited about reading.  I want them to discover the joy of learning at their own pace and on their own terms.  I want them to see the library as a magical place full of undiscovered pleasures, as I do.

I recently came across a quotation I had copied into a notebook, which seems particularly apt these days:

Nec me fugit quam assiduus sis in bibliotheca, quae tibi Paradisi loco est.

I know how busy you are in your library, which is your Paradise.

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