Power to the Picture Book

The recent New York Times article lamenting a so-called trend of parents pushing young children to abandon picture books in favor of chapter books missed a great opportunity to discuss self-destructive tendencies in the publishing world and the chain bookstores.

As a recently retired school librarian, I continue to devote a lot of time to children’s books. But rather than complain about the parents (and yes, there is too much of the parental pushiness the reporter noted), I would look first at the bookstores and the publishing industry itself. I can’t blame parents for not realizing the astounding variety and quality of picture books, in terms of both literary and artistic standards. Walk into any Borders or Barnes & Noble, and you are bombarded with the same old same old commercially oriented “stars” — the latest books by celebrities such as Bob Dylan (love ya, Bob, but you’re no master at children’s books)  and the endless array of books with tie-ins to toys, movies, and TV shows. The employees — if you can find them — rarely know much about children’s literature or child development. More and more, these stores offer the classics (Where the Wild Things Are, Make Way for Ducklings, The Little Engine That Could) and the trendy trash tied to toys and other products, but leave out many creative, noteworthy children’s books. Is it any wonder that wonderful picture books often go out of print? Some of them never even saw the light of day in the big chain stores.

Do bookstores really want to sell more books? Or just more of the same? If they would simply buy quality books, display, promote, and offer more story times, adults would become more aware of the choices that are fleetingly available. And if publishers would (1) lower prices for hardbacks and (2) offer many more picture books in paperback, they’d be selling more.

Even the layout of these stores no longer invites lingering, exploring, and discovering great children’s books. The Barnes & Noble in Wilmington, DE, for instance, has redesigned its large space to resemble a warehouse for selling the Nook. It feels intimidating now even to go inside. The local Borders store has reduced the seating in the children’s area, along with the quantity of picture books, audiobooks, and child-oriented CDs. A quick glance around either of these, but especially Borders, will yield plenty of bright colors — of Disney and Nickelodean products.

Do these people have a death wish? Smoke and mirrors won’t do. Children need books, lots of books, lots of beautiful, funny, gross, touching, well-written, memorable picture books! Push back, people. Look out for the interests of your children and everyone else. If you can’t buy books — preferably at independent bookstores —  go to the library. You’ll even find kind, knowledgeable people there who will lead you to the kinds of books you and, most importantly, your children really want. Don’t miss out on these priceless opportunities. They’ll be out the door before you know it.

Let’s hear it for such recently published books as …

Animal Crackers Fly the Coop by Kevin O’Malley. Walker, 2010.

City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems. Illus. by Jon Muth. Hyperion, 2010.

Dust Devil by Anne Isaacs. Illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky. Schwartz & Wade, 2010.

Elsie’s Bird by Jane Yolen. Illus. by David Small. Philomel, 2010.

How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade, 2010.

A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk: A Forest of Poems by Deborah Ruddell. Illus. by Joan Rankin. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, 2009. Yes, it’s not that recent, but did you see this fabulous book in a chain bookstore?

And, finally, a humorous list for all those anxious parents referenced in the NYT article: 13 Ways to Raise a Nonreader.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. tunxis community college farmington ct
    Dec 20, 2010 @ 07:46:25

    I really enjoy professionals that blog, it’s definitely very hard to acquire that variety of awareness any other means. Top-notch job.


  2. kevin O'Malley
    Dec 07, 2010 @ 08:30:48

    Thanks for the good cheer you’re offering to the world of picturebooks.
    I visited a lot of school in 20 years of book making and over the years I have watched parents become a bit nuts about chapter books.
    I like to paraphrase parents in my talks at conf..
    ‘God forbid my child isn’t reading Harry Potter in kindergarten. He’ll fall so far behind’. Like so many things in our culture folks seem to value volume over substance. In lit. they value the number words of words a books has over the content.
    More equels better in our society I suppose.
    I think it’s a trend but if it’s not, look for me on the boardwalk. I’ll be drawing balloon headed charictures in volume (and people will think it’s a talent.).


    • Janice Floyd Durante
      Dec 07, 2010 @ 10:34:48

      Great to hear from you, Kevin. Thank you for your many lively, imaginative picture books. If more boys met your Captain Raptor books. Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude and your latest, of course, they’d be reading a lot more. It’s sad to see kids strutting around with fat chapter books they don’t comprehend when they could be enjoying books such as yours and becoming fluent, avid readers.
      Keep up the fine work, Kevin! You have many admirers, young and old!


  3. Barbara Wright
    Oct 20, 2010 @ 07:54:56

    Thanks for the suggestions of some wonderful picture books, and more insight into the predicted demise of the picture book issue. I think the New York Times needs an eloquent rebuttal to their article, with information about the value of illustrations and literacy. But now I have to run to school, so maybe later!


    • Janice Floyd Durante
      Oct 20, 2010 @ 12:09:32

      I agree, Barbara. I can only hope that the huge number of comments from parents and educators will help the reporter and those in the publishing industry realize that picture books play a crucial role in nurturing children and their imagination.


  4. Janice Floyd Durante
    Oct 18, 2010 @ 08:50:43

    Thanks, Joanne. I continue to be amazed by Jane Yolen’s work. I’m not surprised you’ve added it to your wonderful Staff Picks.
    Yes, the chain bookstores are a bit depressing these days, even for browsers. Long live Chester Co. Book & Music Company and other great indies! See you soon.


  5. Joanne Fritz
    Oct 17, 2010 @ 00:01:00

    Oh, I absolutely adore Elsie’s Bird. It’s one of my Staff Picks at CCBMC. Just added it to the Children’s Staff Pick page of the store’s website. How Rocket Learned to Read is great too. I’m so glad I don’t work at a chain.

    Nice post, Janice. Thanks for finding me and leading me to YOUR blog!


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