The paper was long ago removed from our recycling bin or deleted from our e-readers. Its validity has been refuted via comments sections and social networking, but I still cannot shake the New York Times article published nearly two months ago that proclaimed, “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.”
Because it's true. While we can cite what seem to be exceptions (for example, on the very day the article was placed at front doors around the world, I received confirmation of an impending picture book offer), the report was accurate.
For the past five years in which I have been representing picture book creators, I've been told that it is "a weak market." But as the statistics and anecdotes from booksellers prove, the number of books bought has dipped. While I can understand that $17.99 per book prohibits many parents from creating an at home library of books for toddlers, the lack of individual consumers contributing to the picture book economy is more troublesome with the decline of government funding for school and public libraries. This means children may not be exposed to great picture books because of financial restrictions of his parents and her country both.
In recent years, I’ve seen many picture book creators worry about e-books while I have maintained that bringing picture books to another format does not mean the end of picture books.
Which brings us to the element of the NYT article that fills me with (as I put it on Twitter) rage; the real danger is the notion that picture books can be bypassed, glossed over, or graduated from by toddlers told by parents that they should move on to “big boy or girl books.” The notion that parents can give their kids a head start at achieving scholastically, getting into a good college, and succeeding in life by pushing them in early on is alive in this country. My mother and sister are both early childhood educators and have come across parents who expressly stated that they “want their children to learn to read,” in preschool. The NYT reported the practice correctly; it’s the parental choice that is wrong.
What is achieved by teaching a child to read before they are developmentally ready? If a child “successfully reads” an early reader or chapter book before their peers but cannot comprehend the words or story, is that to be applauded? What happens to the child who is forced to read and is unable to discover books at their own pace? While we are deftly promoting graphic novels and illustrated books for older readers are we creating classes of children who hate reading because they feel they aren’t good enough at it? Doesn’t pulling picture books away from them at 4, 5, 6, or beyond create more problems than pluses?
The weekend after the NYT article was released, it was very much on my mind during a visit to my hometown, Chicago, where I visited with family and friends. Both of my best friends are mothers.
Riley, a high school English teacher who is working toward a second graduate degree had just had her first child, Eli, 3 weeks prior. She shared that she doesn't really know what how to connect with a newborn saying, “How do I teach him anything? He’s probably still thinking, ‘Wow. Wind. I’ve never felt that before.’” And then she admitted that she'd read Noam Chomsky aloud to him the day before. At three weeks, the content of what is read to a child is irrelevant; the importance is in beginning the practice of reading aloud to a child. Experiencing books together is formative. I couldn't help but think that children taught to be independent readers too early will miss some of this bond with their parents.
My other best friend, Dana, has a 19-month old, Hannah. Hannah’s board books have their own bin among her toys so that she can willingly go to them on her own and turn through the pages. On the nights that Hannah doesn't throw a tantrum when the pajamas go on, she's invited to her mommy and daddy’s bed where they read her a picture book. One of Hannah's favorites is Pouch! by David Ezra Stein. Dana told me that Hannah is "reading" the book, in a tone that only seemed half joking. Hannah was saying "bee!" at just the right moment and "bunny!" where David wrote "rabbit!" Not to be a buzz kill, but I told Dana her kid was not reading. Yes, in part, she was memorizing but she was also using the pictures as visual cues, connecting concepts to words with David's renderings of various forest animals as her guide. I wondered how children who are moved away from picture books too early will come to understand the concept behind the words they can recite.
My sister, Rachel, now an early childhood educator, was once just my little sister. When she was 2 or so, she had a favorite book, Horton Hatches an Egg by Dr. Seuss. When my mom was trying to get something done, she would have me "read" to Rachel. We all had the book memorized, more or less. I couldn’t have read Dr. Seuss' cadence with ease at 5 or 6, so I paged through the book, using the pictures as my cues, telling me when it was time to say "I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful. 100%." I think about children too busy learning to read to share Dr Seussian language and lessons with little sisters.
And yes, I can't help but think about myself as a child. I was an easily frightened child (to put it mildly) and yet, one of my favorite books was Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard and James Marshall. As formidable as Viola Swamp was, I came back to the book again and again, because the illustration told me a secret; Viola Swamp was Miss Nelson all along. I think about the child that is pushed past picture books, not just because they can be comforting as Karen Lotz correctly asserts in the article, because the can also teach us about irony, humor, and so much more.
It’s easy to be disillusioned when faced with the facts of the business of picture books. And yes, it’s easy to be cynical and say that as an agent who represents so many picture book creators, my interest in saving the picture book is personal and financial. But here’ s the bottom line. What do we talk about when we talk about picture books? We are talking about childhood. I can’t accept this piece of childhood “languishing” as the Times put it.
Me from a Halloween gone by. Note the top nametag says Miss Nelson and is crossed out. The bottom says Viola Swamp.
The Times article should not be viewed as the last nail in the coffin. This is an opportunity not to be missed. The picture book community—publishers, creators, and agents like me—need to work with early childhood educators, librarians, and developmental psychologists to show parents that picture books are essential to childhood.
We can’t vilify or dismiss the article, and we can’t throw up our hands. Let’s work together to prove the need and might of the picture book. We can’t go down without a fight. I learned that from Miss Nelson too.
Rebecca Sherman is a fabulous agent with over 9 years of experience at Writer's House. Her clients include Lunch Lady author/illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka, the Scott O'Dell Award Winner Matt Phelan, Caldecott Honor Illustrator Brian Pinkney and Blue Rose Girls Anna Alter and Grace Lin. You can follow Rebecca on twitter @rebeccagent.