Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What We talk about When We Talk Picturebooks

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 Friend Megan (Top) and me (as Joey) at last year’s Ghouls & Ghourds event

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.

Every bedtime my sister requested “Horton Catchy Egg”

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.


anne said...

Great insights, Rebecca. I also think the tone of that article was fueled by market forces & who owns what & who will get a piece of the pie that is shifting with electronic publishing. Let's face it, children's book publishers are CONTENT makers. The NYT is an INFLUENCER. E-books are a new product that will only be successful w/ a new paradigm of thinking & consuming. There is market pressure to shift the profits to electronic industry. What better way to gain the children's market than to announce/decree that picture books are dead? Shifting conscousness/thinking is the first step to shifting consumer spending. There's a lot at stake, especially when the economy is tanking... so, I'd say this is part of the conversation too ~ who is behind this kind of journalism & who stands to gain from it & who stands to lose from it. There is money to be made & one way to make it is to change the way people [parents] & children think & act. This Horton hears a stockholder WHO : )

Jed Henry said...

While ebooks are definitely going to be taking a chunk out of picture book sales far into the future, I wonder if the decline in sales is more a factor of the current economic situation. I've noticed that journalists love to announce sweeping changes in culture. Most of the time, they're just being sensational.

I remember in 2008 when there was a strong reaction against the Bush administration, and lots of Democrats got voted in. At that time, NPR reporters were touting "the end of the Republican Party." Seriously, NPR? The end? As a Democrat and a big NPR fan, it's a little sickening to see them make such ridiculous statements. I can't help but laugh at how things are currently moving now.

The truth is, every reporter wants to claim that they "called it" - that their prediction was on the forefront of an irreversible cultural trend. But I think that in trying to find those trends, they have a LOT of false alarms.

It's irresponsible reporting.

I'm confident that parents will still buy books and read them to their children long into the future. Even if those books are digital, it's the same thing. The fall of picture books is a matter of degrees, rather than absolutes.
As a picture book maker myself, I just need to be better than the next guy to survive the shift.

Amanda Hosch said...

Picture books are very important to young children. That article saddened me because it furthered the concept that we can rush our kids into being advanced readers. What is so wrong with another year of childhood?

(I teach ESL to all ages and also specialize in reading comprehension for native and non-native English speakers.)

My 4th grade daughter is an advanced reader. (Seriously--she tests at the 11th grade level for comprehension and vocabulary BUT she’s still ten years old! With all the fun, frustration, social, and emotional growth that entails.)

During pre-K (when she was reading chapter books), other parents would ask how I taught her to read. I didn’t. I just read to her. A lot. She was intelligently ready to read. All I did was provide the materials. And time. And about lots and lots of books—picture books. Picture books from "A Very Hungry Caterpillar" to "Peter Rabbit" to "Dim Sum for Everyone" to "Goodnight Moon." It never occurred to me to read “older” books to her. I read to her because I love reading and wanted to share that with her.

My greatest challenge these days is finding age-appropriate books. Fortunately, her school has an amazing librarian who always gives great suggestions.

My other daughter (who is 2 ½) is just starting to recognize the clues when we read: “moo” for cows, “baa” for sheep, “click clack” for the typewriter, the ingredients for dim sum.

Will she also be an early reader? I don’t know. Does it matter? No. What matters is that we spend ten to fifteen minutes cuddling and sharing several times a day.

annawritedraw said...

Rebecca- So glad to see your thoughtful response to the article. You eloquently enumerated a lot of my feelings. Since I'm a middle school teacher in addition to being an author/illustrator I just wanted to add that this push at the younger grades in reading is symptomatic of a larger trend in the race for "educational achievement."There is an award winning independent film, "Race to Nowhere" that documents the consequences of pushing our kids in this way. I urge people to follow this link, to find a screening near them. In Maine, it will be shown on January 25th at Falmouth HS. http://www.racetonowhere.com/screenings

annawritedraw said...

PS: Publishers Weekly posted a 5 page article on Dec 12 entitled "Don't Write the Obit For Picture Books Yet." Read at this link: http://preview.tinyurl.com/2easf4z

Meghan said...

Read this:

"Don't Write the Obit For Picture Books Yet"

Rebecca, liked your blog post. I'd love to know why you don't think e-books will be the end all of PBs. I promise I won't comment... I'm just curious.

Meghan said...

Oops, I see that someone beat me to it!