A recent New York Times story, Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children, reporting on a downturn in bookstore sales of pictures stories, was deeply disturbing, with a logic that was counterintuitive. Why would we deprive our youngest readers of the imaginative and creative qualities of beautifully illustrated books in favor of “more text heavy chapter books,” as cited in the article?
As it turns out, things are not quite as bad as they seem. The topic was widely and heatedly discussed by children’s librarians across the country, with many of them writing that while the picture story market has been glutted by expensive books of marginal value, the market is strong for quality children’s picture stories in both libraries and bookstores.
In short, age appropriate books never go out of style.
San Francisco Public Library’s dedicated Early Childhood Specialist, Christy Estrovitz, member of the 2010 Caldecott Award Committee, notes that the number of entries for the award, over 600 picture stories published in 2009, and the wide spectrum of artistic merit among the entries, was nearly overwhelming.
According to Estrovitz, “only a handful of the books were truly distinctive in their visual storytelling experience and artistic execution.” She goes on to say that, nonetheless, among those distinctive entries, “it was a particularly gorgeous year for picture stories and a personal and professional dream come true to serve on this prestigious committee.”
Ultimately, the committee of fifteen children’s librarians, including chair Rita Auerbach, selected The Lion and the Mouse (illustrated by Jerry Pinkney) as the most distinguished illustrated book for children of 2009. The Committee also selected two Caldecott honor books, All the World (illustrated by Marla Frazee) and Red Sings From Treetops: A Year in Colors (illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski).
Carla Kozak, Children and Teen Collection Development Specialist at the San Francisco Public Library, agrees that the need for quality picture stories is as strong as ever. According to Kozak, “there was a ‘baby boomlet’ from the 1980s to the 1990s. It was during that time that picture story publication exploded.”
As for the New York Times story, she adds, “I felt profoundly sorry for the 6 ½ year old boy who yearns to read picture stories, but who is forced by his parents to read books geared toward older children, and whose mother considers him to be a reluctant reader who will not work at reading. He is longing to read the books that are exactly right for him. Reading should be a joy at any age; children who are pushed into reading books they are not ready for will see reading as a chore to be avoided.”
Retired children’s book specialist Grace Ruth, who served on both the American Library Association’s (ALA) Notable Children’s Books Committee as well as the 1995 Caldecott Award Committee, notes that the downturn in the economy has led to fewer books being published, especially those of mediocre quality, and “that is probably a good thing.” Ruth further notes that “some parents pushing their children to read early” is not a new thing. In fact, there can be added value in parents sharing appropriate chapter books with their young children in the context of reading together as a family with children of various ages.
Christy Estrovitz explains that “a common misconception is that early literacy is the teaching of reading. Rather, it is the building blocks needed by every child to learn to read. From the ALA’s Every Child Ready to Read, ‘early literacy is what children know about reading and writing before they actually learn to read and write.’ Literacy begins at birth, day one.”
“This happens the day one as a mother gazes into her infant’s eyes and sings the first lullaby or when a father excitedly tells his baby of all the fun times to come. From playing with shapes, talking about your day, drawing pictures, reading street signs, playing I Spy at the market, singing songs, sharing stories, these are all activities that foster early literacy skills children need to enter school ready to learn. Learning to read is a social activity where caregivers, parents in particular, are essential to the process. Research shows the single most important activity for school readiness is reading out loud with children,” says Estrovitz.
Jesse Ephraim, Director of the Roanoke Public Library, in Roanoke, Texas, states definitively that there has been no reduction in the circulation of picture stories in her library over the years. As a former bookseller, she further notes that hardback picture books have not been big sellers in bookstores for a long time due to “the ridiculously high prices publishers placed on them.”
Evidently the same is true in San Francisco. Carla Kozak explains that “when I help cover the desk in the Main Children’s Center, I often assist parents and teachers looking for picture stories for younger children, and they are circulating very well. Thank goodness for that, because throughout the years I’ve worked as a children’s librarian, I have been so grateful for the rich, deep pool of talented author/illustrators creating these amazing books.”
Other children’s librarians also echo these sentiments. Lisa Von Drasek, Coordinator of
School Services and Children’s Librarian at the Bank Street College of Education
School for Children in New York City wrote on Early Word Kids that she was absolutely steamed by the New York Times story. She points out that the article only looks at bookstores, not taking libraries, a large segment of the market, into account.
San Francisco Public Library has a longstanding commitment to children’s services as well as early literacy. The bottom line is great news. According to Carla Kozak: “Picture stories are an important category of books for children and we will continue to purchase and share them with deserving young readers at our libraries.”