I saw an article in the New York Times today that made me sad, sad, sad. See "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children" at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/08/us/08picture.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1.
This article predicted the death of the picture book, because parents feel that they do not challenge their children enough. Evidently, five year-olds are being persuaded to read Harry Potter instead of Curious George these days.
I am sort of left speechless. Of course, I have stakes in this argument, being a picture book writer wanna-be, but as a parent, I'm also confused and astounded that picture books are deemed less appropriate for budding readers than chapter books.
I have three comments:
1) The article raises the point that picture books can have more complicated vocabulary than a chapter book. YES! The pictures can paint a definition of a word easier and perhaps better than a text-filled chapter book can through its context alone. I just read a book called Violet the Pilot with my daughter this weekend. It has big words out the wazoo. My five-year old daughter had to ask for help reading them. Good for Violet.
2) The article did not discuss libraries. Only booksellers. I can understand why picture books are lanquishing in bookstores. A $16.00-$18.00 book is a hard sell to parents strapped for cash in this economy. (And it raised the issue of lowering prices on picture books. Maybe it's time...) But what about libraries? I often use them as my go-to source for picture books when I can't fork out the dough for a picture book to stay in our home collection. Picture books will always have a home there (of course, there's the funding issue for libraries as well...).
3) What about the graphic novel? This type of book has seen a huge jump in sells the past couple of years. Who are these readers? Maybe they are the wee ones who are pushed out of picture books when they are three, yet longing to immerse themselves in a visual as well as semantic world? The industry shows that these are popular books. Pictures sell. Maybe the industry should take another look at an almost dead genre: the picture storybook. Publishers have pared down picture books so much (many won't even look at anything over 500 words), maybe parents are feeling guilty about picking up such an brief story. Flesh out a few of those books...see if parents return to them. You don't have to read the whole story in a night. Break it up, or let the kids soak it up by themselves. Let it be their guilty pleasure.
4) Okay, I have four points, and could probably think of more if I sat here long enough. Stop growing kids up too fast! If we start chapter books when they are 4, then they move to MG by the time they are 6, then it's on to YA when they are 9 or 10. Do you know how hard it is to find a YA with suitable content for a 9 year-old? It's hard. My 9 year-old son is an amazing reader, but I'm not ready for him to pick up YA yet. And I will still let him pick up the occassional picture book because he enjoys them, and because many of them are just as challenging to the creative half of his brain as MG fiction.
If you are a writer or a parent who cares about picture books, spread the word about this article. Let the industry know that the picture book is not dead. It just needs some believers.