Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Are Picture Books Dying?

A recent article by Julie Bosman in the New York Times (20th October) sounded a warning about the decline of the picture book.  While the picture book isn't about to disappear in the near future (perhaps never), Bosman cites publication figures for picture books that give some reason for concern.  While the economic downturn (especially in the USA) has led some publishers to reduce the number of picture books that are more expensive to produce, there seem to be some other factors at work. These are tendencies that I have also observed and so her article has given me a good excuse to write a post I've been wanting to write for some time. First, here are some of the trends that have been noticed.

a) While the classic picture books (e.g. 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar', 'Where the Wild Things Are') and the famous picture book authors (e.g. Dr Seuss, Mem Fox and Eric Carle) continue to be sold, it is harder for less established authors to publish.

b) Many parents move their children on from picture books very quickly, encouraging their children to read chapter books almost as soon as they become proficient and fluent in reading. In an age when many parents are sold on the idea that 'Your Baby Can Read' from 6-12 months, there is an urge to move them quickly on to novels.

c) Book shops are displaying less picture books, and many new titles don't even make it to a book store, and even award winning books disappear quickly from books stores in as little as 3 years if the author doesn't have another immediate successful follow-up book.

d) Some parents seem to move their children on too quickly in their often well-motivated quest to help their children succeed as readers. Bosman notes that sometimes the motives are confused and quotes  the manager of a major children's department in Washington who says:
“They’re 4 years old, and their parents are getting them ‘Stuart Little,’....I see children pick up picture books, and then the parents say, ‘You can do better than this, you can do more than this.’ It’s a terrible pressure parents are feeling — that somehow, I shouldn’t let my child have this picture book because she won’t get into Harvard.”
Myths about Picture Books 

Myth 1 - 'Picture books are easier than chapter books'. While some are simple, they can have very complex vocabulary and syntax.  For example, the text of 'Where the Wild Things Are' is a single sentence that is extremely complex, with a mix of embedded clauses, direct speech, unusual verbs and rich metaphor. Good picture books often use complex metaphors to develop themes, and the limitations of the number of words used requires the author to use language with an economy and power that many chapter books simply don't attain. The subtle use of image, word, page layout, colour, and text layout variations can create sophisticated texts.

Myth 2 - 'Illustrations make it easy for children to read and reduce the demands on the reader'. While illustrations do work in harmony with the words and can make 'stripped down' language make sense, the interplay of illustration and words is often extremely complex, allowing the reader to discover new meaning each time they re-read the book, often over a period of many years.  So a child can read John Burningham's classic book 'Granpa' as a simple story about a little girl and her grandfather, but can revisit it years later and discover that it tells of the death of the little girl's Grandfather. And many adults may never see the underlying themes in children's books, like that of death in 'John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat'.

Myth 3 - 'Getting children reading longer texts earlier will maximise their reading growth'. Not necessarily! While having the chance to consolidate reading skills by reading lots of similar chapter books is good, pictures still have a place. In fact, pushing a child too quickly into long chapter books isn't necessarily best for young readers. At the point where readers 'take off' and want to read everything, to give them a series of books is satisfying for them and reinforces their knowledge of the world and knowledge of language. But this can offer less stimulation than good picture books and less challenge in terms of developing comprehension ability (see my post on 'Emerging Comprehension'). Picture books present multiple sign systems in one text. The parallel use of language, image and many other devices (e.g. colour and print layout), stimulates creativity and the imagination in ways that chapter books cannot. A book like Graeme Base's 'The Sign of the Seahorse' uses language, brilliant illustrations, a play text structure and other devices (including a map and hidden clues), to offer a complex text to be explored, read, enjoyed, 'worked out' and revisited many times.

Myth 4 - 'Picture books are just for children'. Not so! While the majority of picture books are designed for readers under the age of 7 years, more and more are written for much wider readerships and the rapidly developing genre of the 'Graphic Novel' (see previous post here) because they allow the author to use word, image and other modes (including related audio, video and music) to create more complex tellings of the story the author has in mind.  For example, books like 'My Place' and 'Requiem for a Beast' and 'When the Wind Blows' were never meant just for little children. In fact, Matt Ottley's book was actually meant for high school readers. The great thing about picture books is that children and adults can both enjoy them, sometimes separately, and sometimes together. The latter is an important way to grow in shared knowledge and understanding as well as a key vehicle for helping children to learn as we explore books with them.

Summing up

It is good to encourage younger children to progress to chapter books as they become proficient in reading but we shouldn't simply discard picture books once they can do so.  The stimulation and challenge of the mixed media opportunities that picture books offer are very important for language stimulation and development as well as creativity and the enrichment of children's imaginations. Picture books are a vital way in which children can draw on 'multiple intelligences' at the same time (see my post on this topic here), including 'Linguistic Intelligence',  'Spatial Intelligence', 'Logical-mathematical intelligence', 'Bodily-kinaesthetic Intelligence' (e.g. 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar') and even 'Musical Intelligence' if it integrates early rhyme and music (Matt Ottley integrates a complete musical!). In fact, arguably, every form of intelligence can be potentially integrated into the picture book. This is not to suggest that chapter books only emphasise 'Linguistic Intelligence' - for example, 'spatial intelligence' includes abstract, analytical abilities that go beyond simply seeing images - but their potential to do this is more limited for the young child.

Picture books are important for children aged 0-12 years, so don't neglect them or discard them in a perhaps well-intentioned but misguided desire to improve your children as readers. Remember, books are foundational to language, writing, knowledge, thinking and creativity as well. They represent one of the best ways to offer children multimodal experiences with text.
Other reading

Julie Bosman's article in the New York Times (20th October) HERE

Previous post on 'Requiem for a Best' and graphic novels HERE

Previous post on 'Emerging Comprehension' HERE
Previous post on 'Multiple Intelligences' HERE


Ali Pye said...

Very thought-provoking. I hope you don't mind, I have included a link to this article on my blog.

Samax said...

As an illustrator, cartoonist, and father of a toddler, it's good to hear an educator say these things.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Ali & Samax,

Glad you both liked the post. Thanks for the link Ali.



Unknown said...

Thankyou, Trevor, I enjoyed this post immensely. We have loved introducing our children to picture books, and we read the best ones over and over again. Neither we nor our children seem to tire of them, partly because there is so much more to them than the words.

I am a fan of many of the wordless books around, too, such as those by Gregory Rogers and Mitsumasa Anno, as we can turn these into a different story every time we open them.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful post! As a middle school teacher I am a HUGE fan of using picture books in the classroom. Picture books are not just for young children. It is my philosophy that for a student to truly engage with a text they must make a connection on an emotional level. I believe that older children actually get more from the picture books than the younger ones. For example, how many elementary students wipe away tears as their teacher reads Eve Bunting’s The Wall? I ask because when I used this book with my social studies classes, I always had at least half of the class in tears before the end of the book. I think this was because, being older, my students were able to better understand the emotional component of the story and therefore, make a more personalized emotional connection to the story. I also have used The True Story of the Three Little Pigs with great success when teaching my students about perspective and point of view. I can look around the room at my students as I read and every single one of them is focused and paying rapt attention. At the end of the lesson, every single kid can tell me the differences from the book to the original childhood story. I use this lesson as a hook for their Retold Fairy Tale writing assignment. By using a picture book I am able to explain a complex idea such as perspective and how that impacts a story and have my students engaged while learning.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Kim, thanks for your comments, they are much appreciated. You sound like an innovative teacher who is doing some wonderful things in the classroom. So good to hear that you're using picture books in the middle school.