Picturebook Hoopla

A recent article in the New York Times titled “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children” is causing a big, online uproar among the children’s book people – teachers, librarians, parents, etc. – who read it. My inbox was flooded with outraged messages from the child_lit listserve and a link to the article on Facebook garnered novel-length comments. At least one person – stay-at-home mom Amanda Gignac – who was quoted in the article is mad as hell for being taken out of  context and for the reporter implying that she pressures her children to read chapter books or to read at all (on a side note: can someone explain to me what is wrong with a little parental pressure to read?).

I think everyone needs to step back and take a deep breath. Just because the New York Times declares picturebooks as “not a staple” for children certainly does not make it so. Their conclusions are based on statements made by a couple of publishers, a couple bookstore owners, and an author, all of whom have a financial interest in the production and sale (or lack thereof) of picturebooks. In this economy it’s no surprise that publishers are being pickier about what they publish, consumers are being pickier about what they buy, and that Jon Scieszka is angry that his books aren’t selling better. Things are tough all around, folks. That does not mean that children are not reading picturebooks.

How do I know this? What is the gaping hole in this article’s evidence? Libraries! I’m a children’s librarian and I can tell you for a fact that kids still read picturebooks, most especially when they are available to them for free and for 3 weeks at a time. Parents don’t want to buy picturebooks, and honestly, I can’t blame them. I have a big children’s book collection at home, only about 5 percent of which are made up of big, glossy, overpriced (sometimes as much as $20!) picturebooks that I read once and rarely look at again. Chapter books – especially those in paperback – come much more cheaply, so parents at Barnes and Noble or the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, MA, or wherever are more likely to buy them for their home library. Tada! Chapter book sales look inflated; picturebook sales are down. This has nothing to do with what children are actually reading.

I don’t think it is a bad thing for publishers to cut back on the picturebooks they publish. I’d say about half of the picturebooks I see published are pretty crappy – bad stories, bad illustrations, lack of appeal to the target audience, and on and on. Quality is better than quantity, and it has taken a drop in sales to make publishers realize this.

I’m just appalled that no librarians were interviewed and no library circulation statistics considered in this article. A huge oversight in an article about books, no? In the end, I don’t think we have anything to worry about. From what I see, picturebooks, good or bad, are not going anywhere anytime soon.

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