Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Are Picture Books Just for Babies?

I was surprised to read a recent article in the New York Times that stated that there has been a decline in sales of children's picture books lately. Why, you might ask? Maybe it's the economic downturn. Yes, it seems that has been a contributing factor. However, other genres of youth books have continued to grow, especially teen fiction (especially vampire-themed novels). It seems that the decline in picture book sales may be due, in part, to parents' insistence that their young children move on to chapter books with more text as soon as possible. Some are encouraging kids as young as 4 years old to put away their picture books and start reading chapter books. One bookstore children's department manager was quoted as saying,

“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.”

Seriously! Is this what parenting in this country has come to? I know this is probably an extreme case, but does getting the "competitive edge" for your child mean so much that parents are snatching picture books out of the hands of their kids as soon as they're out of diapers. The ironic part is that these parents may not actually be helping their kids much by pushing them to chapter books too soon. As any librarian will tell you, picture books encourage visual literacy and many excellent thinking skills that chapter books cannot match. Consider these skills promoted by picture books (as compiled by librarian Lisa Von Drasek):

  • Picture books give children practice in visual literacy. Children learn critical thinking skills as they study the book's art, looking for contradicting evidence of the verbal story.
  • The text of picture books is often written at a higher reading level. Children need to hear this higher vocabulary to acquire language before they can read it.
  • On the other hand, while series chapter books are great for reading practice, their vocabulary and sentence structure are simplistic and their plots formulaic.
  • Picture books for older children give a window into history, cultures and communities other than our own with sophisticated artistic representation. 
  • Rhythm, rhyme, and repetition of early picture books support the learning of reading skills like phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension and fluency.
Simply put, picture books are not just frivolous fun for babies. They really help kids develop a love of books and stories. I find it funny how many of the things we in modern Western culture (especially the U.S.) consider to be just silly, useless pastimes of childhood like unstructured play, picture books, or clapping songs really do have strong developmental benefits. I guess there is a reason these traditions have stuck around for centuries. Even in our advanced technological era with so much pressure on our kids to be "academically prepared" and "competitive," sometimes the simple activities are still the best.

If you're looking for some great picture books for your children (especially with the holidays just around the corner), here are several lists of some wonderful picks:

- Bank Street College list of picture books for kids 1st-4th grade

- Caldecott Medal Winners (books award given for excellent picture books) for the past few years
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