Monday, October 11, 2010

The Value of a Picture Book

I was quickly cruising through my email inbox on Friday morning, making sure there wasn’t something urgent needing my attention, when I came across a link to a New York Times article about how picture books are losing popularity. The subject matter stopped me in my tracks. I skimmed through the article, tagging it for a more in depth read once I got my nine year old on the bus for school.

But the whole time we were going through our school morning routines the idea gnawed at me. How could it be that picture books were losing their popularity? They’re my favorite kind of book. The subject matter has such a broad range and the different types of illustrations set each one apart. How in the world could they be going out of style?

Once the bus had come and gone I got back to the computer and looked up the link. The main point of the article is that parents are anxious to get their kids into chapter books. There’s pressure to get your kid moving along the academic track as quickly as possible. Picture books are seen as something for little kids, a minor step on to bigger and better things. I understand the pressure parents are under to keep their children moving forward academically. But letting go of picture books too early is not the answer.

Because I work in a library I have access to all the newest picture books and I bring them home by the bag full. The youngest child in my house is almost ten, and I’m proud to say he and I often curl up with a stack of big rectangular books. There are many reasons he still enjoys these weekly sessions on our living room couch.

For one thing, a lot of the subject matter in picture books is relatable to children of many ages. Some concepts that the younger group may not pick up on will be the launching off point for an in depth discussion with an older child. Many picture books deal with relationships, from friendships at school to confusing life situations like a grandparent with Alzheimer’s disease. My son and I have had some valuable heart to hearts after reading through a picture book.

Then we could move on to illustrations. I’m a member of a SCBWI, a national organization for writers and illustrators, and through our meetings I’ve met so many amazing illustrators who work in a wide range of mediums. The art work in a lot of picture books is stunning. Almost once a week I come across a book at the library that has pictures I’d frame and hang on a child’s bedroom wall. By reading picture books to my son I’m exposing him to all types of art and artists. He gets the value of an illustration on a much higher level than a preschooler ever could.

Then I’m reminded of a lesson I learned in my elementary education classes in college. The topic was reading to children, and all of the positives that can come from it. Someone questioned our professor, about how reading to an infant or toddler could do any good. I’ll never forget his answer.

“A child who’s read to, even before he has any concept of a book, learns to associate the warm cozy feeling of being nestled in a parent’s arms with reading. For the rest of his life he’ll have positive feelings about learning and reading.”

I think the same carries over into the topic of reading picture books to an older child. Sure, my son bounds up the stairs and reads chapter books before he goes to sleep every night. And the nights we aren’t reading picture books, we’re snuggled up together as I read aloud a chapter book that’s just a smidge above his own reading level. But it’s nothing like the positive feelings he gets from our time poring over picture books, discussing the pictures and themes long after the story is over.

Chapter books are great. They have their place and there are many great ones to choose from. But I truly believe we do our kids a great disservice to abandon the world of picture books too early, seeing them as a childish step that has no place in an older child’s reading world.

On a side note, one of the other issues discussed in the New York Times article was the matter of price. Picture books generally retail around twenty bucks. That seems like a lot of money for a book that takes less than ten minutes to read. I would imagine this explains why we still see large stacks of picture books being checked out at the library. It’s a good way to be able to read them without actually buying them.

But there are still good reasons to buy picture books. When a child connects with a great book, he wants it read to him over and over, for years to come. There’s something very special about having your favorite books lined up on your very own bookshelf, with no library markings on their spines. Picture books make great holiday and birthday presents. I have a personal list of favorites I go to when I need to buy a gift for a young niece or nephew. I like contributing to their book collections with books I know they will enjoy while snuggled up on their parent’s lap.

I can only hope that the newspaper article predicting the demise of the picture book ends up being just a blip on the publishing radar. My dream would be for parents to understand the value of a great picture book and how it can enrich their elementary age child’s life just as much as it did their preschooler’s.

Books are many kinds of wonderful. I hope we don’t forget the value of each step.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As the bookworm parent of a one year old boy, I'd love to see your list of favourite picture books to buy as gifts! At the moment we have stacks of board books, lift the flap books, etc, but as soon as my son has stopped wanting to bite and tear every bit of paper he sees, I'd love to start sharing picture books with him, the way my parents did with me :-)