An article in the New York Times yesterday, Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children, certainly has people talking. There's a great comment thread and we in the hut have been mulling it over.
Essentially, it says that picture books are fading out of children's reading experiences for a few reasons: the struggling economy, a focus on teens, and primarily, the push of overly enthusiastic parents.
With regard to the economic downturn, I do see that publishers are putting out smaller lists. At all ends of the publishing industry, and I'm sure many other industries, people have to cut corners. But I'd hope that this means that the selection of manuscripts is stricter, and the best, most exactingly edited books are published. (This is assuming, of course, that publishing house staff hasn't also been exceedingly culled). With fewer mediocre books, and more focus spent on each individual book, perhaps the exceptional picture book will be more likely to find its way to its readers. But, really, no matter the details of how many and how well and how much, I believe there are still a significant number of people that want picture books. It is my daily experience, at least at this particular store with the majority of our shoppers looking for baby to preschooler items, that people like picture books. Basically: fewer books on the market doesn't necessarily translate to less sales; if people want to buy a picture book, they will buy a picture book.
In some stores I could see that YA book sales are expanding, and therefore may physically expand into other departments. As my former colleague (now a children's book editor) reminds us, this doesn't always mean that teens are buying more teen books. The adult crossover appeal is such a phenomenon that there are blogs devoted to crossover recommendations and panels about it at places like BookExpo America. Teen supernatural romance and dystopian fiction is a literary and commercial trend at the moment - the way all industries have trends - and I'm going to simply be happy that we can talk about such a thing as a cross-generational trend in the media. (We can talk another day about what difference, if any, the intended audience versus additional audience of a book makes on its writing, its sales angles, its cover artwork...to say nothing of what it means to live in a culture in which an utterly different consumer bracket is consuming a supposedly targeted product). At Curious George, we have a whole range of middle grade and teen fiction, but our driving sales come from picture books and baby books. To me, that says more about our neighborhood and how people see than it does about the overarching state of teen versus young children's literature.
Which brings me, finally, to what I am most conflicted about here: the shoppers, the parents, the people who buying or supposedly not buying picture books. From my own experience working in Harvard Square's children's bookstore for three years, I have met many, many kinds of shoppers. There are occasionally the folks who would rather purchase toys because "kids can't read yet anyway," but they're still looking for something the kid will like, as they see; for the most part, the massive majority of folks in our store want good, age- and ability-appropriate books for the kids in their lives. I feel quite uncomfortable with the portrayal of some enthusiastic parents in this article; whether or not I agree with their views, I don't think it's entirely fair to hint that these parents are pushy, making their kids read books they don't want to (or possibly, are not ready to) read. [Edit: On her own blog, the mother in the article feels she was quoted out of context]. There certainly is a trend now for starting kids talking and reading early, for instance, Brainquest, the company that makes flashcards and workbooks that are used in schools and homes, now makes wipe-clean alphabet or counting flashcards for ages 2+. I may not agree with the practice of discouraging picture books in favor of more "mature" reading (if these parents even do that), but I cannot fault parents for wanting the best for their children and being involved in their education. Of course, I do admit that my own preference is a family in which the children are free to roam about the bookstore or library and read what they are drawn to, with occasional subtle direction from a parent/sibling/librarian/teacher. Sometimes a kid is a reluctant reader because he hasn't found a book he really likes yet; sometimes she's just not much of a reader, period. I'm OK with either scenario, as long as the opportunity and encouragement to read and learn, by all manner of sources, is there. I don't agree with a parenting style that focuses more on the future "results" than on the child's current happiness and abilities, but I also disagree with vilifying parents for taking an active interest in their child's development and opportunities.
Thankfully, there are some qualifications to the "picture book on the wane" argument in the article. After a quote from Candlewick's publisher Karen Lotz defending the complexities of picture books, we are told that "Many parents overlook the fact that chapter books, even though they have more text, full paragraphs and fewer pictures, are not necessarily more complex." While beginning readers and chapter books are intended for children to read on their own and thus may stay generally in the verbal and emotional vocabulary of the reader, picture books are intended to be interpreted by adults to children and so can also carry some hefty topics, so to speak. Look to Kevin Henkes mice books, Robie Harris's body books, or anything by Todd Parr: these are by no means simple or empty of emotion.
Picture books are an activity, a communication, a relationship between parent and child, reader and audience. Picture books are useful: they help children learn visual and mental focus, the early building blocks of language, tonal emotion, all while creating a bond between reader and child, and a bond between books and the child. On top of all this, picture books are simply beautiful.
If this article's statement that picture books are being phase out is anywhere close to being true, then I hope to the stars that this article makes people notice that, and makes people want to do something about it. We actually had a customer come in yesterday and ask for a giant stack of picture books because of the article. While plenty of us involved in publishing, education, or however else invested in children's literature, may disagree with the article's assumptions and ignorance or the kind of "get ahead of the game" parenting it describes as common, I take some comfort in the fact that here in this prestigious newspaper is an article about picture books and children's literacy. An article that interviews independent bookstores as well as large and small publishing houses. An article that at the very least books with pictures, books for young people, as something worth reporting - even if we disagree with what it says about those books. Here is an article that has over 300 comments on its website by the next day. However we feel about the importance of picture books versus chapter books in children's verbal and emotional growth, I will take some comfort and pride from the fact that we are discussing them.