Are We Rushing Kids Out of Picture Books?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 1st, 2014

Next week at the ABC Children’s Institute in San Antonio, I’ll be on a panel with fellow booksellers and one librarian, talking about our experiences with adult customers and patrons who seem to be pushing children out of picture books and into chapter books at younger and younger ages.

I don’t want to post spoilers for the panel (I’ll report on the discussion next week, and I think ABA members will be able to watch the video of the panel), but I did want to ask you out there in ShelfTalker land — you parents and teachers and booksellers and librarians — if you are noticing this pressure, and why you think it’s happening. We don’t see this “age compression” in schools; teachers who shop at our bookstore seem to understand the value of both fiction and nonfiction picture books for students of all ages. But parents and grandparents seem to be balking.

Obviously, we need to educate customers about the richness of picture book language, and the huge range of styles and formats and narratives in this literary genre that is perhaps more diverse than any other. We need to remind them that, although the price of a 32-page picture book and a 300-page chapter book might be roughly the same, a child may read the chapter book once, but the picture book 1,000 times, finding more to discover with each reading.

Why do so many parents and grandparents reject even sophisticated picture books as “baby books?” Is it a misunderstanding of what picture books are? It is an outcome of the excesses of our testing-burdened, measurable-achievement-oriented educational system? Or is there a greater loss at work, as well? Has the love of stories become somehow lesser? Do we value only what is perceived as more challenging, and testable? And why is it that the same parents who readily read light, unchallenging books for their own pleasure and comfort don’t allow the same indulgence for their kids? They often want little Johnny or Samantha to chug on up the reading levels — again, a misperception, since so many picture books contain rich vocabulary  and complex sentence structure that are more challenging than many young chapter books.

There is no sinister intent on these parents’ parts, of course; they are most likely simply trying to make sure their children are well prepared, not left behind, in the academic realm. So how do we best show them the sweet and rewarding light of opening their minds to the full range of worthy reading possibilities for their kids? Inquiring minds want to know — and if you share a terrific thought in the comments, I’d be delighted to share it during the panel discussion and credit you!

(Booksellers and librarians: The ABC has prepared a fantastic flyer to use, featuring great picture books to share with older kids, along with tips for talking with parents. Be on the lookout for that next week!)