How We Can Save the Picture Book

Josie Leavitt -- June 16th, 2010

Yesterday, the New England Children’s Bookselling Advisory Council met for its third meeting of the year. We were fortunate to have author/illustrator Elisha Cooper make a presentation to us. He was accompanied by Ken Geist, v-p and editorial director of Orchard Books and Cartwheel Books.

Elisha’s talk was lively and got me thinking. He really discussed how picture books fit in the bookselling world. What is the difference between a bestselling book: one that might rely on celebrity authors, or be part of franchise and be thought of as light, or one that is solid quality, say, an Elisha Cooper or a Jerry Pinkney book, that might not find its way onto the bookshelves of young readers? His overriding point was picture books are where we create lifelong readers. A child’s library should be full of richness of story, art that is magic and wonder. How do we as booksellers get the best picture books into the hands of young readers?

Well, it’s challenging right now to sell picture books. Hardcovers are deemed too expensive by many customers, and paperbacks don’t often lend themselves to longevity on the child’s shelf; parents have started thinking that children over the age of five are too old for picture books; some people think wordless picture books are a waste of time and money.

The point I walked away with was: it’s on us, the booksellers, to fight these assumptions. While we can’t do anything about the cost, we can impress on parents and grandparents that the great picture books, the ones that last, not the theme-based books, are the one kids will remember. Do I remember every Snow White book I read as a child? No. But, I can practically tell you the day I first read In the Night Kitchen and how it has stayed with me my entire life. This is not to say that the Snow White books were bad, they were just light. A few of them were good, but a steady diet of them would have been ultimately very limiting for me. It was In the Night the Kitchen that had me craving other books. I read everything Maurice Sendak wrote. I pored over every page of Chicken Soup with Rice and What Do People Do All Day?

The point I’m trying to make is we need to work harder to sell all kinds of picture books. One statement Ken made that chilled me was that Barnes and Noble, in their store redesign, has removed the picture book back wall from its stores. Instead there are activity books and some picture books mixed in. No longer is there an unbroken expanse of picture books; the message that sends is enormous. If parents only see activity books or media tie-in books, then that’s what they’ll buy.

Our jobs as indie booksellers is to keep the picture alive, and this means doing some customer education.

* Wordless picture books are not “babyish.” They are often extremely sophisticated works that allow a child, or parent, to use their imagination every time they read the book to create a new story and see new things. These books are art and it’s time to look at them that way. The lack of words only expands the mind.

* Anyone can read a picture book. Even if a child has begun to read on their own, picture books are still appropriate for them read. There is a rush to get kids out of picture books and into chapter books, and I feel the loss of picture books to kids the same way it hurts my heart when 12-year-olds stop reading kids’ books and go right to adult fare. These books were meant to be read by children and a picture is not “too young” for anyone.

* There is a place for franchised books, but there needs to be some books with a quieter message, too.

Everyone remembers their favorite picture book from childhood, and these are now the “classics.” It’s our job as booksellers and librarians to help find the modern classics amid the sea of books that comes out every year. I try to think when I recommend books, “Is this something this child will want to read more than once or twice?”

I’m curious what were some of the formative picture books from your childhood?