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?

22 thoughts on “How We Can Save the Picture Book

  1. Joanne Fritz

    Great post, Josie! Thank goodness for picture books. Where would we be without them? I still remember loving to pieces my copy of NOT A LITTLE MONKEY by Charlotte Zolotow. We’re fortunate in our store in PA to have many customers who are grandparents buying for their grandkids. They still love to buy Caldecott winners or the old classics like Ferdinand or Sendak or Dr Seuss, or newer favorites like Skippyjon. Although we’ve certainly noticed a drop-off of sales in the last few years, picture books will always sell as gifts. Our picture book section is still one of the largest sections in the Children’s Dept. I’m so glad I work for an indie bookstore and not B&N!

    Yes, some parents want their kids reading “real” books. The picture book audience is definitely younger than it used to be, which is why I suspect publishers are going with shorter texts. Or is it the publishers who are causing this trend? As an aspiring author, I’ve been told at SCBWI conferences that publishers want less than 500 words now for picture book manuscripts. Only a few years ago it was up to 1000.

  2. Spellbound

    A follow-up thought. I find myself as a bookseller often having to explain to parents (although I make it clear am no expert) how it is that kids learn to read. So many parents seem to have no recollection of learning to read themselves. I even invited a childhood literacy expert in for a workshop once (and she bemoaned the tendency of parents to skip over the picture books with longer text).

    Is this the sort of thing that someone, perhaps the Childrens Book Council and/or ABC (with the support of various publishers), could build an educational campaign around? Posters and handouts with succinct explanations of why these books are an essential step in literacy…not to mention that it would be tragic to miss out on so many wonderful stories simply because of bias against the format!

    It seems to me that this would be something that could be placed in bookstores, public libraries, school libraries, sent home to parents of pre-schoolers and kindergarteners, etc. Proactive consumer education that would benefit publishers, authors, illustrators, booksellers…but most importantly kids!

  3. Meg Rosoff

    Just come back from teaching a creative writing course in Yorkshire, where I read Wolf Ehrlbruch’s astonishing picture book Duck, Death and The Tulip to 22 rapt adults. There was barely a dry eye in the place.

  4. Kenny Brechner

    Picture books come to life when they are read aloud or shared in speech. If your read the right picture book to a customer the chance of selling it increases exponentially with each syllable.

  5. Cathy Ogren

    Another excellent post! I love picture books. Sometimes they make me laugh and sometimes they make me cry. The pictures and words light up my life. I can’t imagine not being able to share a special picture book with a child cuddled in my lap.

    As a teacher/librarian, I use picture books on all levels. In my opinion, you are never too old for a picture book. They inform, entertain, and are a great teaching tool.

    Growing up, my favorite picture book was AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET. Imagination rocks and so do picture books. Long may they live!

  6. Judy Levine

    I was a children’s librarian once and loved doing story hours? Where would story hours be without pictures to hold up before the young children. I don’t remember picture books from my own childhood (back in the dark ages), but I had my favorites as a mother and librarian. One was so beautiful I saved it even with mny children’s added artwork. Brian Wildsmith’s ABC’s. I also loved Where the Wild Things Are. And my kids and I loved P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? because the words,”No, I am a snort.” That stayed with us a long, long time. I am sorry to hear that picture books are in trouble. Even my grandkids are too old for them now, or I’d go right out and buy several.

    Do go after those grandparents!

  7. Mary

    What a great post Josie! I agree and hope you will take your comments to educators. When my now 5th grader was in 3rd grade, his teacher told me in no uncertain terms that he must stop reading books with pictures. Fortunately for him, I completely ignored her and he has continued his love of reading. Had I forced him into pictureless novels when he was 8, I’m sure he wouldn’t have the same enthusiasm for books he has now. Kudos to you and to Elisha for keeping us focused on what’s important.

  8. TA

    My 8-year-old still likes poetry picture books, puzzle picture books (like the ones where you figure out what the pictures are made out of — can’t remember what those are called), I Spy books, and pop-up books, although she also reads some of what her older siblings are interested in. And her older siblings will also pick up the picture books. We are pretty “live and let live” around here, so nobody will bother my teen if they see her with a picture book.
    I liked the Dr. Seuss books a LOT when I was a kid.

  9. Bridget Strevens-Marzo

    Thanks for sharing this post Sue – my pet subject!
    Unlike film, or animation, picture books give us control over time – we can turn back or pour over one page to seek out details. It’s not only about the “what’s next?” of the story arc. Picture books offer worlds to dwell inside.

    And from my experience, it’s not so much “beautiful art” but the visual content of pictures that attracts children to particular picture books. Pre-readers notice visual details adults often skip. They have to interpret what they see, as they can’t read the ‘labels’.

    The pictures themselves independantly of the text, can contain one or many potential stories which will draw kids back to the book – whether or not there is a dominant story arc or not.

    For example I’ve watched small boys ponder for hours over the details in Richard Scarry’s ‘Things that go” – imagining stories from each picture.

    For myself, I’d return to Mary Blair’s “I can fly”, again and again, and make up stories about the mice and bears on chairs in Goodnight Moon. Later I ‘lived inside’ E.H. Shephard’s pictures in Winnie the Pooh and Rackham’s Peter Pan.

  10. Sue Eves

    Yes – I agree with Carol’s comment – as a picture book writer, I believe the story arc is the only reason a child will want to return to the book again and again.

    Excellent post about picture books – thanks – I’ll share it immediately!

  11. Carol B. Chittenden

    Yes, yes, yes! HOWEVER — it’s not enough to have beautiful illustrations. For children over 12 months, there must be some narrative arc as well. Many people voiced that at the NECBA meeting, and this morning a staff member brought it up completely independently: her grandson, about to turn 3, turns away from concept books, no matter how beautiful, and begs for stories. We see this again and again in the store: if there’s not really a STORY, there’s rarely a sale. When we do markdowns and returns each winter, so many of the heartbreakingly slow sellers turn out to be beautiful concept books and nonfiction. I almost think appreciation of story is part of our genetic code, some combination of our social and hunting instincts.

  12. Doug Cochrane

    Josie,
    The op-ed piece in today’s NYT by Wes Davis called, “The Learning Knights’ of Bell Telephone, is what is needed again now when kids don’t get enough “Liberal Arts” specially at B&N. Thank goodness for indies!

  13. Ellen Scott

    Great thoughts on picture books! As a bookseller for many years, I can’t tell you the importance that picture books have had to so many families. It’s always wonderful when they come back to tell you how important Curious George or Bill Peet was to their family so many years ago. And that now they’re working on the next generation!!

  14. Spellbound

    I too am continuously frustrated by the attitudes of parents toward picture books. As soon as a child can read a few three-letter words the parents are pushing them into early readers and then straight into chapter books. It’s not all about word recognition, folks–it’s about comprehension! Among my long-time kid customers, the best readers (and the ones best able to carry on a meaningful conversation with adults) are the ones whose parents have let them go back and forth between picture books, early readers, and early chapter books for a good long time. I don’t think that’s a coincidence!

    The picture books that really stand out from my childhood: Where the Wild Things Are; Sylvester and the Magic Pebble; The Bremen-Town Musicians; Harry the Dirty Dog; Make Way for Ducklings… oh, and The Monster at the End of This Book (starring loveable, furry old Grover)… in spite of being a tie-in, a really wonderful book that still captivates tykes whose parents don’t let them watch tv (even Sesame Street).

    Wonderful post. There has to be a way to be proactive and educate parents without seeming to criticize their choices.

  15. Robin Pulver

    It DID go through! Favorite picture books from childhood that have stayed with me for many decades (I’m that old): Wanda Gag’s books, esp. Millions of Cats; and Ferdinand the Bull. I bought Where the Wild Things Are for myself when I was in my 20′s; also William Steig’s Amos and Boris: both have powerfully influenced me. Rosemary Wells’ picture book, Good Night, Fred, saved me and my son (severe disabilities) when he was little.

  16. Robin Pulver

    Josie and Elizabeth,

    What you do for reading and for all of us! This picture book post is what I try to say when I talk to parents. Thank you for saying it so well.
    Not sure this comment will go through. I’ve tried before (-:

  17. Children's Book Cellar

    When I was a kid, long ago, there were no bookstores in rural Maine. My parents didn’t have a lot of money; but books were a priority and so I was signed up for Junior Literary Guild. I got a new book in the mail every month. I still have lots of them and, when I was in college, I bought new copies as back-up for my well worn favorites. I remember titles, some plots, few authors…but I still love picture books all these years later. My favorite, long out of print unfortunately, was Parsley by Ludwig Bemelmans.

  18. Mary Quattlebaum

    Long live picture books! Thanks for this call to action and a chance to reminisce about favorites. I loved “Jane’s Blanket,” Arthur Miller’s only children’s book. It was given to me for my 6th birthday and was my very own book (in a family of 7 kids, one’s very own anything was rare). I still have it.

    And poetry … my earliest memory is of my dad reciting nursery rhymes to us kids at bedtime.

  19. elizabeth dulemba

    I love your comment, “These books are art and it’s time to look at them that way.” This is exactly why I started our SCBWI (Southern Breeze) annual gallery show hosted by Little Shop of Stories. That first year we had picture books on low stools where kids could get to them, and the framed art from those books on the walls above them. You should have seen the light bulbs blinking on – ‘Oh, this is ART!’ Talk about elevating the idea of what they were reading and enjoying. I’d encourage every SCBWI region and children’s book store to do something similar if they can.
    :)
    e

  20. Randi

    Thank you, Josie, for this lovely post. We do need to save picture books, and not just fiction, but also nonfiction picture books. Picture books are the start of our children’s reading experiences. Even more than that, though, they allow parents and children to bond, they allow teachers to reach kids who may not otherwise have been reachable, and they encourage children’s imagination and their love of story and gathering information.

    I give picture books to children and adults, and both the kids and the “big kids” love them.

  21. Miriam

    Where the Wild Things Are, of course. My dad still has it memorized, and I’m 25 now. This was entirely a read-aloud; I’m not sure I’ve ever read it to myself.

    There were a pair of beautifully-illustrated King Arthur books that I pored over. I was partial to the Guinevere one—always partial to a pretty girl in a pretty dress, I’ll admit—but I read both avidly and for years, usually lying on the floor of the living room.

    I can’t see a bowl of cherries without thinking of Cherries & Cherry Pits. I don’t even like cherries, but the line, “eating the cherries and spitting out the pits” has stuck with me forever. Something about the acknowledgment of the messiness of life, I think.

    The Forbidden Door is a work of unparalleled beauty and my sister and I pored over every inch of the illustrations.

    How My Parents Learned to Eat made me really happy, I think largely because I love food and seeing what other people eat. I made my parents take me to a Japanese restaurant and get sukiyaki because of this one. Bread and Jam for Francis, for similar reasons. And Chicken Soup with Rice.

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