Monday, October 11, 2010

What A Picture's Worth

I don't remember how old I was, but I have a clear memory of a somewhat wistful moment in my childhood when I realized that, going forward, most of the books I would be reading would be largely text with relatively few pictures.

I was reminded of this last Friday when reading a New York Times article which set the book world literally a-Twitter. According to the article, by Julie Bosman, picture book sales have been steadily decreasing in recent years in favor of text-heavy "chapter books." A part of the reason may be the economy -- a 32-page hardcover picture book routinely sells for between fifteen and eighteen dollars (though paperbacks cost less than half that). The more provocative reason proposed: due to highly selective private elementary schools and standardized testing, parents feel pressured to get their children reading at a more advanced level at an earlier age, and these parents see picture books as holding that process back. As one bookseller quoted in the article said, "It's a terrible pressure parents are feeling -- that somehow, I shouldn't let my child have this picture book because she won't get into Harvard."

Having never been a parent myself, I can't speak to this kind of pressure. But my experiences as a bookseller suggest that this move away from picture books is not universally the case. When parents -- and grandparents -- are in our store looking for books for their preschool-aged children, picture books are what they are almost always attracted to. After all, they want children not only to read books but to love them. And while text-heavy books can certainly be read aloud to young children, a picture book provides an entirely different -- and, in some cases, preferable -- read-aloud experience. The scenario mentioned in the Times article of parents in a bookstore steering a young child away from picture books because they're "beyond that" is something that, thankfully, I very rarely see at Accent on Books.

At the very beginning of Alice in Wonderland, we find a bored Alice sitting by her sister, who is reading a book. When Alice glances at the book she is dismayed to see that it doesn't contain pictures or conversations: "'...and what's the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations'?" Conversations may not be at issue in books for preschoolers -- practically all children's books have conversations. But when it comes to introducing young children to the joy, excitement and magic of books, Alice's rhetorical question is very relevant: what's the use of a book without pictures?  

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