Saturday, November 6, 2010

In defense of the picture book.

Today I want to talk about picture books. Some of you may have heard about or read this article in the New York Times about the decline in sales of the picture book, resulting in fewer picture books being published. The article suggests that parents are pushing their children to read chapter books at ever younger ages. I have to say that I am horrified by the following quote:
“He would still read picture books now if we let him, because he doesn’t want to work to read,” she said, adding that she and her husband have kept him reading chapter books.
The 'he' she is referring to is 6 and 1/2 years old. My heart goes out to this kid. I don't blame him for trying to go back to picture books, I wouldn't want to work to read either. Reading shouldn't be work, reading should be joyful. The joy comes from finding something special on the book shelf that speaks to you in some way. The joy comes from learning a new word as if it were some secret that no one else knows. The joy is pouring over the illustrations to make sure the story is complete and that you've seen every detail.
As was also pointed out in the article, chapter books do not equate to literature. Have you tried reading a Magic Tree House book? Or an Animal Ark book? Or a Rainbow Fairy book? I'm not saying these books are bad, they have their place and the kids love them but they are formulaic, repetitive and the vocabulary is basic and controlled. For me, these multi-volume series books for the first or second grade emergent chapter book readers are like Twinkies; I liked them as a kid but as an adult I've lost my taste for them. I'm not saying we should take away their Twinkies, but I am saying they should also try the creme brulee.

There are many reasons why picture books are good for all ages. The number one reason is that they can be shared. Reading with your children is still the best way to get your kids to read and enjoy reading. It's also a great way to spend some time with your kids! Read them something that you like and then read something that they like and you'll learn about each other. Talk about your favorite authors and illustrators and your enthusiasm will be infectious!

Now I know some people are thinking "But picture books are too easy, I want my child to improve her vocabulary!" You should know that many, many picture books are written at a third grade reading level or above and the language is usually much more complex than in the run of the mill beginner chapter books and the pictures help them decode those words. Real life example: You may have read previously in this very blog that I read the book 13 Words by Lemony Snicket and Maira Kalman to first through third grade classes over the course of a week. First graders were able to tell me that 'despondent' means 'sad' because they could see it in the illustration. They also learned that 'scarlet' is a shade of red, that a haberdashery is a hat shop, and that a mezzo-soprano is an opera singer and they were able to work it out for themselves by looking at the pictures, Maira Kalman's wonderful child-like paintings.

But the words in picture books are also used to paint a picture. Here is an example from Neil Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls:
"In the middle of the night, when every thing was still, she heard clawing and gnawing, nibbling and squabbling. She could hear the wolves in the walls plotting their wolfish plots, hatching their wolfish schemes."
Those two sentences are loaded with wolfish atmosphere, don't you think? There are many wonderful picture books that are written in poetic language that is not found in controlled vocabulary beginner chapter books.

My favorite picture books are the funny ones. And if you think being funny is easy or that it doesn't take much brain power to get a joke, think again. Humor, beyond underpants, requires sophistication. Understanding the humor of fractured fairytales requires previous knowledge of the fairytales. Getting puns and wordplay requires a firm grasp of language. In a very funny book called Bobby Bramble Loses His Brain by Dave Keane, a very active boy lands on his head one day, it cracks open and his brain runs away. His mother calls the police to report the brain missing:
"Oh, I imagine it's gray and about seven inches tall. But apparently my son has a very quick mind, because nobody got a good look at it!"
In this quote, we need to know that 'quick mind' refers to being smart but here it is used in the literal sense because his brain is on the run. The pictures that accompany the text add to the hilarity.

Finally, let's look at the pictures themselves. Many people lament the fact that art is not being taught in some schools. Picture books are illustrated by artists. Children can be exposed to a wide variety of artistic styles through picture books, from the simplistic doodles of Mo Willems to the complex watercolors of Jerry Pinkney to the photorealistic drawing of Chris Van Allsburg. How will children learn to appreciate art if we discount and devalue all the art that is found in books published for children?

So, having said all that, the point is that kids need variety in their reading. Controlled vocabulary chapter books are great reading practice for kids but not to the exclusion of other materials. It's just as important for kids to read picture books, magazines, short stories, poetry, non-fiction and so on to give them a well rounded and joyful reading experience.

Here is my unsolicited advice for the day. Slow down. Let kids be kids. Let them choose their own reading material. Let them share it with you. And come to the library and let me show you some fantastic picture books. If you can't make it to the library, check out my favorites in the catalog, under 'staff picks.'

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