The recent New York Times article, “Picture Books no Longer a Staple for Children” set off understandable ripples of concern, anger, worry, and dismay. But I have to say it didn’t bother me because what I see in my little corner of the reading world has me certain that the picture book is alive and well. What I do see as changing is a broadening (not narrowing) of the age of the audience and a wonderful extending of the concept and form of the book itself.
First the good news about age. I’ve been teaching fourth grade for over twenty years and I have definitely seen a shift in what children have read before they come to my classroom. Yes, as was noted in the article, kids are reading longer books younger. Many of the books that were staples of my classroom twenty years ago are now staples in first, second, and third grade classrooms.
The most dramatic change was after the fourth Harry Potter book came out. The media frenzy had been enormous and kids of all reading levels and tastes came into my fourth grade classroom that fall lugging the monster book along with them, insisting they loved it and wanted to read the whole thing. Knowing that it wasn’t for everyone (whatever the media said) I repeatedly assured them that they could read whatever they wanted to. After a few weeks when they saw there was nothing to prove, those whose taste ran to other sorts of books quietly abandoned Mr. Potter and picked up the books they really wanted to read. In the following years kids came in having already read the Harry Potter books and other large works of fantasy (Tolkien was big when the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out) and the reading landscape of my classroom permanently shifted.
So, yeah, I think there is a trend for kids to read longer books younger, at least in the sort of community I teach in. But I don’t get the sense that this causes them to abandon picture books earlier. Rather, they read both. In my classroom today I’ve loads of picture books and the kids love for me to read them and to read them again and again on their own. Twenty years ago I focused pretty much exclusively on chapter books. So while kids seem to be reading chapter books younger they are also enjoying picture books when they are older. Good news, I’d say.
Now the good news about form. It may be that traditional picture books are a harder sell these days, but how about those in new forms? I understand the anxiety associated with e-books, but I also am intrigued by what folks are doing digitally. The iPad seems to have gotten some creators revved up about new ways of presenting text and art together for children. I’m a fan of graphic novels and am thrilled to see more being created for younger kids. Kids love novelty books, the kind with flaps, things to move, pop-ups, and such. I’m delighted that there are more of these than ever.
I’m excited about where books of all kind are going these days whether they are the kind made of paper or something else. Good news all around, I say.
Also at the Huffington Post.