105 Ways to Give a Book

Picture Books Aren’t in Trouble Just Because the NYT Says So

The worry of the day is the New York Times article that tells us the picture book market is fading as parents push their kids into chapter books. Now the kidlit folks will all go crazy defending picture books and deriding parental pressure.

But people, we are forgetting one important thing here: This is The New York Times. And in terms of children’s and young adult literature, this is what they do. Some writer comes up with a topic in this field, within which they know very little. They “research” that topic with a few interviews, an observation or two, and a quote from Man on the Street. Or in this case, Parent in the Bookstore.1

They’ve done this with the topic of Young Adult literature being too dark. They’ve done this with summer reading lists being too light. They’ve done this with The Catcher in the Rye being useless for today’s teens. And with Twilight as the defining book for our generation. Or profiling a family that blogs about children’s books as being this amazingly unique concept.

People, people, people, we need to realize that it doesn’t matter.

I’ll be the biggest defender of picture books. I’m the organizer of the Cybils Fiction Picture Book category, for goodness’ sake. I have an article about the value of that literature for kids. I can attest personally to the growth I’ve seen in the quality of books of the picture variety.

But am I surprised if it turns out to be true that, in a down economy, people are buying fewer picture books than they were before? Um, no. Guess what? People are buying a lot less of everything in a down economy. And while I’ll protest forever the parents who chastise their kid for choosing a picture book in the library as being too babyish, I can understand the mindset of an economizing parent who, when purchasing a book, wants to find one that will last a little bit longer. Hey, we do it with shoes and it works.

Sure, we can lose our collective shit for the next week addressing this article. But I’d rather keep talking about children’s and young adult literature based on what we know, understand, and research with far more authority than one reporter in one big paper with one little story.

Though if you feel like you must write something, perhaps try a piece on the terrible state of newspaper reporting based on, say, the article in the New York Times. At least it will be payback for all the crap they’ve given us.

  1. EDITED TO ADD: Apparently, even the quote from the parent in the bookstore was taken out of context, as she explains at her blog, Zen Leaf. Anyone surprised? 

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45 comments:

Suzanne Santillan said...

Amen. I can't agree more. Thanks for an inspiring post. I think we should all just calm down, take a deep breath and write awesome books.

Callie Feyen said...

I got in trouble when I was teaching middle school because I used Patricia Polacco books in my classroom. They were "too babyish" because they were picture books. My response? I said, "Yea, there really isn't anything more babyish then the horrors of war she discusses in her book Pink and Say. Or the effects of bullying in Thank You, Mr. Faulker. Middle school kids are way beyond that stuff." And then I went back to my classroom and read her books to my kids anyway.

your neighborhood librarian said...

I love being a librarian. I can say, "So what? Take it! It's free!" while at the same time opening it up and reminding the parent that, sure, chapter books are great, but picture books remind a kid WHY we learn to to read, allow that kid to share a book with a sibling, whet the appetite of pre-readers, etc etc.

If - and it could be true - NYT is right, and fewer picture books are being published, then I would have fewer picture books to choose from when I foist them onto families. I would still have plenty though. It's not like that section would become deserted. Markets cycle.

Thanks for a voice of reason, Pam!
:paula

Mary Lee said...

I KNEW there was a good reason why I should keep my blinders on!

Picture books are not in trouble in my elementary school, in my fourth grade classroom, or in my read aloud.

To the NYTimes I say, "Pshhh. Go find some REAL news."

tanita davis said...

Thanks for the reality check. I react strongly to the idea of people not letting kids read what they want because that was MY childhood. It bugs me to think that people put inflammatory crap in the paper and that writers who wanted to write picture books are freaking out because That Is the WORD from New York! but I think they need to actually survey and quote a few more people before they come to a conclusion there.

This is not to say that I didn't get upset, though.

Amanda said...

Thanks for this article and the link. Ironically, she didn't talk to me in a bookstore. She found a post of mine that was advocating picture books during banned books week and contacted me. How's that for irony?

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

I agree that the Times doesn't dictate anything in children's publishing (though I fret that some publishing executives may take it to heart). But we have seen a downturn in picture book acquisitions, and we might think about outreach to parents, letting them know what picture books are all about.

MotherReader said...

Cynthia, there certainly may be a downturn in picture book sales and acquisitions but at this point I don't trust that the New York Times is covering the topic fairly or with adequate research. They dismiss the economy as a factor quite out of hand. They don't look to library circulation, for instance, as they talk about the "fading" picture book. They certainly don't look at Mo Willems events at bookstores - which are packed. They use a particular theory of the problem, support that, and define it as the answer.

And I know you weren't arguing with me, I'm just getting madder about the article, even though I don't want to. We could make a better case for picture books to parents, but the NYT article isn't really helping with that.

MotherReader said...

Amanda, I've been heartened to look at the comments that you've been getting on your blog. Another irony, to get your blog listed in The New York Times, and have it be with the wrong thoughts on the topic at hand.

gail said...

Oh, shoot, Pam. That quote was my favorite part of the article. And it wasn't true?

I'm going to send the link on to a couple of teachers in the family and some library people and see how they feel about it.

Melissa said...

Agreed. They should look at library stats: are more people checking them out? And as I pointed out over at The Zen Leaf: publishers are putting out fewer picture books because the publication-to-profit ratio is much higher than in chapter books.

But does that mean it's dead?? Um. No.

A Pen In Neverland: Angela Peña Dahle said...

I'll have to agree.

@Callie: Good for you!

@yourneighborhoodlibrarian: So true!

@Cynthia: You are right. We should let parents know what picture books are all about. Where to start? Where to start?

Ruth McNally Barshaw said...

What annoys me about the article (besides lazy writing) is the writer doesn't define a picturebook and certainly doesn't seem to understand what one is.
Kids don't read picturebooks to themselves; adults read aloud to them. The text is sometimes too challenging for a 6 year old to read -- for a reason!
I was glad to see the quote was out of context, because I was ready to jump on it. Most people won't find the tiny Read-Comments button on the article page, though, and won't see Amanda's rebuttal.
As to cost: It stands to reason that, in a down economy, parents will turn to paperbacks and cheaper books.
Also: What's the birth rate currently in our country? Do we have more teens or babies?
Picturebooks aren't dead -- they aren't even limping. It's way too early to shoot them.

J. L. Bell said...

Actually, the Times article calls the economy “certainly a major factor” in picture-book sales. That’s not the focus of the article, but it's hardly "dismiss[ing] the economy as a factor quite out of hand."

The article quotes or cites information from four booksellers and three major publishers. These days BookScan makes it easy for publishers and booksellers to know what's selling, and what isn't. YA books are selling big, and in the same economy picture books aren't, so it's more than the money supply.

Despite the Times’s record for covering the publishing industry, which is inadequate and occasionally alarmist (yet far better than any other newspaper I know), I think there’s cause for concern here.

Terry Doherty said...

When I saw the "economy" thrown into the ring, I had the same thought ... we're buying less of everything.

It would be interesting to do a quick analysis of library stats on picture books, though ... just because people aren't buying books doesn't mean they aren't reading them.

I love @yourneighborhoodlibrarian's rebuttal "So what? Take it! It's free!"

morninglight mama said...

Hmmmm... I'm intrigued by the negative responses to the article... while I agree with some of your assessment of the "journalistic quality" of the article, I actually found much to relate to in the piece from my own experiences working with families of preschoolers. I blogged about it and linked to your post here, if you don't mind.

Kiera Parrott said...

Hear, hear! The NYTimes need only stop by my library any day of the week to see that the picture book is alive and well.

While I do worry about parents feeling pressure to rush their newly independent readers out of the picture book sections, I'm heartened by the amount of parents and caregivers who buck the trend and check out great stacks of picture books for their readers.


I wrote a blog post on my library's site aimed at parents- to cheer on those already enjoying picture books, and gently remind the rest of the many virtues of the illustrated book: http://tinyurl.com/26q97vw. Thanks for a cool head, Mother Reader!

Sheila Ruth said...

I don't have any hard statistics, but I've worked a booth at a number of book festivals over the last five years or so, and my observation is that one category of books that always sells well at book festivals is picture books, even if people aren't buying anything else.

Gregory K. said...

I also think you're mixing up a few issues here. Maybe there's anti-kidbook bias, maybe there's incomplete or poor reporting... but the reality on the sales and acquisitions side of things tells a clear story. Now, decline is NOT the same as "death" nor does it refer to quality. I think that's also a key distinction that could make this conversation less emotional.

I imagine everyone who reads here shares your love of PBs. I know I do. But I would agree with J.L. that there is a reason for concern and with Cynthia that actions could be helpful: actions that reach those who need to hear the message, not just attack the current messenger.

Susan T. said...

I can't remember if Bosman mentions this, but Barns & Noble, which isn't doing well anyway, vastly shrunk its picture book section, at least in the local store. I assume that's nationwide. The store has added a bigger tchotchke section of puzzles, etc. Surely B & N was a huge buyer/seller of picture books.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your response to the article and its easy generalizations, but I also think picture books have been in trouble for a while. It's not just the Times saying so-- it's publishers and creators.

I'd love to see a major campaign (ALA, ALSC, ABC, CBC, etc.) about the importance of the picture book in all its glory.

leda

Theresa Clarkson-Farrell said...

Books can be expensive childrens or adults. I think that Encouraging people to get out their Libraries is important and its a great way to decide which book you want to invest in. If your child is taking out the same book week after week then maybe thats the one to get as gift. I still make sure that my older kids 19 and 17 get at least one book at the holidays.I give picture books as baby shower gifts.I donate books to book sales for fund raising and I buy books at street fairs and second hand shops.I am admittedly a bit of a book addict and voracious reader myself.
we all need to help other parents RELAX! and focus on the enjoyment of reading.Sharing our books and book buying tips .Its not how many books you read its what you get from the ones you do read! Glad I was turned on to your blog- Via Marilyn Scott-Waters ( aka The Toymaker)-

Donna M. McDine said...

Terrific article. To tell you the truth when I first saw the article I didn't event read it, I refuse to fall into one article's opinion.

Donna M. McDine said...

Oh, I have to elaborate. Terrific article (post) on your behalf and I couldn't be bothered with the NY Times article.

Camille said...

As someone who works with children and parents every day, this DOES concern me because I see the pressure on kids to "read up" during library visits, book fairs and through reading programs like AR. The focus on instructional reading is appropriate in reading groups but I bristle when students' pleasure reading selections are second guessed by parents and teachers. Agree with Shelia Ruth: Picture books ARE best sellers at conferences BUT those attendees are already "believers."
I blogged about this last night. This discussion has sparked even more thoughts. Will have to craft a follow up.

MotherReader said...

To clarify my off-the-cuff post, I am annoyed at the alarmist tone of the NYT article starting with the title - Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children. I'm not crazy about the definition of picture books as "fading," and the implication that only major classics will survive - Seuss and Sendak. And J.L., while my choice of words wasn't great, I do think that the article was dismissive of economy as the reason for poorer sales.

Sure they can find sales data - though it might have been nice to see that quoted in more detail - but I don't know where they get off on deciding that it's because parents have been pushing chapter books. Where's the data for that? If we want to talk opinions - which is what most of the quotes are - I've seen parents pushing chapter books for ten years. It's not a new thing.

I'm not arguing that the NYT is wrong about sales being down and publishers adjusting accordingly. Could be true. But I'm tired of these NYT articles about children's and YA lit that make statements they can't support.

Alex said...

It doesn't look like picture books aren't begin read when I stand behind the kids and parents at the library checking out 15 at a time. I give them to kids all the time as gifts. I have a real appreciation for some of the wonderful picture books out available.
I read the NYT and usually like it, but I find that journalism these days is sometimes too general. I used to tell my kid that generalities are the plateau of a lazy mind. Maybe the problem is the journalist not the picture book readers.

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for the information, Pam. I especially appreciate knowing about the quote taken out of context. At least the mom has a blog where she can make that known. Thanks for linking to it. I've linked to your post on my Facebook page.
Carmela

Marianne said...

I am an author and illustrator of children's picture books -- my most popular called I Love You So... which has sold close to a million copies. I find if the parents love the content of the story --whether the child understands exactly why or why not -- they will continue to buy this genre! What other types of books get tucked away in the keepsake box as they remind parents of the cherished time when they would cuddle up with their youngster who is now a teen ... or out of the nest! I'll keep writing!!

Abby said...

I haven't run the stats, but picture books FLY off the shelves of our library. We're struggling to weed them right now because most of them still circ quite regularly (alas, we are Out Of Space).

I love this post, Pam!

Rosanne Parry said...

Well said Pam.

And here's some good news from the upper left hand corner of the country. The downtown Powells store just opened a new venue right across the street from the original, even though Oregon has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

And do you know why they opened it? To move all the science books out of the room they are currently in, so that there will be more room for children's books! I was in Powells this weekend and found both a greater variety of titles and more copies of each title on the shelves.

cotonmom said...

Thank you Pam.

Melissa Taylor said...

Did you see that this book blogger's quote was taken out of context? http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com/2010/10/when-quotes-are-taken-out-of-context.html

Anonymous said...

Thank you. It is simply common sense that an $18.00 picture book is going to be passed up in favor of, say, groceries in these crummy economic times. I don't have nationwide statistics on hand but my guess (which is backed up by librarian response to this blog) is that patron check-out statistics are up in our public libraries and that plenty of picture books are going home for a nice three-week stay.
I'm embarassed that it took this article to open my eyes to the NYT's nonsensical reporting. How pathetic for both me and them.

Tanya said...

While I wholeheartedly oppose Bosman's theory that parents are pushing their kids to leave picture books behind, as a parent of three and children's bookseller for the last 15, I have read for many story times at home and at work and I do think that picture books are in trouble. I, too, am a Blogger (and really, just human in general) Against Celebrity Authors and think that their encroachment into the world of picture books (and ability to sell 10x more books that REAL author/illustrators) has definitely cut into the publication, sales and shelf space for books more deserving of our time and money. Also, I think that branded merchandise in general has left a black mark on the world of picture books. It kills me when parents come into the bookstore and read their kids a Scooby-Doo book based on the TV show instead of something gorgeous and great. Disney products (can we really call them books?) now take more display space than real picture books at the B&N where I work. The American obsession with trash has trickled down from the gossip magazines and cable news shows and affecting the world of picture books. Really, how many degrees of separation are there between Fancy Nancy and Lady Gaga anyway? Sorry for my long rant. I love picture books and all that they can embody and this all makes me so sad...

Laura said...

My kindergarten son brought home a parent letter from his teacher describing the take-home reading books - "Some of the books may appear too easy. It is more beneficial for your child to read confidently and fluently than to attempt books that are too difficult. The reading then becomes choppy and comprehension suffers. A book with photos or illustrations can provide many opportunities for discussion, questions, and vocabulary enrichment. Solid foundations build strong readers."

Jeane said...

I glad you wrote this. I thought that NY Times article was a bunch of baloney. Plenty of parents (me included) are still reading picture books to their kids even as they're starting to try out chapter books at the same time.

Venus said...

Sad that people don't think of picture books as "lasting". I still have all my picture books from when I was little and now read them to my nephew. And I have all my mother's picture books from when she was little. Now, there's a generational investment.

Nann said...

The NYT article was not about "picture book use in the U.S." but, rather, about "picture book publishing responds to a downturn in book store sales."

I agree that the reporter was not very thorough. S/he ought to have asked ALA/ALSC or at specific libraries (NYPL would be a good place to start) for statistics and anecdotes.

Laura said...

The heart of the article is about use. The lack of picture books sales are driven by, as sited in the article, (1) "economic downturn" (2) "parents pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books." The most tragic part in the whole article is the 6 1/2 boy named Laurence. He is a reluctant reader and WANTS to read picture books. Here is what his parents said, "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." We need to champion the most vulnerable readers in our society. We should all be shouting from the rooftops how picture books should be used. They are not badges of shame. They are not litmus tests that show our child will not get into Harvard. They are invaluable, first steps into the world of reading.

Elizabeth Bennett said...

Thanks for your very balanced position. You are right -- picture books are here to stay. In addition to blogging for tiger tales, I work at a small successful "yeah!" bookstore and our picture book sales continue to be one of our strongest categories...
Happy Reading,
Elizabeth
tiger tales

Bill said...

Laura — a quick clarification: The "tragic" story of the 6 1/2 year old is the quote that was taken out of context; the mom in question was making a joke that the writer skewed to fit the article.

You can see the explanation here.

Khanada said...

Great post!

Just a quick response to Tanya - I am one of those parents that buys Scooby & Disney books, and I hate it! Sometimes I refuse to buy them, & certainly when I'm on my own, I won't. But when I take the kids to the bookstore, and I say I will buy them each a book, then I'll give a price limit, but otherwise it's their decision. For me, that's part of parenting - to not always be passing judgment on every little choice they make. If I shoot down everything, they are only going to become overly cautious and indecisive. I don't like the Scooby books, but if I don't make the attempt to share their interests, they're going to leave me behind. With good reason.

Laura said...

Bill,

Thank you for the link. What a great read!!

I feel for that mom. What a misrepresentation of her story in the NYT article. I owe her an apology.

Margaret H. Mason said...

Hi everyone – I thought perhaps some of you might be interested in joining a new Facebook group: One Million to Save Picture Books! -- created in response to the New York Times article.

It is an open group - everyone is invited to join and pass the word/add your friends (although some people don’t find it when they search, and have had to paste this link (without the apostrophes) into their browser to find the page):

‘http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/home.php?sk=group_159866324045455&ap=1’

The idea is – get a million people to join and then ask the NYT to take note… people ARE reading picture books!

Thanks!

Margaret

Margaret H. Mason
www.callingmrtoad.com