Corduroy, Go Away, Big Green Monster!, Owl Babies, The Napping House, The Important Book, Moki Mongoose Finds a Friend. At one point, I think I could recite all of these picture books from memory. Some we owned; some we repeatedly borrowed from the library. Lots of sweet memories. So, when I saw a New York Times article describing the decline of children’s picture books, I was quite saddened. It seems that a lot of parents think picture books are a waste of time when children could move on to more challenging chapter books instead. According to a bookstore manager quoted in the article,
“I see children pick up picture books, and then the parents say, ‘You can do better than this, you can do more than this.’ 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.”
Can parents really be this ridiculous? Are they so eager to leave behind the sweet, funny, innocent picture books of early childhood in favor of the trash that is forced on our kids in chapter books and then young adult fiction? So many chapter books are tied to movies and television shows; thus they offer the child nothing new. Or the books are filled with inane dialogue and bodily functions. Is this what parents think will get their child into Harvard?
What they don’t seem to realize is that picture books represent the end of great children’s books. Once kids reach the ripe, old age of about 10-12, they are expected to delve into “problem books”. These continue through the young adult years. In this delightful genre, children are treated to gritty, nothing-held-back looks at tragedies they likely will never encounter. Kids are abandoned, siblings contract incurable diseases, families are torn apart by abuse, self-mutilation or eating disorders abound, kids experience date rape and teen pregnancy, and life in general is horrible. Now, sadly, some children will experience one of these scenarios in their own lives. Life, after all, is gritty and often messy. But do we really need to offer such an up-close view to a 12-year-old–or even a 15-year-old for that matter? And this is supposed to be their reading for fun?
Librarians, teachers, and those who dole out the literary awards argue that this allows kids to be exposed to the ugly realities of life in a safe, supportive, and educational way. Whatever happened to using reading as a way to escape everyday life? What about using books to take a child on exciting adventures to thrilling or exotic places with fascinating people? Kids learn soon enough about how the world works without bombarding them with it. After all, a kid can’t watch a movie without seeing a dysfunctional family that the hero must escape or a tragedy that must be overcome.
Let them read the picture books–over and over and over again. Let them have fun with silly rhymes, cuddly animals, and friendly characters. After all, they probably won’t get into Harvard anyway.