I was quickly cruising through my email inbox on Friday morning, making sure there wasn’t something urgent needing my attention, when I came across a link to a New York Times article about how picture books are losing popularity. The subject matter stopped me in my tracks. I skimmed through the article, tagging it for a more in-depth read once I got my nine-year-old on the bus for school.
But the whole time we were going through our school morning routines the idea gnawed at me. The main point of the article is the idea that parents are anxious to get their kids into chapter books. There’s pressure to get your kid moving along the academic track as quickly as possible. Picture books are seen as something for little kids, a minor step on to bigger and better things. I understand the pressure parents are under to keep their children moving forward academically. But letting go of picture books too early is not the answer.
Because I work in a library I have access to all the newest picture books and I bring them home by the bagful. The youngest child in my house is almost 10, and I’m proud to say he and I often curl up with a stack of big rectangular books. There are many reasons he still enjoys these weekly sessions on our living room couch.
For one thing, a lot of the subject matter in picture books is relatable to children of many ages. Some concepts that the younger group may not pick up on will be the launching-off point for an in-depth discussion with an older child. Many picture books deal with relationships, from friendships at school to confusing life situations like a grandparent with Alzheimer’s disease. My son and I have had some valuable heart-to-hearts after reading through a picture book.
Then we could move on to illustrations. I’m a member of a SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and through our meetings I’ve met many amazing illustrators who work in a wide range of mediums. The artwork in a lot of picture books is stunning. Almost once a week I come across a book at the library that has pictures I’d frame and hang on a child’s bedroom wall. By reading picture books to my son I’m exposing him to all types of art and artists. He gets the value of an illustration on a much higher level than a preschooler ever could.
Then I’m reminded of a lesson I learned in my elementary education classes in college. The topic was reading to children, and all of the positives that can come from it. Someone questioned our professor, wondering how reading to an infant or toddler could do any good. I’ll never forget his answer. “A child who’s read to, even before he has any concept of a book, learns to associate the warm cozy feeling of being nestled in a parent’s arms with reading. For the rest of his life he’ll have positive feelings about learning and reading.”
I think the same carries over into the topic of reading picture books to an older child. Sure, my son bounds up the stairs and reads chapter books before he goes to sleep every night. And the nights we aren’t reading picture books, we’re snuggled up together as I read aloud a chapter book that’s just a smidge above his own reading level. But it’s nothing like the positive feelings he gets from our time poring over picture books, discussing the pictures and themes long after the story is over.
Chapter books are great. They have their place and there are many great ones to choose from. But I truly believe we do our kids a great disservice to abandon the world of picture books too early, seeing them as a childish step that has no place in an older child’s reading world.
I hope the New York Times article ends up being just a blip on the publishing radar. My dream would be for parents to understand the value of a great picture book and how they can enrich their elementary age child’s life just as much as it did their preschooler’s. Books are many kinds of wonderful. Let’s not forget the value of each step.
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