I read the saddest thing in The New York Times a few weeks ago. It was this headline: Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children. How can that be, I thought? Picture books are childhood: big and colorful, imaginative, full of whimsy and stories to tell, brimming with new information, funny, clever, and over much too soon.
But the article reports that booksellers are seeing a definite downturn in picture book sales. Blame the same pressure that is causing the Race to Nowhere syndrome. NYT writer Julie Bosman tells of parents pushing “big-kid” books on toddlers, out of fear that mere picture books will be a waste of their precious time—the time they need to constantly be moving toward the college that will guarantee their lifelong “success.”
Ms. Bosman notes that picture books are complex and sophisticated. I’d like to make that point, too. Picture books are to chapter books what poetry is to prose, in many ways. A good picture book is a perfect gem—a work of art that tells a story succinctly, with unforgettable beauty and charm.
I pick up a picture book almost every time I go to the library, and I’m fifty-two years old. When Stephanie was a little girl, we had a huge tote bag that we’d take to the library. Thirty to forty picture books was the average haul for us. We’d come home and spread them out on the carpet like shells we had collected at the seashore. Which one to read first? Which one to read next?
Here is a list of ten of my favorites:
1. The Honest-to-Goodness Truth. With a thoughtful story and the heavenly artwork of Giselle Potter, this book is one of the all-time best I’ve ever read.
2. Loud Emily. A rousing and hilarious adventure with illustrations that are wildly beautiful.
3. Saving Sweetness. A very witty tale of an orphan child, with pictures both funny and dear.
4. Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain. A magical book in every way.
5. Mouse at Night. I dare you not to enjoy this little guy.
6. How Emily Blair Got Her Fabulous Hair. A delightful celebration of, well, hair, with the best hair drawings you’ll ever see.
7. Geraldine’s Blanket. A tale of love with cuddly pictures that will make you want to cuddle whoever you’re reading it to.
8. Hazel’s Amazing Mother. It’s exciting and sweet at the same time, with adorable illustrations of daring feats of motherhood!
9. The Scrambled States of America. This is one of the most fun-filled books in the world: states with faces and lots of silly jokes.
10. The Paper Bag Princess. An antidote to Disney-Princess overload, with quirky drawings and humor to match.
In the Times article, Bosman mentions a parent who bemoans the fact that, if left to his own devices, her child would read only picture books. I don’t think that would be such a terrible thing. A great picture book has an intelligent message, a good story, fine language, and inspiring artwork. Picture books matter. Denying kids picture books is like denying them a part of life. Man cannot live by words alone.
If you can swing it, please visit your local book store and buy a big, colorful, imaginative picture book today. Let’s show those publishing companies that we’ll buy something other than the same old Seuss (not that he isn’t great!), or a TV-show tie-in book, or vampire teen-lit. Picture books matter.