This is a fascinating post on the decline of good storytelling in children’s picture books. I don’t know about you, but one of the things I loved most about my childhood was the comfort that came from reading my favorite books (or having them read to me) again and again and again. They were my literary security blanket and, like all good transitional objects, they helped me move between the world in my head and the world outside.
In our fast-paced, visual culture, I worry that young children are denied the gift that really good stories have of helping the reader move from the inner life to the external, from the “I” perspective to the “We.” Children can’t get that just from pretty pictures or catchy phrases, no matter how breathtaking or amusing. They need a really good story. Turns out, most people do, and there’s likely an evolutionary basis for this preference, as Steven Pinker (and others) have noted.
Nothing beats that childhood space where literary meaning is revealed over time, with each re-reading offering the thrill of discovery coupled with the comfort of the familiar. That mixing of familiar and new is, to me, the essence of a good childhood. And for lots of young kids, books aren’t providing it anymore.
I’ve always been a huge fan of picture books and have watched in horror as parents and teachers have ditched them en masse in favor of “chapter books,” apparently in a mistaken effort to better bolster reading skills. I was all set to write an anguished plea to bring back the Picture Book! I was going to marshal all my teacherly evidence about the myriad ways picture books support learning and make kids not just better readers but better thinkers, more caring, more creative, and so on…
But then I read this article, above, which makes the startling claim that it’s not really picture books per se that have lost their popularity, just the crop of contemporary ones that have lost the storyline, in favor of what the author calls “joke books” – abbreviated text with a sort of one trick pony narrative that doesn’t invite deep exploration. You may have noticed these books in the stores: they’re graphically flashy. Some are actually authored by graphic designers. They’re fun. Some are even pretty terrific. But kids (and parents) breeze through them in no time; these books don’t call out to discovered again and again the way all the “greats” from our childhood do. The author suggests that one of the reasons parents have pushed their kids to chapter books is because of the absence of lengthy, involving stories in picture books.
If so, there’s an awfully deep irony in the decline of leisurely, narrative-based children’s picture books at the exact same moment that sales of adult graphic novels have increased. This is surely another piece of supportive evidence in the growing database of Peter Pan Grown-ups Who Force Kids To Assume The Adult Roles They Themselves Have Eschewed. I’ll save that cultural analysis for another day! But I do want to say that children deserve the gift of narrative time.
Take a journey back to the wonderful classic picture books that have apparently never gone out of style. You’ll see just what I mean.