Recently, The New York Times published an article by Julie Bosman titled, “Picture Books: No Longer a Staple for Children” which kicked up a lot of dust – and not from the picture books on the shelves.

For the sake of all those panicking parents out there who now believe that everyone else out there is reading Moby Dick aloud nightly to their progeny, someone needs to set the record straight.  You can relax. It’s not happening.

I spent fifteen years in publishing and worked as a literary agent for some amazing children’s book writers and illustrators including Dav Pilkey, Cynthia Rylant, Paul Zindel and Judy Blume.  I am the founder of a parenting humor site “Mommy Lite Online” and contribute regularly to many parenting websites including HybridMom.com, ParentsAsk.com and Yahoo! Shine.

But most relevantly, I am the mother to three children – a ten year old girl, and seven and a half year old boy/girl twins – AND a volunteer in my children’s public school library.

From my 360 degree perspective, as well as the perspective of almost every parent out there I know, picture books are still very much staples for children.

Articles about the children’s book industry are often so frustrating and inaccurate.   Reporters who aren’t in the trenches every day believe that sales numbers from book stores and publishing houses are indicators of the health of the industry on the whole.  Sales go down and the assumption is that people aren’t reading.   That’s like saying that gourmet food sales are down so people aren’t eating.

Here is the simple fact. Picture books are expensive.   REALLY expensive.  A beautiful hardcover, the kind we all love buying, giving and sharing with our children, costs a small fortune.  $18 is not an impulse purchase. Not the way a $5 paperback is or even a $9 board book.

Many parents see plunking down $18.00 for a picture book as a luxury.   Sure they’ll pay $24.99 for a hardcover for themselves, but for a thirty-two page picture book their child will outgrow in a few years?   Not so fast.  When the money is tight, these sorts of luxuries are the first thing we parents cut. But that doesn’t mean we’re not reading them to our kids.

When times are tight, parents turn to libraries, garage sales, regional on-line parenting groups where members are practically GIVING boxes of these away, and of course, Ebay.  Do you know what the results were for sales of children’s books on Ebay this morning?  878,908.  And some of these were for collections of books.

What surprised me most about this article was the complete brushing off of the fact that this drop in sales coincided directly with the recession.   Sure parents are anxious about their child’s education. More than ever we are fighting to prepare our children to compete in this world. But this “trend” didn’t suddenly pop up a year ago.  This has been going on for over a decade.

And let’s not forget the most obvious point debating this reported “trend.”  Spending significant time in the evening (let’s say even just a half hour per child) reading large chunks of illustration-free, heavy prose is simply something we as parents know is not the norm.   I don’t know about you, but I have laundry to fold.   Plus?  The kids would never stand for it!  Okay.  Some kids stand for it.  But I want to know if Ms. Bosman has ever pinned down a five year old and made them listen to a chapter of “Ol Yeller.”  Has she even met a parent who’s been able to achieve this feat?  I haven’t.   But if she has, I won’t lie…I’d like to know their secret.

I am happy (and proud) to concede that my 2nd grade twins are reading Henry and Mudge, Captain Underpants and Magic Tree House books.  My son even attempted The Lightning Thief. (He bailed forty pages in, but still – it was impressive).  Their classmates are all reading chapter books at school during reading time.  But that doesn’t stop any of them from coming home from “library day” with a picture book about crazy guinea pigs, girls who love purple, and monsters in need of haircuts.

Laughter, amusement and imagination never go out of style.  Picture books provide that for children.  A small escape, a fun story, a beautiful world that draws them in and transports them.  And parents want to be there with them.  Holding their hands as they experience these things.

Reading a picture book together is one of the most beautiful experiences of the parent/child relationship.   Whether it’s a story about a child with salt in his shoes, or a dog with bad breath named Hally Tosis.   Picture books are the cornerstone of the childhood experience.   For parents and children. No recession can squelch it, no need to compete can trump it, and nothing – not tv, not movies, not video games – can replace it.

In my opinion, picture books are here to stay.

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Sarah is a comedian, freelance writer, and the founder of "Mommy Lite" (www.MommyLiteOnline.com), a parenting humor site. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Magazine, on More.com, ParentsAsk.com, DivineCaroline.com, Shine.com, and TheWellMom.com. She has appeared at The Comedy Store in Hollywood, The Hollywood Improv and Stand-Up New York. Sarah is the creator and co-author of "The Bridesmaid’s Guerrilla Handbook" (Berkley Books) and her second non-fiction humor book, "Got Milf? The Modern Mom's Guide to Feeling Fabulous, Looking Great and Rocking a Minivan," will be out in Spring 2011. Sarah lives in Los Angeles with her ten year old daughter, six year old boy/girl twins and three ridiculously overweight guinea pigs.

6 responses to “Hey, New York Times! Kids ARE Still Reading Picture Books!”

  1. I never read that article, and I’m glad I didn’t. Ludicrous stuff, really. Reading may slowly become a thing of the past – we can at least argue about that – but picture books will probably be the last to go. They’re a wonderful source of joy for kids, and everyone knows that. Until writers and artists refuse to work together, people will just keep pushing stories into such a form.

    At my last school we taught our students with picture books – and their ages ranged from 2-10 yrs. They all loved them, of course. Why not? There’s story, images, everything.

    Although I personally grew into a certain kind of reader, my earliest biblio-memories are of illustrated books.

  2. Lucy O'Donnell says:

    Sarah, the hands-down best gift we received when my son Niko was born was a huge basket of board and picture books that would take him from infancy into elementary school. Some were classics I remembered reading when I was young (Mike Mulligan, the Little House), others new (Zoom City), and all of them absolutely wonderful. That’s now my go-to baby gift, although maybe not so huge a selection because, as you point out, those books cost some serious money!

    We added to the collection a lot over the years, and Laura still pulls her favorites off the shelf to re-read. Some of my favorite memories of their early years were “theme nights,” when my now-ex would pull out all the bunny books, say, and read them the whole stack.

    Now Niko has taken over and every night the two of them spend about an hour in my bed while he reads her the Harry Potter series, character voices and all. He’s determined that they get through all of them before she’s “allowed” to see the next movie (now where does he get that from?).

  3. Greg Olear says:

    The NYT out of touch. Wow. I’m so surprised.

    And it’s not about a girl who likes purple. It’s about a girl who likes pink who befriends a girl who likes purple. ; )

  4. M.J. Fievre says:

    Thanks for setting the record straight, Sarah!

  5. Absolutely they are! My two-year-old carries her favorite picture book of the day around everywhere, seating it at tables with her, making a place for it on her pillow, introducing it to produce in the grocery aisle, etc. In fact, Three Little Plays has gotten so beat up I’m trying to hunt down a spare.

    Also, as an educator, I would argue that picture books with their visuals assist in the transition to reading and certainly foster a love of reading early on in ways that non-illustrated books cannot at this particular developmental stage. “Laughter, amusement and imagination never go out of style,” yes!

  6. zoe zolbrod says:

    Having read the original article and scratched my head over it as a parent and an ed-pub editor, I’m glad to see this rejoinder. I think you’re right on about the recession. Those beautiful hard-cover picture books make my mouth water in the store, but it’s to the library for us for books for me two year old. I also have an older son, and there was no way he was ready to even have chapter books read to him until he was at least five or six. And at work, we hear from educators all the time that kids as old as twelve and thirteen like to experience illustrated books, either as readers or listeners. There are plenty that are suitable for them.

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