An article about the demise of children’s picture books in yesterday’s NY Times really got to me. Although I agree with a friend who pointed out that you can’t take everything in the newspapers as gospel, something about it still rings true, and that is really sad.
You wouldn’t suspect from the collection in my own house that the picture book is going out of style. Even though my boys (16 and almost 20) are no longer apt to browse in the Children’s Room of the library, I was amused to see both of them raptly turning some colorful pages when I asked them a few weeks ago to clean out books they no longer wanted. The discard pile was pretty small compared to what went back on the shelves, and contained very few picture books. One of them even said to me, “There’s no way we’re getting rid of Fireman Small!” (“In the middle of town where buildings stand tall, there lives a little man called Fireman Small…” – we read that one so many times everyone in the house could recite it by heart.)
In some way, I think they probably measure their early lives by which books we were reading over and over at any one time. From Goodnight Moon (pointing out the little mouse on every page), through My Little Sister Ate One Hare (“…we thought she’d throw up then and there…”) and There’s a Hair in My Dirt! A Worm’s Story, we curled up together every night (and lots of days) and laughed and cried ourselves through yards of books.
Sometimes I read to them from books without many pictures (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Dandelion Wine, Harry Potter) and they’d have to use their imaginations – “watching a movie in my head” as one of my sons put it. But more often than not, it was the picture books they chose. I transported stacks of them home from the local library, but I still sometimes spent hours sitting in the little chairs in the children’s section of bookstores looking through beautiful picture books, trying to decide which ones I just had to bring home for good.
Our good friend Rog used to send the boys a specially chosen book about winter or Christmas each year, and we still treasure these. The boys’ favorite for years was Berkeley Breathed’s Red Ranger Came Calling, with its intriguing ending – I’m sure they believed in Santa Claus long after other kids stopped just because of this book!
I still marvel at the quality of the artwork in many of these books. Whisper from the Woods, a book I used to introduce the topic of death, and how it’s a natural part of life, is stunningly illustrated – a lavish and startlingly realistic color plate accompanies each page of simple text. I think it was the pictures, more than anything else, that made this potentially scary subject seem almost comforting.
We’re a family that loves books. One of the best things about our house is the almost 200 square feet of bookshelves that line three walls of the living and dining rooms. When we had the dining room renovated last year and the contractor was taking measurements, he told me that it wasn’t just the fact that our house is 140 years old that was causing the floors to sag, and pointed his ruler at the loaded bookshelves. “If you got rid of all that…” he ventured, but trailed off, looking at my face.
“No way,” I stated emphatically, “the floors will just have to be uneven.”
None of us started off reading chapter books, and we are certainly none the worse for it. On the contrary – I believe it was the picture books that hooked us into the reading life. We all worked our way from books with pictures only, through pictures with a little text, on to text with pictures, and finally, to text only. But nowadays, when I occasionally read a book that’s accompanied by pictures or photos, what do you think is the first thing I turn to?!
If you’re a fan of picture books, let your local bookstore know (hopefully, you might even have a local independent bookstore), so they’ll continue to stock their shelves with these treasures. Better yet, when you have occasion to buy a gift for a child, help nurture a lifelong love of reading and make it a picture book!