Monday, October 25, 2010

Are Picture Books Dead?

UPDATE: One of the commenters on this post pointed out that Amanda Gignac was badly misquoted, or quoted out of context, by the New York Times in the article I refer to. Apparently, her misquote has been perpetuated widely on the internet and I am one of the perpetuators. I hereby offer my apology to Ms. Gignac and I will delete two somewhat sarcastic remarks I made in the original version of this post. Her account of what happened and her commentary, can be found on her book blog, The Zen Leaf:, and I urge you to read it.

Despite the unfortunate aspects of this kerfuffle (Ms. Gignac's appropriate word for it), and without meaning disprespect singled out at any individual, it does remain the case that the push for higher test scores and faster achievement in reading has taken a toll on the attitude toward picture books held by many schools, parents and even children. Many of us find that to be a disturbing and counterproductive trend.


Did you see the obituary for picture books that appeared earlier this month in the
New York Times? You can read it here:

The title of the article is "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children" but that title understates the purported demise of the picture book. Not only are sales way down and shelf space in bookstores vastly diminished, not only are publishers cutting way back on the number of picture books they're willing to publish each year, but parents are forbidding their children to even peek at the nasty things. That's right, there are parents out there -- plenty of them -- who seem to think that picture books are hazardous to their child's intellectual health. For example, we get to meet Amanda Gignac, who writes a book blog, and whose son started reading chapter books at 4. At 6 1/2, Laurence is forbidden to regress in his reading. "He would still read picture books now if we let him," says the boy's mom. But, according to the New York Times, both parents are firm in their mission to allow only chapter book. But wait a minute... there is one other thing we get to learn about this boy from his mother: "He is still a 'reluctant reader.'"

Well, in their comments, readers of this article excoriated the attitude held by parents such as the Gignacs. I had expected people to pay tribute to some of the unforgettable picture book characters that we all know and love, characters we would hate to have grown up without. But most of the comments focused on the benefits of the pictures in picture books, how they aid in the intellectual and emotional development of children, how they open up worlds of imagination and thought, and how a childhood without them would be an impoverished childhood.

I have no disagreement with any of those sentiments. But for a moment let's forget about the splendid illustrations and beloved fictional characters we'd have to kiss good-bye in a world without picture books, and let's mourn the loss of non-fiction picture books. Not the illustrations and photographs -- magnificent as they often are -- but the concepts and text. Let's imagine a young child like Laurence Gignac totally deprived of them. Here's what I want to know: If he were limited to non-fiction literature outside the picture book section of his local library or bookstore, if he shunned all those big, thin books with pictures in addition to words on every page, would his intellectual capacities develop more rapidly or less rapidly? Comparing the picture book world of non-fiction with the low- or no-picture book world, is the only difference in the reading level? Or is something else missing in that pictureless world?

Here is where I want your help. I think we should compile a running list of non-fiction picture books that have no counterpart whatsoever in the other, more "grown-up," world of chapter books. My hunch is that for every author of this blog, there are oodles, and the same for the zillions of other excellent books by other excellent authors. I'll get you started with one of my own, and then it's going to be your turn.

I might as well pick my first book, How Much Is a Million? It's celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and it's still going strong in both hardcover and paperback (and in a number of languages). I guess somebody must be reading it! The book offers mind-bending ways to picture the numbers one million, one billion and one trillion and gives the reader concrete ways to wrap their minds around the difference in magnitude between those three oft-used but poorly-understood big numbers. For example, if you counted non-stop from one to one million, it would take you about 23 days ... if you counted non-stop to a billion it would take about 95 years ... and to a trillion you'd be at it for 200,000 years! Big diff, eh?

Can anyone show me a chapter book that would lead precocious children to a better understanding of what happens to a number when you put three zeros after it? Does such a book exist? If so, I haven't seen it. Interestingly, since my book came out, a few other authors have tackled similar material in fascinating, original ways. But they're all picture books.

So how about if each reader of this blog (including but not limited to the authors of this blog, who need not be shy about pushing their own books) chimes in with just one example of a non-fiction picture that contributes to the education of its readers in a unique way that has no parallel in the world of more advanced chapter books. We'll put together a list, just to keep track of what humankind will be missing if the portentous trend described in the New York Times continues. We may not have any new picture books, but least we'll have our list!


Unknown said...

What a great idea, David! I'll jump right in with my "Science Play" series. These are interactive picture books, designed to be read by an adult to a child so that they stop reading after a few pages, do an activity, make a discovery and come back to the book to read some more. Ultimately both come to understand some non-intuitive science concept. The titles are:
I See Myself (why you see yourself in a mirror; I Get Wet (why water wets you); I Fall Down (gravity and weight) and I Face the Wind (why the wind pushes you--A Sibert Honor book).

Melissa Stewart said...

I think it's fair to say that no nonfiction PB can be replaced by a chapter book. The PB form is so unique and it allows readers time and space to contemplate the science ideas as they look back and forth between the visuals and the text.

As David says, hisbook How Much Is a Million is a great example. So are his books Where in the Wild, Where Else in the Wild and now What in the Wild. I can't think of any other books that teach observation skills in such a fun, participatory way.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to cast any aspertions but I'm really curious - did you do any research before writing this? Amanda Gignac was misquoted in the NYT article. I'm betting a lot of the people in that article were. She got 274 comments before she had to close them down. The title of the blog post was When Quotes Are Taken Out of Context. Here is the link:

This really scares me, because even NAEYC is perpetuating the article on Twitter. I'd like to know what you think after you look at the blog!

And FWIW, I don't believe that PBs are dead. There are lots of reasons why there has been a slump.

Unknown said...

It's true that most if not all nonfiction picture books could not be “translated” into a chapter book. I’m working on a math PB right now that would be incomprehensible to adults as well as children without artwork.

Various online discussions about that article revealed many holes in it which should make us all resolve to second-guess every source of info, including the NY Times.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

I like this gauntlet, David. As it happens, last spring I blogged about what I called the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography. Okay, a narrower focus than the firestorm that the NYT article started, but relevant to your suggestion here. Included in that post, I listed but a few nonfiction picture books that have no "adult" counterpart - no other trade book on the same subject. The post and list are here:

(My book "Boys of Steel" is the first standalone biography of the creators of Superman, but they have been part of larger comics histories.)

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Forgot to mention that several other authors chimed in with more suggestions in the comments section after that post.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Despite the controversy over that New York Times piece, it's certainly worth noting that besides being so compelling and delicious, the artwork in picture books can often teach kids more about a complex subject than the text. Since you've allowed us to toot our own horns here, I'll point out my picture book George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides. This book is aimed at grades 4-9, and trust me - the art allows readers to learn all about the following potentially dull material in a truly user-friendly way:

1) Compare George Washington to King George III in every possible way - and let readers see who they were as real human beings at the same time

2)Compare the similarities between the governmental structures of America and Great Britain before the Revolution

3) In a single picture, show exactly how the Battle of Breeds Hill was fought from start to finish and what the British generals had to say about the results

4) Display the uniforms and non-uniforms and weaponry and ships and fighting methods of every possible type of fighter on both sides

And so much more. You could say something similar for just about every good nonfiction picture book out there. And the cultural aspect of good artwork is not to be sneezed at either.