Picture Books: A Dying Breed or Just Misunderstood?

Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC.  Photo by Drew Angerer/The New York Times

(Scroll to the bottom for an update on the picture book industry as of August, 2012)
On Friday, October 8th an article by Julie Bosman appeared on the front page of the New York Times, under the fold. Titled Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children, the article surmises that, in addition to the effects of the economic downturn, picture book sales are falling due to parents pushing their four year olds to read chapter books and leave picture books in the dust. While Bosman has a history of reporting on aspects of the publishing industry and quotes both publishers and book buyers in her article, I'm not sure she is entirely on the mark when she suggests that parental attitudes toward literacy also contribute to this trend. I think parents with this approach to books and reading are the thin edge of the wedge, as are 4 year olds who read chapter books in general. The majority of children will continue to master reading skills and take up chapter books in second grade, or roughly at the age of 7. Of course there are exceptions, such as the kids who are reading Harry Potter in first grade, and I know that many of my readers are the parents of these exceptional kids. I also know that you, the parents of these exceptions, would never keep your children from reading a picture book and, in all likelihood, are still reading picture books out loud to your independent readers because you value the experience of togetherness that picture books create as well as the fantastic artwork by amazing illustrators.

I would love to hear from you, my readers, in regards to this article and the role picture books have in your home and/or classroom. Do you visit the library to read and check out picture books? Do you visit bookstores to read picture books? Do you buy picture books for your children?  How do you decide which ones are worth buying? Would you/have you ever discouraged your child from reading a picture book because you felt it was not a challenge? What do you think the value of picture books is? Would you read a picture book out loud to an independent reader? Do you think there is value in that?

I know that I am carrying coals to Newcastle and preaching to the choir, but I want to share the importance and value I find in picture books, for readers of any age, and my concerns with where this genre has been and might be going.

As I write this, I am sitting in front of the biggest bookshelf in my house. It is almost 7 feet tall and almost 10 feet across and is over flowing with children's books. Half of it holds picture books, about 500 hardcover and paperback by my estimate.  I have been collecting them for over 20 years now and, to me, they are all magical. Of course, all books are magic carpets that can carry the reader away, but somehow, for me, the pictures make the trip all the more special. Combining the visual and the textural seems like the best of all worlds, fostering an appreciation of both. For me, I think that a picture book can be a mini-museum visit. Some picture book illustrators create works that are rich and painterly (Paul O Zelinsky, David Weisner, Chris VanAllsburg, Anthony Browne, Mark Teague, David Shannon, Adam Rex, Jon J Muth, Holly Hobbie, Genady Spirin.) Others create works that are evocative, detailed and full of energy (Marla Frazee, Steven Kellogg, Anita Lobel, Chris Riddell, Hilary Knight, William Steig, Jules Feiffer, Peter Sìs, Janet Ahlberg.) As Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Candlewick Press, a small independent house that consistently puts out high quality, award winning picture books, says in Bosman's article, "To some degree, picture books force an analog way of thinking. From picture to picture, as the reader interacts with the book, their imagination is filling in the missing themes." I couldn't agree more.  Imagination.  A picture is worth a thousand words, right? And, if you are looking at an illustration in a picture book, than your child has about 500 words she or he can fill in with his or her imagination.  

Also, I am reminded that the value and import of picture books is both great and worth preserving every day at work when I see (childless) couples grab a handful of picture books then sit down and read to each other from their childhood favorites. Often, it is teenaged couples, but not always. Seeing this, I know that these people sharing memories are also the same people who will be back in 5 - 10 years buying these very books, and maybe even some new ones, to read to their children, building on these memories. That has to be one of the greatest values in a picture book - the generational appreciation that is handed down. My kids are now the third generation to read and love a favorite of my mother's, The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, first published in 1936. I have no doubt that they will read this book to their children some day as well.  I also have no doubt that there are books being written today that will still be read to children in 75 years.

What I wonder, though, is this:  Are these future classics being obscured and overlooked because of the combination of a glut of subpar picture books that have been flooding the market lately AND declining shelf space? The the bookstore where I work has always operated with this rule: A new picture book is given three months of shelf life (actually, that goes for all new books.) At the end of that time, if sales are good (and/or the author is an established seller or Barnes & Noble owns the publishing house that prints the book), the book will remain in the store. If sales are not good, the book is returned to the publisher and, in most cases, never seen again, except in a library. In addition to a relatively short shelf life, the shelf space for these picture books is truly and radically decreasing in the store where I work. As Mary Amicucci, vice president of children's books for Barnes & Noble shares in Bosman's article, picture book sales have been on a slow and steady decline at Barnes & Noble stores and, to counter that, "stores have rearranged display space so that some picture books are enticingly paired with toys and games." What this really means is that currently the largest display space featuring picture books in the children's department at the Barnes & Noble where I work (and all the B&Ns - the specific use of this space is mandated by corporate and changes monthly) is filled with books featuring Disney characters from Disney movies (as well as a few books featuring Marvel Comics characters) and very few of these titles are actual picture books that an adult would sit and read to a child - most are interactive books that make sound, come with vinyl stickers or have movie projectors attached. In the past, this space was used to feature new picture book releases or titles that fit a holiday theme. The loss of this space saddens me as it surely means further decline in picture book sales. The bottom line is, if it isn't in a big pile right in front of their faces, most customers won't seek it out and consequently won't buy it. To a customer without a prior knowledge of kid's books (or anything for that matter) a big pile of anything signifies value - there must be a lot of it because it is good and worth buying and people are buying it, right?  (Thank you, Costco.) The flip side of that is that the item in the big pile is in a big pile because the publisher/producer feels certain it will sell well and make them money. They are less likely to make a "big pile" of an item that is untested and unknown, making it more risky and difficult for a new author/illustrator to be given a shelf life long enough to build the audience needed to maintain the shelf presence.

Decline in number of titles published combined with decline in display space might actually be a good thing, though. Maybe publishers will tighten their aesthetic belts and stop publishing so much drivel. (ARE YOU LISTENING, YOU CELEBRITIES WHO THINK YOU CAN WRITE A KID'S BOOK AND ALL YOU PUBLISHERS WHO PUT THEIR WRETCHED TALES TO PAPER??? Trust me, you really don't have anything to offer the world of picture books, let alone anything new, so just make your money honing your craft and let the real picture book authors, the people who went to school to learn how to do this, who make it their PROFESSION, ie: the people who DO IT FOR A LIVING, keep at their CRAFT.)

I'm sorry for that rant, but the arrival of a picture book penned by Tori Spelling (with a "poor little rich girl" character who looks just like her and yet another plot with a "life lesson") has made me seriously question the publishing world. (Dear Simon & Schuster: you say that you have decreased the number of picture books you publish over the last few years by 15%. Why could't Tori Spelling's book be among that number? Was it a contractual thing her agent insisted on, the publication of a picture book as well as the memoirs?)

I guess, though, that perfectly illustrates the state of the world of picture books at this time.  You have to take the good with the bad. It just seems like the good is shrinking and the bad is expanding and soon there will not be a book without a branded character on the shelves (yes, I'm looking at you Olivia, Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious.) I sincerely hope that this is not the direction that picture books is going, though. They are a vital, important foundation needed to foster a love of reading, a love of words and a love of art. However, if you have read to this point you really don't need me to tell you this...

Almost two years have passed since I wrote this post and the world of picture books is a little different, a little rosier!  At the SCBWI LA conference in August, award winning author and editor Deborah Halverson gave a very detailed survey on market trends, what's selling and what publishers are looking for. I was pleased to hear her  report that THE PICTURE BOOK IS NOT DEAD!!! However, the market does seem to be favoring shorter, character driven stories (Pete the Cat) and quirky, smaller books I Want My Hat Back). Also, branded character books like Pete the CatLlama, Llama andElephant and Piggie. In terms of digital picture books, predictions indicate that they will serve as supplements to the bound picture books, not replacements. This is borne out on the shelves of the bookstore. Over the last year, I have seen more focus on picture books in displays that change monthly, including special deals to entice shoppers to buy board and picture books. And, as of this week, there is a new bay of featured, themed, faced out picture books that will rotate regularly. I am, have been, and continue to be excited by what I am seeing in the world of picture books. Now, if we could just find the next Bill Peet and William Steig! Maybe we already have in the form of Mac Barnett
and Chris Van Dusen...

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