Bye-Bye, Picture Books?

WILL YOUR FIRSTBORN RUIN HER CHANCES of getting into Yale if she cuts her baby teeth on picture books? What good are the plastic letters on her teething ring if you let her linger with picture books? Shouldn’t she be weaned onto prose—long and winding prose—as early as possible? What future is there for a tyke whose picture book phase does not end with diapers? Should we take Herbert Kohl’s advice and burn Babar?


Frank Schoonover's 1911 cover for Thomas Hughes' "Tom Brown's School Days"


You have to wonder. The headline of Julie Bosman’s article in The New York Times is something of a shock: “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children” I had thought my years of gallery-going had made me shockproof. But that caption made me dizzy. Picture books languishing on shelves until they beg to be returned to their publisher? Death by remainder?

Bad or mediocre illustration, combined with economic downturn, would be a good reason for the decline of picture book sales. But that is not what this article is about. Parental anxiety and ambition for their kids is the major culprit here.

Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.

“Parents are saying, ‘My kid doesn’t need books with pictures anymore,’ ” said Justin Chanda, the publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. “There’s a real push with parents and schools to have kids start reading big-kid books earlier. We’ve accelerated the graduation rate out of picture books.”

Very likely, these are the parents whose little ones suffer audition for nursery school. [The article quotes from book sellers in Brookline, MA and Washington DC.]. Oddly, they are also the ones who wheel their tots through museums on Sunday afternoon and sign them up for picture-based projects like the Metropolitan’s “Museum Kids” program. They lobby schools to expand the art syllabus in schools; they howl at cuts in the art curriculum. [This, despite the fact that Michelangelo and all those greats never played at art making in museum workshops or in grammar schools.] They flock en famille to museum-sponsored art appreciation activities with that ghastly word creativity dancing in their heads.

So, a picture is worth a thousand words but getting into St. David’s is worth more? To be fair, it might be. Up to a point. But good picture books are a child’s first intimate exposure to the mystery of beauty. That mystery opens worlds.


© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey



  1. Arnold Lobel—of “Frog & Toad” fame—once said that, when life gets discouraging, he takes a little dose of Sendak. And the treatment worked!
    He always felt much better. Morris Sendak does the same for my kids. Me, too.

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