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>Parents and picture books

>I’m late to the discussion re the New York Times article about picture books but enough people have now asked me for my thoughts that here they are. Fewer picture books are being published because a) the profit margin on them is not as good as it is for novels and b) fewer people are buying them because i. they are expensive and ii. there are currently fewer young children than there were in eras when picture books boomed. While we would normally expect the numbers of picture books to increase as the population again tends younger (as it is), Cassandra here is having a little trouble reading the future because of the new variable of electronic publishing getting better, cheaper, and reaching younger.

As far as parents pushing kids out of picture books goes, that is neither new nor news. As Robin Smith and Dean Schneider told us in “Unlucky Arithmetic,” “throw out the picture books” is one of thirteen time-tested ways to raise a non-reader. When I was a children’s librarian, which was probably before the Times reporter was even born, I was regularly told by parents that such-and-such book for Junior was “too easy.” People who think reading is supposed to be difficult most often–surprise!–don’t like to read themselves and, in a perfect world, would have their interference met by a friendly but firm “you don’t know what you are talking about.”

And, as many in the blogosphere have been pointing out, anecdotal evidence of bookstore behavior is not going to give us the complete picture. It was the wise Jane Botham of the Milwaukee Public Library who told me that the book to buy in the bookstore was the one the child had already checked out of the library over and over again. Start there.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >Amen.

  2. Anonymous says:

    >This would make a fine letter to a certain paper of record. Or Op-Ed piece?

  3. Anonymous says:

    >I gather that the person quoted in that piece felt that her words were taken out of context.

    For one thing, I believe she was joking about making her kid read hard books, but for another, I think she recognized a difference between reading for pleasure and reading for homework.

    What do you think? Is it okay to think that reading isn't necessarily supposed to be difficult, but homework should be?

    I'm delighted that my kids still read picture books from time to time, but I still give them the stink-eye when they get a book report assigned and want to choose a super easy book, or even one that they read year.

  4. Robin Smith says:

    >Ever since the NYT misrepresented the whole issue with Susan Patron's book, I have tried to take their reporting on children's books with a grain of salt. This is the same reporter.

    I have lots to say about picture books and reading, but I have never been asked my opinion by the NYT. I am sure it would be boring just to say-"read to your kids, take them to the library, let them pick out their own books."

  5. >Oh, Robin Smith, "read to your kids, take them to the library, let them pick out their own books" should be on posters, t-shirts, in the President's State of the Union Address, carved into stone, and as tattoes.

    Though the cynic in me wonders if even then it would be taken to heart. I suppose it always will be, by those who are drawn to books in spite of anything and everything. But what of those who feel the call, but can't answer, because of family, friends, peers, society, belief system, etc? I don't despair –I think of the elderly book lovers who find Montag at the end of Farenheit 451— but I also think of the kids in the library where I used to work, who would clutch a book tightly to their chest as Mom or Dad demanded that they put it back because it was too hard/too easy/isn't about OUR kind of people/fill-in-the-blank.

  6. Roger Sutton says:

    >2:17, I don't have a problem per se with teachers requiring particular books or particular kinds of books–kids know that both schoolwork and homework have those names for a reason. But I think parent need to question the kind of automatic assignments that Betty Carter describes in Family of Readers: "a book of more than 100 pages," for example. That's no way to measure industry or accomplishment. I fear that teachers (being human) can, like kids (being human) take the easy way out, and it's easier to say that students need to read a book of at least a hundred pages than it is to define and describe the kind of book he or she wants the students to read.

  7. exurbanmyth says:
  8. >I see your point, Roger. I do get offended by silly guidelines on assignments and the idea of lexiles or other reading levels makes me crazy.


  9. >Robin, I had the same reaction EXACTLY to the recent NYT article on picture books, after the article inflaming the "controversy" over LUCKY.

    On another note, as a parent (as opposed to a librarian/reviewer), I'm experiencing the opposite these days. Should I be alarmed that my first-grader, in playing "teacher," snatches books away from me, saying "That's too hard!"?

    The teacher has already explained to us that it's vitally important to her that students have success reading independently, so they get a "feel" for how awesome that is. That means, books they can read independently are often simpler than some that pique their interest.

    I like Roger's distinction between books for schoolWORK/homeWORK, and just plain books. At home, perhaps, my son can read whatever he wants. At school, since there's a particular goal in mind (success in independent reading), perhaps the limits to his choices are ok?


  10. Anonymous says:

    >Robin Smith, thanks for pointing out that Julie Bosman was the writer of both of these articles. I will remember that in the future.

    Anon 11:12, I think you have the age old problem of people making assumptions and working from them. I think your child's teacher has either dealt with high-presssure parents before, or she's been warned about them in her professional training. Assuming that you are the kind of parent who won't let your kid read "easy" books, she casts all of her rhetoric to balance what she sees as your bad influence on your kid's reading.

    So she's over-correcting because she wants kids to learn to love reading. I think you should go talk to your teacher and emphasize that you want your son to feel confident that he can pick out ANY book he is interested in and that if it appears to be too difficult he should be encouraged to check out another book– as well as– not instead of– the book that interests him.

    A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?

  11. Janice Floyd says:

    >I, too, was surprised at the shallowness of the NYT article. I would have liked more discussion on the weak-kneed responses of bookstores and publishers today. I wrote about this in my blog at

  12. Alex Flinn says:

    >I agree. And yet, about once a month on the YALSA-BK listserv, someone posts about a parent coming in with a 5th or 6th grader who is reading 2 years above grade level (2 years is just NOT THAT MUCH — honestly, every kid in my daughter's class reads at least two years above grade level) and needs "challenging" books without sex or profanity . . . and not ONE PERSON (other than me) ever says, "Just leave her alone and let her read what she wants." It's like, "Oh, you're doing so well. Now, let's punish you with the Junior Classics version of War and Peace."

    I've never heard of a kid saying s/he needs a more challenging book. It's always the parents who are dying to brag to their friends that their 5-year-old is reading Harry Potter.

  13. >Alex I see this differently. I see kids who want good books to read and they want "more" somehow, but they aren't ready for YA yet. What if they would ENJOY the Junior Classic War and Peace? Just because most kids wouldn't enjoy it, these kids will never be offered the chance to read it. You know they are never going to find it on their own.

    This is why I love the web. It gives people access to a whole bunch of librarians and their recommendations. It's particularly great for those of us whose librarians have disappeared in budget reductions, leaving us with those nice volunteers who only know how to look up reading lists in the three ring binder behind the desk.

  14. About me... says:

    >As a writer, I frequent the children's section of my library weekly and I can tell you the love of picture books is very strong. Children are either lying on the floor or sitting in chairs reading with stacks of books around them. When they leave the library, they have high piles of books in hand. I've even seen children put the books in rolling totes to make it easier to carry. Our library allows up to 25 books or magazines to be taken out at a time.

    I was an avid reader as a child myself, because my parents encouraged me to read. Library summer book reading clubs are still going strong just as they were when I was growing up. Children still get excited about showing off all the books they've read.

    When picture books have price tags of $15 to $20, most families can only afford a few. It doesn't mean they have stopped reading them; they are just frequenting the library more often.

    I am currently reading the book, Yes! You can Learn How to Write Children's Books, Get Them Published and Build a Successful Writing Career by Nancy Sanders.I am blogging my reaction and results. If you would like to hear about the results in action, here is where you can read more…

  15. Roger Sutton says:

    >Last night at the Harvard screening, Terri Schmitz of the Children's Book Shop told me that she, too had been misquoted. While the reporter had Terri claiming that parents were rejecting picture books, Terri said that they were rejecting bad picture books, the glitzy and sentimental ones that won't stand up to rereading. Good picture books still had an eager audience.

  16. Anonymous says:

    >So, are you writing a letter to the Times?

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