Monday, October 11, 2010

Rescuing Picture Books from Extinction

On October 7th The New York Times ran an article titled Picture Books No Longer Staple for Children. When I saw this article, my eyes bugged out of my head. I had to look twice. Could it be? On the very day that people were banding together to read the Ezra Jack Keats’s classic The Snowy Day (Amazon Affiliate Link) to break the record for the most people reading the same book in a day, was this article to imply that picture books are at risk of becoming an endangered species?

After reading the article, I am disappointed to report that yes, indeed, this was an article reporting sluggish sales of this beloved genre. Good journalists don’t leave out the why and The Times cited some reasons for the decline: “Parents have begun pressing their kindergarteners and first graders to leave behind the picture book and move to more text heavy chapter books….Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.”

I nearly cried. Picture books a casualty of our test crazed culture? This is a crime against literacy that can only be exonerated through an unyielding crusade to educate the masses of the formidable value of picture books in children’s reading growth and development.

So, as a self-appointed ambassador in this crusade, I want to share the following anecdote.

When my son entered third grade, he was a proficient, but reluctant, Level M reader. As his mom, I felt it was my duty to “challenge” him. For at-home independent reading, I laid out my collection of Magic Tree House books and said, “Pick one.” Dutifully he did and retired to the den to do his “homework” that required him to read for 20 minutes. I peeked in on him as he read and saw that he had sprawled himself out on the floor. He was rolling around and every five minutes or so, he’d yell, “Am I done yet?” He flipped through the pages and counted the chapters and clearly, he was disengaged.

A few days later, he sauntered into my office while I was busy working. I looked up from my desk to see that he had picked up a book. I watched as he flipped through the pages studying the pictures and then…heaven and bliss, he began to read. When it was time for him to go, he walked out of my office with his nose still in the book…reading.

I couldn’t believe it. Two days before I was engaged in the interminable struggle of forcing reading on my son and now he was reading…voluntarily? What had prompted the change?

The book my son chose to read on this occasion was a Berenstain Bears picture book. He loved the brightly colored illustrations and he loved that he could sit down and finish the book in one sitting. When I offered him my entire collection and informed him that it would be just fine for him to read these books for homework, I had an eager reader.

Some parents would argue that I had done a disservice to my son because he was, well, capable of more than babyish picture book reading. You can imagine their surprise when I tell them that The Berenstain Bear book that my son was reading was a level M, the very same level as those Magic Tree House books I was pushing. And what’s more, my son was experiencing success and joy as a reader. THAT’S what makes children into readers. When kids want to read, they read lots. When they read lots, they get better. Chapter books don’t make them better. Reading makes them better.

This week, my question looms large. What will you do to protect picture books from being a victim of standardized testing? How will you spread the word that picture books are important and valuable in the development of strong, eager, and proficient readers?


Rebecca said...

Loved that you pointed out that "picture book" doesn't necessarily mean reading below your "level."
I think we're doing kids a disservice when we want ALL their reading to be challenging anyway. . . that's like eating vegetables all the time. Kind of boring. I love being a school librarian because I get to read stories to kids just for the joy of the pictures and language. Even my bigger kids--5th graders--love picture books still.

Sometimes I do get parents that want their 1st or 2nd graders to read only chapter books. I usually give them the argument that not all reading has to be hard to be beneficial. . . just reading SOMETHING helps create that habit. I mean, does any adult only read books on their level? I'm pretty sure the romance novels I like to take to the pool aren't on my reading level!

Or sometimes I pull out a picture book that's written on a pretty high reading level--like Prehistoric Actual Size or Apples to Oregon & let them know that "picture book" does not always = easy.

Sorry this comment got so long! This is one of my soapboxes, I guess!

Kim Yaris said...

Rebecca, this is my soapbox, too! I love the analogy of eating only vegetables. In addition to be exceptionally boring, that would be VERY hard (for me, anyway!).

I'm wondering what we can do to educate the masses. Test prep has sent the wrong message to the general public and the time has come to right our wrongs. The question now is...How?

Laurie said...

. I was outraged when I read the Times article. I can see how picture book sales may be affected by the economy but the notion that young children should only be reading chapter books is so misguided. The language in the early chapter books is controlled so it will be accessible to young children. Parents who steer their children away from picture books are depriving their children of such rich language and cultural references.
I have a similar personal story. Both of my children were early readers. My son was always a science geek, so he gravitated towards nonfiction, worrying about poisonous gases from Venus. My daughter was a very capable reader, but she had the tastes of a little girl. In first grade, she was able to read many of the picture books that we usually read aloud, like George and Martha and Arthur. I could be smug and say that she was reading level M books at the age of 6, but what was important to me was that she was cultivating a life-long love of reading. The misguided parents cited in the Times article will raise a generation of high-achieving, but extremely boring alliterates.
How's that for passion?

Kim Yaris said...

Laurie, you know I share your sentitments! We've got to do something to educate parents!

The Book Chook said...

I think the crux of reading education is summed up in your words here, Kim: "When kids want to read, they read lots. When they read lots, they get better. Chapter books don’t make them better. Reading makes them better." It seems so strange that we want to take pleasure and fun and play out of things in a mistaken belief that joyless=the only real way to improve.

Kim Yaris said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Book Chook! It's counterintuitive and makes no sense!