Another good question

Why do parents and teachers steer kids away from picture books? PW‘s ShelfTalker addresses this in a recent post.

I see this all the time as an elementary school librarian. I also see it when visiting the public library and bookstores. Drives me nuts! Picture books are so diverse, ranging across all genres and reading levels and interests. I’ve been convincing – ok, coercing – volunteers and teachers at my school to call the picture book section (with easy readers also shelved within) “E for Everyone” instead of “Easy.”

Picture books are meant to be read TO children and WITH children, unlike most chapter books. I’ve thought for some time now that the trend towards shorter and shorter word counts in most trade picture books is doing the format a huge disservice. It really feeds into the ideas that “picture books are for babies” and that “picture books are too easy for independent readers.”

Really? As I’ve said before, most picture books – at least those written prior to the last few years – are written at a third grade reading level, on average. And many of the best picture books in the genres of biography, history, and folk tales are written at higher reading levels. But no matter how much we preach, our audiences of teachers, parents, and kids aren’t going to hear us unless we give them proof. Proof like the following:

When I read the reviews for Brave Girl, written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, I had to buy it for my library. Sweet’s illustrations bring the story of Clara Lemlich, a young woman who led the garment workers’ strike of 1909, to vivid life. And Markel’s story brings the history of the young female garment workers and Clara herself  to an audience that likely would not choose to read about this important part of New York and American history.

Last week was the 103rd anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a grim piece of local New York history. This provided a way to introduce Brave Girl to our elementary students. I and several other volunteers read this story to classes from second through fifth grades – and all of the classes were fascinated, both by the history and by the idea that a girl not much older than they had had such an impact. We received compliments from the students, their teachers, and even the math curriculum coach working in the back of the library about how well this book fit in with our curriculum, the Common Core, and the children’s interests.

While Markel and Sweet’s book is outstanding, many, many picture books provides the same opportunities to engage children at all reading levels. I continually stress to people that picture books are a valuable teaching tool for learning the concepts of inference, implication, and context. As others point out in the comments on the ShelfTalker blog, picture books are the only way many children (and adults) experience great art in various media, from pen and ink drawings to watercolor and collage.

I’m beginning to think that it’s not picture books that are the problem, it’s adults who don’t want to take the time to engage with their children. One comment infuriated me by saying that she was bored by picture books and couldn’t wait to share chapter books with her children. Really?!(And speaking of boring, how about reading those utterly inane Rainbow Fairies books over and over? At least Magic Treehouse books have adventure! Oh wait – those are repetitive for a reason. Newly independent readers love repetition and similarity in plot, character, and language because it builds confidence in their reading abilities.)

The only reason to discourage children from picture books that resonates with me is their high cost. I know why they’re so expensive, but it doesn’t make spending $15-20 any easier when so many chapter books are $5-10. But I’ve a solution for that, too. Your public library! Free. (And you can even borrow books online from many libraries, so yes, it can be as convenient as Amazon.)

Enough discussion! Get out there and share one of the many amazing and wonderful picture books out there with a child! Or even just luxuriate in the beauty, humor, or interest of one yourself…

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5 thoughts on “Another good question

  1. Leslie, this is a subject I’ve felt very deeply about for years. I’m glad you posted the PW blog post! I read it and all the comments, then couldn’t help but post a lengthy comment of my own!

    The one point I want to comment on here is also that, along with the many other reasons for the problems brought up that surround this issue, I found out from an agent that the reason (though probably not the only one) is that preschoolers are learning to read at a younger age—by themselves—so the industry is catering to THAT need by offering short text. I find this incredibly ignorant because they are focusing ONLY on that need, discounting the value of longer texts which are valuable and worthy and some people still want in order to have a SHARED experience with children. I find it all so sad 😦

    Great post, Leslie!

    1. Thanks! Yes, the push for kids to read independently earlier & earlier is definitely a factor. But folks are missing the point that fluency does not equal comprehension – and picture books are a great tool for improving comprehension & exercising that skill.

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