The New York Times has started a tempest in a teapot with its October 7th article "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children." To summarize, picture books aren't selling well and consequently publishers are producing fewer of them. The reason? The current economic climate doesn't help, of course, nor does the growing number of digital playthings at a child's disposal. But another major component, according to the article, is that parents (by which they middle-class parents) don't see picture books as relevant and are pressuring their offspring into ditching them to read chapter books. The thinking being: Why bother with Little Miss Spider when you can go straight to Charlotte's Web and from there it's a hop, skip, and a jump into Harvard?
To back up its claim, the article quotes bookstore owners and managers, book buyers, publishing executives, and children's publishers. One parent, a mother of three boys and writer of the book blog Zen Leaf, said of her six year old son, a reluctant reader, "He would still read picture books if we let him, because he doesn't want to work to read." (She has since written a post saying her comment was taken out of context.)
It's a nice theory, but, sorry, I'm not buying it. Picture books have been a hard sell (ask any picture book author) for years now. And while no doubt there are some parents who would rather their kids peruse the Wall Street Journal rather than The Wolves in the Wall, these types of parents have always existed. No. The reason for the picture book's decline is--hold on to your hats--they cost too much! A hardcover picture book is priced around $18. You can buy a paperback chapter book for under $10. It's a no-brainer. And when picture books are purchased, they are usually bought as gifts, and the choice is likely to be a classic, such as The Runaway Bunny or Where the Wild Things Are. It's too expensive to take a chance with an unknown book that the child might glance at once and never again.
When my daughter was young, we used to visit the library for picture books and buy others when they came out in paperback or in book clubs. (Though nothing beats a hardcover edition, I admit.) Nowadays, libraries are seeing their budgets slashed and can't afford to buy as many picture books, or indeed, any type of book. I'm not sure what the answer is, but my guess is that once the economy rebounds (or if) so will picture books. Fingers crossed.