The “Sad Little Death” of Picture Books

A front-page article in today’s The New York Times, written by Julie Bosman, highlights the decline of picture books.

Picture books are so unpopular these days at the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Mass., that employees there are used to placing new copies on the shelves, watching them languish and then returning them to the publisher.

Photo: Drew Angerer/The New York Times

“So many of them just die a sad little death, and we never see them again,” said Terri Schmitz, the owner.

The shop has plenty of company. The picture book, a mainstay of children’s literature with its lavish illustrations, cheerful colors and large print wrapped in a glossy jacket, has been fading. It is not going away — perennials like the Sendaks and Seusses still sell well — but publishers have scaled back the number of titles they have released in the last several years, and booksellers across the country say sales have been suffering.

The economic downturn is certainly a major factor, but many in the industry see an additional reason for the slump. 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.”

The article is worth a look, so just click like crazy and it will magically appear. The big news about the story — which is mostly old news to folks in the business — is that over-eager parents are taking some of the blame. And it’s probably true, to some extent.

As a father, it’s something I see all the time: Parents who are in a big hurry to see their kids take the next step. This isn’t limited to reading. I see it in sports, where my comment is usually, “The worst thing that ever happened to youth sports is that image of Tiger Woods, at age two, with a golf club in his hand.” Now everybody thinks, Ah-ha, that’s the answer! More, and sooner.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

So it only makes sense we’re seeing it with reading. Everybody, give your seven-year-old girls copies of The Hunger Games!

On a personal note, I came into this business through my love of picture books. That’s what turned me on, and it’s always what I’ll love the most, the purity of a picture book. As an author, I’m well aware of how quickly books slip from the shelves. Those sad little deaths come faster than ever. And even when a book enjoys some success, like A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade — with great reviews and media attention — you’d likely be shocked at the quantity of books printed.

Where it will go, nobody knows. But I’ll always love my picture books.

6 comments

  1. greg ruth says:

    I think this article is silly. In the ancient tradition of so many Chicken Little warnings, there’s just enough grain of truth in some of the statements here to lend the weight of reality to the rest, but it’s still a long way off from reality itself. If people spent half the time making better books they do decrying their death, we’d all have better days, each and everyone of us.

  2. jimmy says:

    I don’t see this as a “death of books” article so much as a shift in books, from the perennial power base of picture books toward YA. I don’t know if it’s lasting, or a result of economics, or what, but it does appear there’s a shift (according to the percentage numbers provided by publishers in the article).

    Anecdotally, the idea that parents might be pushing kids to more challenging books (read: longer), strikes me as very possibly true.

  3. Connie says:

    I think its all about who is doing the shopping or maybe its because I’m in the business of finding the perfect picture book for each lesson that I haven’t noticed a a drop but on the contrary I’m finding more and more picture books. Also I have seen and know of 1 (one) child in the last 5 years that was ready for a chapter book in kindergarten. Picture books are growing and being use quit often at least in my school. Heck, I use them with my 3rd and 4th graders during math tutoring sessions and they love it!

    I think its more media propaganda but I don’t know the point of view of the publishing houses and I’ll admit – I didn’t click for the whole article.

  4. Doret says:

    I have noticed a decline in picture book sales over the years. I think it has to do a lot with economy and price point.

    Though picture books aren’t going anywhere, people still buy them. There are still customers who will buy three or four hardcovers.

    A customer can’t just like a HC picture book, they must love it. Because with the price points there is no room for like.

    When the economy was better, customers would be okay with buying a HC picture book they “liked” now they must love it completely.

  5. Connie says:

    I went back and read the whole article and I’m just angered by the whole thing. There is so much to reading a young child a picture book. Today in class I read a Clifford book – Fire Safety and a Apple Counting book. I wanted to draw attention to the red items because our spotlight color was red. The children love that – I read the lines then we discuss the pictures and how they work with the story. How do parents plan to teach their children to dream and visualize chapter books in their head if they don’t read picture books first!

    And the women from San Antonio that said her son would rather be lazy and read a picture book but they MAKE him read chapter books – I only live 3 1/2 hours from San Antonio so I may have to go kick some butt.

    Oh I’m just fuming now. 🙁

  6. jimmy says:

    Connie, yes, the comments from the San Antonio mom seemed extremely misguided.

    From the article, and from my direct experience, I do believe that picture books are capturing less of a market share than in the past. Doret is right: the economy is a major factor. The buyers seem to be 50% grandparents, lavishing on the love, no matter the cost. The rest of us are counting our pennies.

    That said, because the focus is on percentages of sales, the economy does not explain the change. I’m not sure what to make of the thesis in the article, as represented by Mom in San Antonio. Maybe that’s a meaningful shift, maybe it’s a few isolated quotes thrown together.

    Many of the great teachers I’ve met wisely use picture books in upper grades — and they are quick to point out that the students still happily sit back and enjoy them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *