If you’re seeking to understand the significance of yesterday’s Newbery Medal being awarded to a picture book, grab a cuppa and settle in.
Five years ago, The New York Times published an article that caused consternation among picture book creators: “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” In fact, the words within plunged a dagger directly into our hearts.
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.
It felt as though No Child Left Behind was leaving we authors and illustrators behind. A children’s bookseller was even quoted as saying that picture books sat languishing on their shelves, dying sad little deaths.
As a parent of young kids, I saw it happening. I’d be at the library and witness tots being steered toward thicker books that didn’t have pictures, children being told they’re smarter than 32 pages. Parents suggesting, “You don’t want this,” while in the picture book section. The word “this” dripping with disdain. At the school, parents bragging about their 2nd graders finishing the entire Harry Potter series.
And I remembered being in 2nd grade myself and being told to abandon picture books…and being devastated.
What parents were missing, and some may still be missing, is that chapter books, while perhaps longer, aren’t necessarily more “difficult” than picture books. In fact, I just had a discussion with my agent this week about the pros and cons of revising a manuscript and turning it into an early chapter book series. Since these books are for newly independent readers, the language is far simpler to allow autonomy. I expressed my concern over having to simplify my sentences and vocabulary. I felt my word play and structure would be limited. That’s right, writing a chapter book would force me to be less complex in my storytelling. (I should emphasize I’m talking about early chapter books here, not middle-grade novels which are for older children and are the standard Newbery fare.)
Back in 2010, the economy also played a role in what some saw as the picture book’s demise. The recession lingered and families had less discretionary income. Some publishers reported signing fewer picture book projects. No one was quite sure what to make of ebooks and iPads competing for kiddie eyeballs in the coming years, either. Would everyone migrate to digital books and snub hard copies?
Fast forward five years. Juvenile ebook sales have actually declined (by 1.4m units in 2014, according to Nielsen). iPads did not replace a parent’s lap and a physical book. The economy bounced back and children’s books have emerged as the bright spot in publishing. “The Children’s/YA market in 2014 represented 36% of the overall print market…slightly bigger than the adult fiction market,” reports Nielsen. Moreover, the price of children’s books has remained unchanged for over a decade. In other words, picture books are a terrific financial value. Now let’s talk about their intellectual, artistic and just plain JOYFUL value.
With yesterday’s announcement of Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET winning the Newbery Medal, an honor typically bestowed upon middle-grade novels, librarians are sending a clear message that debunks the NYT article of yore:
PICTURE BOOKS ARE IMPORTANT CONTRIBUTIONS TO CHILDREN’S LITERATURE.
They are not simple little books with cute drawings. They are art. They are motion and emotion. They introduce children to the complexities of the world around them in a charming, engaging manner. They teach life skills while they entertain. They relay a story both visually and contextually, challenging children to solve their playful puzzle. They introduce children to irony and satire, history and innovation, wit and wisdom. They expand the imagination and teach storytelling skills. And they do all this while amusing parents, grandparents and caregivers as well. How’s that for a nifty little package?
They’re for ANY AND ALL AGES. ANY TIME. ANYWHERE.
As Dr. Seuss once said, you can read them in a box. You can read them with a fox. (Or was that something to do with breakfast?)
Historical notes: The Newbery Medal was awarded to a picture book once before in 1981, although A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN can be categorized as an illustrated collection of poetry and, at 48 pages, not necessarily a traditional picture book. Other picture books have received Newbery Honor recognition: MILLIONS OF CATS (1929, prior to the Caldecott), FROG & TOAD TOGETHER (1973), DOCTOR DE SOTO (1983), SHOW WAY (2006) and DARK EMPEROR AND OTHER POEMS OF THE NIGHT (2011).