Picture books in decline

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

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.

“They’re 4 years old, and their parents are getting them ‘Stuart Little,”’ said Dara La Porte, the manager of the children’s department at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington. “I see children pick up picture books, and then the parents say, ‘You can do better than this, you can do more than this.’ It’s a terrible pressure parents are feeling – that somehow, I shouldn’t let my child have this picture book because she won’t get into Harvard.”

On a recent discussion board on Urbanbaby.com, a website for parents, one commenter asked for recommendations for chapter books to read to a 5-year-old and was answered with suggestions like the 272-page “Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster and “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum – books generally considered more appropriate for children 9 to 11.

Jen Haller, vice president and associate publisher of the Penguin Young Readers Group, said that while some children were progressing to chapter books earlier, they were still reading picture books occasionally.

“Picture books have a real comfort element to them,” Haller said. “It’s not like this door closes and they never go back to picture books again.”

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