All this sounds like a lot of work and homework, so let’s be clear: Picture books are also one of the literary world’s great pleasures.
When I say kids shouldn’t outgrow picture books, I mean ever. According to a 2019 Scholastic survey, whereas 55 percent of kids ages 6 to 8 are frequent readers, only 11 percent remain so by the time they’re between 15 and 17. At a time when we lament the state of children’s literacy, particularly reading for pleasure, surely we shouldn’t tell kids to move on from books they enjoy.
Publishers realize this. Aware of the tough competition for attention from video games and the internet, publishing companies have pushed picture books in new directions. Biographies for children, once a staid genre, are now packed with photos and illustrations. Visual encyclopedias, fact books, massive books about space are as stimulating as any app. These are picture books, too, but often explicitly for children ages 6 to 12.
Think about the explosive popularity of graphic novels — books like “Guts” and series like “Dog Man” and the “March” trilogy — and how they’ve transformed children who didn’t read at all into ones who do, and those readers into voracious readers. What are children telling us but that they want to keep looking at pictures? That they are visual readers as much as they are readers of text? And that perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to steer them away from books that respect children’s interests and the way their minds work. These, too, are “real” books.
I still read picture books, and if you’re honest with yourself, in all likelihood, so do you. What are all those manga and graphic novels and pricey coffee-table books and online comics we’re all staring at — not to mention Instagram stories and TikTok videos — if not, in essence, picture books for grown-ups? Stories with pictures.
Recently, I bought myself a copy of “Marshmallow,” a 1942 picture book about a rabbit that intrudes upon the privileged place of the family cat. The text, which included several poems, holds up; the illustrations capture the peevishness of the cat and the placid Baby Yoda-like cuteness of the interloping bunny. Like any timeless story, it gets at an essential emotional truth — in this case, “we all need our place” — and like any timeless picture book, that story is told through a potent combination of words and artwork anyone can understand.
I insisted on reading it to my 11-year-old, otherwise busy with the latest installment of the “Keeper of the Lost Cities.” My 14-year-old, who enjoys drawing as much as he likes reading the short fiction of Etgar Keret, overheard us when he walked by. “Put that in my room when you’re done?” he said.
My kids were still willing to read my picture books. I felt relieved, and yes, a little proud.
Pamela Paul (@PamelaPaulNYT) is the editor of the Book Review.
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