Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Picture Books for Children

'Picture Books no longer a staple for children' was a headline of a NY Times article last week. 

How very depressing! Although I’ve never quite dipped my toe in the water of Children’s Book Illustration, it’s nevertheless something I feel quite passionately about. Just as I view greeting cards as one way of making art available to all, I see picture books as one way of bring art to small children. And it’s not just any old art; some of the artists I most admire - too many to name them all! - are or have been children’s book illustrators! 

According to the article, it’s not just the economic downturn that is threatening the sales of picture books. That would be understandable and hopefully temporary. No, the suspicion is that book-buying parents are ‘hot-housing’ their children by encouraging them to read chapter books at an ever younger age. No doubt they think they are supporting their child’s education but in many cases leaving out the picture book stage is counterproductive.

This may sound very odd coming from someone who insists on teaching children to read using story books with few or no pictures at all! But there is a good reason (or two!) for that. In the early stages of learning to read, we want to train children to read every word from left to right to give their reading skills a solid foundation. We don’t want them ‘guessing from the pictures’, a strategy that some popular but ill-founded reading programs have, in the past, suggested. If they use an illustration to guess a word, they are not actually learning to read! A bad habit that they will at some point need to get out of.

Another reason for avoiding pictures in the early stages of learning to read is that part of the skill of reading, especially with those to whom it doesn’t come easily, consists of training their eyes to follow the text in sequence from left to right on the page. Pictures can be a great distraction that causes their eyes to flick back and forth all over the page!

So for ‘learning to read’ purposes, the fewer the illustrations the better.

But there is more to reading that just decoding the words on the page, much, much more! It’s first and foremost about instilling in the child a love of books, something that will probably last them a lifetime! I’ve always found it sad to discover children who grow up with no books at all in their homes. So beginning with wonderfully illustrated picture books, some with just a few words and others with no words at all, a whole treasure trove of experience is opened up to the child! I remember one of my grandsons, long before he even began to read, studying the pages of picture books with an intensity that amazed me and I have a photo of my granddaughter, fast asleep but still clutching her picture book tightly in her hand!

Often, if the illustrations are any good, no words at all are necessary to fire the imagination of a child. The story will build naturally in his head! And gradually the introduction of text, read to the child until he is able to read it himself, will lead on seamlessly to a desire to learn to read independently.

During my time as a remedial literacy tutor, again and again, I’ve had parents proudly  telling me about the ‘text-heavy’ chapter books their children read to themselves at night in bed. If the child has any difficulties with reading, this is a step backwards. I know precisely what the children are capable of reading accurately and I know for certain that the books they are reading at home are beyond their reading skills and this is potentially disastrous. They will get into the habit of skimming the page and guessing and when asked to read out loud, there will be little relation to the actual words that are on the page! Not a good way to become a fluent reader!

So I would say to parents who are leaving out this crucial stage of capturing a child’s interest in books and reading, through picture books: please think again; there’s no rush to get on to chapter books! Let you child enjoy the wonderful art available through children’s book illustrators. Lay the foundations for a lifelong love of books, of reading and for that matter of art as well and let your child dictate the pace.

Learning to read and reading, or being read to, for pleasure are two related but quite separate activities; neither should be neglected and the enjoyment of beautifully illustrated picture books is one of the foundation stones on which the enduring habit of reading is built. 



Ulla Hennig said...

I remember some beautifully illustrated books for kids and young adults when I was a kid. I had a collection of fairy tales written by the Grimm brothers and by Andersen, and both of them had wonderful illustrations. My parents owned an illustrated edition of "Father Brown Tales". I've got the impression that books today have no illustrations anymore, being produced for a fast market and a cheap market. That's a shame, in my humble opinion!

Judy Adamson said...

Yes, I had an illustrated Grimms Tales and Hans Andersen too! But the picture books I had when I was really small weren't as well illustrated as those my children had because of the big explosion of new ideas in illustrating children's books in the 1960s. I hope the UK doesn't follow the trend in the US - but we often do!

Country Mouse Studio said...

The pictures are such an important part of the whole enjoyment that I cannot believe anyone can actually even suggest this.

Jean said...

Judy, You make many good points.My granddaughter has plenty of story books with wonderful artwork. When I read one to her we always explore the pictures after I read the text.
I also had an illustrated Grimm's & Han's Fairytale book. I so loved that book!

Judy Adamson said...

@ Carole - sadly there is a type of parent who becomes overly competitive about their child's achievement, while not understanding what is really needed. Well-intentioned but misguided, I'm afraid.

@Jean - lovely to hear from you again and I hope you are well and truly on the mend now. You've set me wondering whether there's a role for grandparents to lead a fightback against this worrying trend of pushing children ever onwards instead of letting them relax and enjoy the 'wonderful artwork' that you mention?

Judy Adamson said...

A slightly more encouraging update:

I talked to the manager of our local Waterstone's bookshop yesterday and she told me that Picture Books are still one of their bestsellers. In fact, she said that they never put them in the shop window because they sell so fast they would be constantly having to take the books from their window display :)