Are Picture Books Dead?

October 24, 2012

By Amy Hackworth.

Few things make me happier than sitting between my two boys with a stack of picture books to read. When all three of us are caught up in the story, laughing at the jokes or admiring the illustrations, I feel like the parenting stars have aligned. Combine these moments of parenting satisfaction with the fact that I’ve never transitioned to new phases of life very well, and that probably explains why we’re still reading picture books nearly every night to our six- and eight-year old boys.

This may not be typical, according to a 2010 New York Times article, ominously titled Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children. The article primarily cites parents’ desire to advance kids’ reading abilities, a not-too-surprising indication of our culture’s focus on achievement. But perhaps we’re also eager for our kids to meet beloved characters we grew up with like LauraMilo, and Charlie, or new friends like Harry and Clementine.

I’ve loved introducing the boys to chapter books, and I’m delighted that they’re both reading other books independently, but, for me, picture books still have so much to offer that they’re an absolute mainstay at our house.

Among the many virtues of beloved picture books — clever text, smart rhymes, ingenious illustrations, lovable characters, sweet, powerful and funny life lessons, to name a few — my favorite thing is the space it creates for our family to slow down and engage in something meaningful together.

The best picture books generate family jokes, open the door for great discussions, and lend value to our own stories. They create a unique imaginative space where we’re reading pictures as well as words, and developing a rich visual vocabulary together. On really good days, the ideas and illustrations we discover spark our own creative projects. And what would I do without the associated snuggles?

Have you noticed a trend away from picture books? Or are picture books alive and well in your family? What’s your experience transitioning in or out of new reading phases?

Little girl reading by Sandro Mori.

P.S. — If you need suggestions to jump start your own snuggles, see Gabrielle’s Top 50 Picture Books.

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October 26, 2012 at 1:25 am

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anna October 24, 2012 at 8:36 am

Oh my gosh, my heart sank just at the title of this post! We love and adore picture books but I’ve definitely noticed that most people assume picture books are just for the younger children. However, I’ve found that some of the most beautiful and wonderful picture books are better suited for older children!

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2 Susan October 24, 2012 at 8:42 am

We love picture books in our house and will always value them!

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3 Tina from A Few Pretty Things October 24, 2012 at 8:54 am

Anna I felt the same just by reading the title. Is there anything more sweet and satisfying that reading picture books with your children? My 7 year old son still enjoys a beautifully illustrated book despite the fact that he can read now. A well written book for children with beautiful pictures is a delight even for an adult. I hope NY Times are wrong and luckily I haven’t noticed such trend.

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4 Katie October 24, 2012 at 8:55 am

One of the reasons we chose the school we did for our kids is that when we visited the teachers told us they were discouraging parents from pushing their kids to chapter books. Parents read picture books to little kids, and then early readers are much more likely to be able to tackle picture books and I wouldn’t want them to think that was babyish if they’d moved on to chapters. I loved hearing the teachers think like that and agree totally!

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5 Cerise October 24, 2012 at 8:56 am

Picture books are amazing and wonderful. I used to manage the kids section of a book store and during quiet days I loved looking at the new ones that came in. Now that I have kids I adore reading them my old favorites and buying them new ones. Some picture books can actually be pretty advanced, certainly not just for little kids.

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6 Tamsin October 24, 2012 at 8:56 am

We read picture books at naptime and bedtime with our almost 3 year-old, and don’t plan on stopping any time soon! We check out between 5 and 10 of them from the library every week, and love reading new stories together. I see how each story introduces my son to new ideas, and those ideas often show up in his playing too.

What makes me really sad about that article, is that the pressure is coming from parents for their kids to perform at a higher level at an increasingly earlier age. We need to collectively chill and stop accelerating childhood into oblivion. It doesn’t seem fair to take away toys and picture books and then lament that kids are growing up sooner than we did 20-30 years ago.

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7 Sandra October 24, 2012 at 9:03 am

We are big readers around our house and picture books are a staple in our reading nook at the top of the stairs. The girl (now 6 1/2) loved them as a little kid and now that she is learning to read, enjoys reading them on her own.

If this IS a trend, it is a sad one. And perhaps part of that crazy pushing of academics to lower and lower grades causing more stress on parents and kids, many of whom are not developmentally ready to learn to read.

Keep reminding yourself that in Finland kids don’t start “formal” academic-type schooling til they are 7 years old. AND they still top the charts in outcomes after high school. Early readers doesn’t necessarily mean success later in life just as early walkers aren’t all Olympians. Barring learning challenges, they ALL learn to read.

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8 Melissa@Julia's Bookbag October 24, 2012 at 9:12 am

That NY Times article made me want to throw up. Also, hearing tales from people reading chapter books to their THREE YEAR OLDS made me want to throw up. Sorry for the gross, I have strong opinions on this topic as you can tell :)

I echo Tamsin’s comment 1000% percent.

Long live the picture books! My daughter is almost 7 and she still loves them.

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9 hyzen October 24, 2012 at 9:28 am

Wow, this is crazy. I have not heard of this trend, and we are certainly not a part of it at our house. My kids are only ages 4 and 2, but we have an extensive picture book library in our house, and really enjoy them not only for the words printed in them, but for all the conversations they spark, talking about what’s going on in the pictures, interesting facts about the subject matter of the book, tying the themes into other things they’ve been learning. When books are very dense with text, there’s simply not as much time to meander through all those different topics–you have to keep plowing ahead or you’ll never finish the book! I could see starting to read some chapter books aloud to my 4 year old, just to give her a different kind of reading experience, but I expect picture books will be a part of my kids’ lives for years to come.

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10 Sarah October 24, 2012 at 9:33 am

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Picture books can never die! “Oh the Places You’ll Go” will always be a must for HS grads, Sandra Boynton for toddlers, and every book in between. I guess it’s ok to have an additional copy on an ipad, but picture books on paper are as necessary as air and sprinkles. What would the world be without them????

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11 Carter Higgins October 24, 2012 at 10:24 am

Air and sprinkles! Love that.

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12 robyn October 24, 2012 at 9:34 am

When our son was tiny and we were reading at bedtime just so he could hear our voices (he was typically nursing at the time, so no eyes were really on the book), we read things like Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter because it was more interesting for us. But as someone who majored in illustration, I don’t think I’ll ever get beyond picture books regardless of how old my kids are. I also find that books that I love (for the illustrations or the story or both) tend to also be the favorites of my three year old (the two month old doesn’t register much of an opinion yet).

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13 Design Mom October 24, 2012 at 9:35 am

Fascinating article and excellent post, Amy! I was collecting picture books long before I had children. And I hope I’m still collecting them when my kids have all moved out. : )

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14 Regan October 24, 2012 at 9:45 am

I adore picture books. Every week I put a pile of them on hold at my library and go pick them up–it’s so easy– and beats searching through the stacks with two kids in tow! Everyone should take advantage of their local library. This week I just rediscovered the work of Swedish author/illustrator Elsa Beskow, which I had completely forgotten about since my childhood.

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15 Justin Hackworth October 24, 2012 at 9:47 am

Well said, Amy.

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16 jess October 24, 2012 at 10:05 am

I currently have about 30 picture books checked out from the library. I look forward to sitting down with my 5 year old each evening to read a bunch. They are so not dead in my mind.

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17 Janae @ Bring-Joy October 24, 2012 at 10:11 am

Oh heavens, I hope picture books aren’t dead!

In our home, our picture book cup runneth over, & I’ve made it a determined point to literally surround my kids with books. I, like you, love picture books & love how you put it–”the parenting stars have aligned” when you’re reading with your kids. I feel the same way. It’s the one thing that I have full confidence that I’m doing right. Everything else seems like so much guesswork & “wait & see” or “I hope I’m doing the right thing.” But reading with & to my kids–a no-brainer. And as you point out, is so FUN.

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18 val October 24, 2012 at 10:12 am

Picture books are treasured in our home. I love seeing my older kids read picture books to their baby brothers, and it’s so fun to watch my 2 & 4 year olds sit with the books in their laps, “reading” the stories when they should be napping. I would never trade those delightful memories for early readers.

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19 Noora October 24, 2012 at 10:14 am

This is such a timely article for me! I’ve been contemplating this trend since a friend passed down a stack of picture books to me to read with my 2 and 4 year olds a couple of days ago. Her kids are in high school now, but she has a niece who’s only just turned 5. I was grateful for the books, but asked my friend if she was sure she didn’t want to keep them for her niece. She said her sister didn’t want them because her daughter was already beyond that level. She’s five! I was shocked and saddened that picture books might now be considered too babyish for school kids. I plan to still be reading them with my kids for many years to come. I think a lot of hope for the genre comes from author illustrators like Mo Willems who use humor that appeals to all ages.

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20 Carter Higgins October 24, 2012 at 10:23 am

No, no, no! Not dead!

I think they are alive and well in families, in schools, and yes, even in publishing. With the advent of storybook apps and anything you want on your phone for $1.99…a $17 price tag on a picture book is certainly hefty. That’s for sure. But the magic of a picture book is timeless. I like to think of them as a portable museum of art and poetry. Boom. In your pocket!

Think of all the other things we love that are combinations of words and pictures…like this beautiful blog!

We are story cravers.

And one more thing! November is coming, and it’s Picture Book Month! Check it out: picturebookmonth.com. Big celebration.

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21 deborah October 24, 2012 at 10:28 am

Amy & Gabrielle, thanks for this post! It’s nice to know of others who feel strongly about the value of picture books, and a *huge* relief to read all of these comments!

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22 Ashlea Walter October 24, 2012 at 10:58 am

simply invaluable!

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23 Martha October 24, 2012 at 11:07 am

I fear that so much beauty and enjoyment is being lost in our need to succeed and push ourselves and especially our children. I love that picture books are a way we can stop for a few moments and enjoy life. Isn’t that what it’s all about anyway? Long live picture books!

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24 G at willowday October 24, 2012 at 11:24 am

Gabrielle, You seem to have so many posts, I simply can’t keep up!!! WOW! Please come back to Sweden for a dinner! :-) … I’ll start with this post… and hopefully keep up better in the future. Each and every post is so interesting! Hello new assistances! Good luck with all new ventures!

but to answer this: for me: never, ever, ever, ever ever. I love pictures books and continue to buy them even when the kids have outgrown them (it I can somehow justify them!) I insisted on buying and now keeping books in languages from our 3 cultures but, my husband is my opposite. I can’t ever imagine putting them away. My husband is the complete opposite: ibook, inews, i everything and encourages the children to do everything on the computer. Since I literally give the children projects to sit down make and make their own picture books and my husband has them doing the opposite — I hope they can be exposed to both and will experience both. Opening the pages, balancing it on one’s lap, smelling the ink, choosing a bookmark… these are all a part of the progress of a story… long live picture books. Please!

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25 Michelle October 24, 2012 at 11:29 am

My only child is nine years old. In the afternoon when she comes home from school, we ready Little House, Betsy and Tacy, Harriet the Spy, and the like together. But when I tuck her in bed at night, she falls asleep with Olivia, Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, and their many picture book counterparts. I love that she still loves her picture books and hope she doesn’t outgrow them anytime soon.

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26 Lucy Mitchell October 24, 2012 at 11:29 am

I have noticed picture books are cheaper now than they were ten years ago, which is nice for me but the idea that this is because they are less valued is depressing. Sharing one is one of the great pleasures of motherhood.

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27 Birgit October 24, 2012 at 11:30 am

I hope picture books are not dead. We have lots of them for our kids, and reading together at bedtime is a daily ritual. My almost-reader enjoys books with pictures so much more than just text.
My husband just designed an app that is an interactive picture book with no text. We’d love for parents to use it together with their kids and add the story in their own words…

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28 Cecilia October 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Though my son is 11, we will always love picture books in our house. I even have my own that I buy for myself! And so many wonderful books are being written and illustrated now. If you are a picture-book lover, and ever happen to be close to Western Massachusetts, don’t miss the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, located adjacent to Hampshire College near Amherst. It’s a beautiful building, full of light. There are galleries with rotating exhibits (showing work besides Eric Carle’s), an incredible library where you’ll come across picture books you’ve never seen before (everything is arranged by illustrator, not author), a gorgeous studio in which you and your kids can make art, and, of course, a great bookstore. Often they have puppet shows, theater, films, and story hour for kids, as well as workshops for adults. We feel very luck to have this resource in our neighborhood.

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29 Hanna October 24, 2012 at 12:26 pm

w/ a kindergardener in the house we are deep in the picture book phase of reading. Llama Llama, Good night moon, I love you through and through, the very hungry catapillar, brown bear brown bear are some of our most popular and well used books.

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30 Trish October 24, 2012 at 2:43 pm

I am sad to say that I think the NYT echos what I have seen at our elementary school. My children are 8 and 10 now but since 1 grade or so it feels like there is a huge push to read “chapter” books. That is the status symbol that the child is an “advanced” reader (thus the smartest person in the world. Lol). I find myself falling into this mindset as well. But a wise librarian pointed out that many picture books are actually written at a might higher reading level than many of the new chapter books. In addition, there is tremendous value in a child using the illustration to add to the story in their mind.

I try not to push anymore. I love picture books ( that Pigion kills me every time. And what is not to love about Charlie and Lola) so why would my boys not love them as well.

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31 MAria October 24, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Picture books are the basis for the reading program in our county. I am a first grade ESOL teacher. One of the best reading strategies for early readers is to use picture clues along with beginning sounds of words to learn reading. They are used in content area subjects and we send books home every evening with students who may not have a library of available reading books at home. Illustrated stories can be powerful. They often have rich and mature underlying themes. Eve Bunting has a series of books that can be used from K through 12th grade and beyond. I am still moved to tears by Tomie dePaolas The Clown of God – Check out my sisters site BooksTogether for beautiful reviews of books.

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32 Emily October 24, 2012 at 6:03 pm

Never Say Die! With cutting edge illustrations and clever stories, paired with old classics, this will never happen!
Love,
Emily

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33 Lauren October 24, 2012 at 6:14 pm

I’m a second grade teacher who looooves picture books not just for my students but for me! Many picture books are much more sophisticated and have more advanced vocabulary than some of the chapter book series aimed for younger children. I am very careful in choosing quality writing/illustration that require higher level thinking skills, such as inference, in my lessons. In my opinion, there is much more character development in a short Kevin Henkes book than there is in the entire Magic Treehouse series. I often discover new things after reading books year after year. It’s a joy every time :)

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34 Sarah's Fab Day October 24, 2012 at 6:25 pm

I have a third and first grader and we still have lots of picture books in our home. My six year old loves reading the stories and my 8 year old loves meeting his old friends. We have always done both. I will read chapter books aloud to my kids so they can become engrossed in a story and we will pore over picture books together too, laughing and looking at all of the illustrations. I hope picture books aren’t dead because there is definitely something magical them.

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35 Audrey October 24, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Alive and KICKING in our household. I can’t believe that’s not the case in every house! Poor kids.

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36 Dianne de Las Casas October 24, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Next month begins a worldwide celebration of picture books! November is Picture Book Month and schools, libraries and homes are joining in the monthlong celebration of literacy through picture books. Every day in November, and essay about the importance of picture books will be posted by picture book month champions, luminaries in the field such as Kathi Appelt, Doreen Cronin, Chris Raschka, John Rocco, Jon Scieszka, and Paul O. Zelinsky. November is Picture Book Month. Read * Share * Celebrate!

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37 Maria @ Busy as a Bee in Paris October 25, 2012 at 5:51 am

My 11 year old son recently thanked me for all the picture books he had as a young child because according to his French art teacher at the collège, children who look at a lot of picture books develop richer vocabularies, imaginations and become creative artistes! According to this teacher, children store images in their minds that become rich mental libraries throughout their lives!

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38 Amy Hackworth October 25, 2012 at 9:53 am

It’s heartening to read all these comments! I’m so glad picture books are alive and well in so many of our homes!

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39 Mara October 25, 2012 at 6:14 pm

Oh! This breaks my heart!! I’m 37 years old and have never stopped loving picture books. Having kids gave me an excuse to get even more of them. I grew up to be an illustrator and I’m sure that my love of these books heavily influenced that. There are so many truly talented illustrators and storytellers out there. What a shame that kids (and their parents) are missing out.

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40 Rhonda Sittig October 25, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Love picture books. When I moved from teaching kindergarten to 3rd grade, I found the 3rd graders love those books as much as the little guys do. We do plenty of chapter books too– The BFG and Number the Stars… But we take little “coffee breaks” with books since 3rd graders usually don’t drink coffee– and recharge with a picture book or two mid morning.

And I have 3 grand-girls who live in Shanghai–So I read picture books on photo booth and email them bed time stories from grandma. You can’t beat “No Jumping on the Bed” or “I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More” for pure fun!

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41 Caddy October 25, 2012 at 11:31 pm

“The best picture books generate family jokes, open the door for great discussions, and lend value to our own stories.”

I love that line. My mom was fond of picture books and read to us as children and in my family we still quote lines from our favorite picture books even though were now all teenagers and young adults. “Sipping once, sipping twice, sipping chicken soup with rice!” is a line we all remember from Maurice Sendak.

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42 Michelle October 26, 2012 at 12:11 am

I don’t think anything could replace picture books. They never stop giving. I am grateful to have been exposed to them again with my daughter. She learns so much from them, the time together reading is precious and my creative side is continuously inspired.

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43 Laurie February 13, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Love this article. I just came across it. I feel exactly the same way about reading to my children. No matter how crazy the day has been, or how much I need to do once those two little people are in bed (the other 5 can put themselves to bed now) I love the moments of reading a wonderful picture book. I am an artist and a teacher, so I’m crazy about picture books. One of my favorites is Harry and Horsie. The illustrations are amazing! And I love the prose. Creative, imaginative, funny, and endearing. It has everything a good picture book should have. Thank goodness picture books are not a dead in the many households of your great readers.

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