The New York Times recently ran a story about the sharp decline of picture book sales in the United States. There are many reasons why this could be so, not least is the nearly 10% unemployment and declines in library services through years of tax cuts. What the situation is in Australia sales-wise I couldn't say.
But there are many reasons what sales might decline. Children of course are introduced to what is called (somewhat euphemistically I think) screen culture at an early age. So they become very dexterous with their thumbs, less so perhaps with their vocabulary.
I also wonder to what extent parents are keen to demonstrate their child's reading skills. What better way than to kick away the ladder that pictures provide. Since reading has become one of those fought over issues, does this also feed our anxiety? And why are we so concerned with measurement and less troubled by questions about the transmission of cultures, the sharing and propagation of stories?
In regard to the prospect of children being rushed onto chapter books, I wonder to what extent parents are anxious to show how well their children are reading? Do they know what they are missing? And being able to decode a word should not be confused with understanding or even enjoying a story. Many books have gone back on to the shelf that simply have not arrived at the right time. The Tale of Despereaux is one that waited on the shelf perhaps twelve months before going on to become a firm, enduring favourite. Some schools impose the policy that students in free-reading time must read 'to their literacy level'. I often wonder how they measure a child's imagination.
Of course, reading independently also absolves parents of reading aloud at bedtime and at other times. Last week a picture book exhibition opened, which I had the privilege to curate. Reading with my daughter was an immense influence on the stories and pictures selected. Put it this way: I would not have understood these books in the way that I do, as stories and images connected to a real child's life, her imagination, her growing and changing, without seeing the stories through my daughter's eyes.
Picture books give such immense pleasure. Lauren Child's early books were powerful shapers of her worldview: the word play, the sideways view of the people close to us, the sense of quiet mischief and seriousness in the pursuit of the things we hold dear. These are powerful and important values, yet strange how the resonate in that humble medium.
Today as we came up the path I remarked on how beautiful our neighbour's trees are. Our neighbour is old and frail and may not have another summer left in her in that hot, little house. And then what of her trees? "I'll being chaining myself to them", said my daughter. Said it in a way that reminded me of the Lauren Child book, What Planet Are You From, Clarice Bean? about eco-warriors who camped in a tree, turned the family upside down and got themselves on the television news.
All of this was long ago, before she really took notice of the news or wondered about global warming or the floods in Pakistan. And yet somewhere in their the imprint was made. A way of looking at the world. Whether we chain ourselves to the trees is another matter entirely. But in a book, we learned about what was important in the world.