The XX Factor

Harry Potter and the Disappearing Picture Book

The New York Times has a piece about the decline of the picture book , claiming that publishers are cutting back on the titles they offer and that booksellers are seeing declining sales. The Times blames this, in part, on parents pushing their youngsters into chapter books so that they can do better on standardized tests.

I share the Times’ enthusiasm for picture books with “lavish illustrations, cheerful colors and large print wrapped in a glossy jacket,” but I’m not sure I would blame their decline on helicopter parents making their 6-year-olds read Harry Potter . (For the record, my son is 7, and we’re reading it together, thank you very much.) It’s getting harder and harder to find quality books like the Times describes. If you go to Borders or Barnes & Noble, the children’s section has been overwhelmed by stuffed animals and puzzles, and many of the books that ARE for sale are themed to Dora and Diego or Sesame Street or whatever 3-D movie is in theaters this month. (The Times notes this phenomenon but presents it more as a result of the decline of the picture book than a cause.)  It’s almost impossible to find some our favorite children’s authors there (Julia Donaldson, Loren Long, Karma Wilson, Chris Van Deusen-thank goodness for Amazon), and it’s a waste of time to look.

Yes, independent bookstores do have better selections for children, but they can’t compete with Amazon on price. Kids books are upward of $17 or $18 in bookstores, but Amazon usually has them for $10 to $12. In our house, we hit the local library to test-drive a pile of books and then if one sticks, we’ll buy it. But that takes a considerable amount of time and effort, which is a luxury not every parent has.

Before the publishers go blaming hyper-driven parents for loading their kids down with big heavy books, I’d like to see them offering more quality books and fewer ripped-from-the-television-set titles, and working with retailers to make them a wee more affordable. And then let’s see what happens to sales.

Photograph by Justin Sullivan for Getty Images.