We've long dreamt about the day the front page of The New York Times runs a story on children's books. Children's books are what we live and breathe at Room to Read because of what they contribute to the development of a child's literacy and learning skills. It's what we believe has the power to change the world and entire generations of communities living in poverty, particularly in the developing world.
Unfortunately, The New York Times' story wasn't exactly what we had envisioned, as it centered on the loss of retail sales of picture books. In a down economy, that's not surprising. What was surprising is that the decline in sales isn't because children are no longer drawn to colorfully illustrated tomes; rather because parents are no longer recognizing the value picture books have in catalyzing their children's literacy skills development.
Apparently, parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first-graders to leave the picture books behind and move on to more text-heavy "chapter books." One children's book publisher noted a 35 percent drop in the number of picture books published in the last few years. The primary reason, according to those in the industry, is pressure from parents who are very mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.
We've actually seen the opposite hold true in developing nations, where picture books (or story books) remain a crucial tool in laying a solid foundation for literacy and life-long learning among children. In places like Sri Lanka, South Africa and other countries where Room to Read works, many children come from largely oral storytelling traditions and the shift to the written word is a difficult transition. Many of these children have never been read to aloud, and they find it difficult to relate the "spoken" word to the "written" word.
Picture books help bridge this gap because they give children the opportunity to explore, discover, learn, and imagine through stories and characters. Books inform and transfer knowledge, and are critical to the development of a child's reading skills - including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Picture books kick-start that journey because they combine visual and verbal narratives, often presenting imagery from children's everyday lives which helps them connect life experiences to the pictures, information, events, and text. Even more, by discussing what they see in story books, children ask questions -which also helps develop their speaking skills, a key component of literacy.
Literacy experts quoted in the news article were quick to point out that picture books are not for dummies, and they praise the genre for helping develop a child's critical thinking skills. As a mother of a four-and-a-half-year-old, I couldn't agree more.
My daughter Julia loves to use picture books as the basis of inspiration for story time with her captivated audience of stuffed animals. We'll make a day of going to the library next to the park, and she will spend as much time selecting her next 10-15 books for the week as she does running around the playground. She loves books with lots of pictures because it gives her a sense of independence to "read" the story through the pictures. Now, at bedtime, Julia often wants to read me a story, and it's my greatest joy for to see her develop an enjoyment of reading - reading is not a task or something she has to do, but something she does for play. And that's key because the path to creating lifelong, independent readers starts when children see reading as fun and pleasurable on their own.
At Room to Read we're committed to education, and so obviously, it's a wonderful thing that children are able to read chapter books at an early age. But if you focus on just the skills part and prematurely force children to get to a certain level, it may be at the cost of developing good habits of reading. So we caution well-intentioned parents against hurrying to clear their kids' bookshelf of story books, because in doing so, you're clearing away the potential for a connection to books that children will cherish their entire lives. Instead, let's work to develop a generation of independent readers who love to read, and read to learn.