Is Dr. Seuss in danger of becoming irrelevant in our children’s reading lives?  Have we finally forsaken the craven image for the sanctified word?

The picture book, a mainstay of children’s literature with its lavish illustrations, cheerful colors and large print wrapped in a glossy jacket, has been fading. It is not going away — perennials like the Sendaks and Seusses still sell well — but publishers have scaled back the number of titles they have released in the last several years, and booksellers across the country say sales have been suffering.

The economic downturn is certainly a major factor, but many in the industry see an additional reason for the slump. Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.

This want for the written word is a good and important trend.  I don’t agree that books with illustrations are bad for the evolving mind, but forcing a child to read more complex text is better for their growing brains.

We live in a condescending and condensing world of Twitter streams and Facebook updates — and we tempt becoming a culture of illiteracy if we cannot effectively read and logically write — and we learn to cogently write by reading what has been complexly written.

The chilling part of this wonderful children’s literature news is how The Big Book Publishers help form and shape future tastes.  Sure, Dr. Seuss book sales are safe for the next century, but what will this new publication policy have on the next Dr. Seuss if we value only the word over the drawn?

The Big Publishers are gatekeepers who are always late in closing the iron fence.  By the time they figure out what’s going on in their niches, they’re already 10 moves behind the next crashing wave of the New Big Social Totem, and the scramble is on to get caught up.

A book can easily be “banned” and even “censored” in the acquisition and editorial process.  As one of my graduate school Playwriting instructors taught us, “A play does not exist until it has been produced for the stage.”  The same theory applies to the amateur, unpublished, children’s book:  “You can only read what has been distributed, not what has been written.”

In the meantime, as the Big Publishers, race to turn around their sludgy sales, they are still negatively determining content, proactively deciding mainstream tastes based on what never was and what never will be — and yet they alone determine what is fit for consumptive sales.

The only way to temper the unfair, imbalanced, influence of The Big Publishers, is for the rest of us to vote with our wallets to promote the work of the unwashed illustrator and the unknown author who have consecrated ideas together that deserve wider attention.  With that rapturous mandate to celebrate the new and the undiscovered divine, we can help keep children’s literature fresh and evolving — even if the only picture books currently selling are Dr. Seuss reprints.

4 Comments

  1. David,

    I have found that the best way to support unknown authors and illustrators is through a site called KickStarter. It allows people to raise funds for artistic projects, such as authors and illustrators who want to get their children’s books printed and distributed to independent bookstores.

    I wonder if this trend toward reading ‘harder’ books to younger children will change over time and that eventually parents will yearn to read books to their children that they remember from their youth.

    1. That sounds like a great resource, Gordon.

      It seems the parents are terrified of the higher expectation of reading and writing test scores that determine how a child’s education will progress — so I don’t believe we’ll see a lively return to picture books any time soon in homes where the child is expected to go to college.