November 9 - 13 is National Young Readers Week -- a perfect time to post my feelings about the demotion of picture books for the 4-8 year old crowd. I first noticed this phenomenon a couple of years ago as a volunteer at my local elementary school's bookstore. Kindergarteners rejected beautiful, hardbound, age-appropriate, "pre-read" picture books, selling for $1, in favor of "chapter books" of poor quality for three times the price. And most of these kids couldn't read yet.
I couldn't get first or second graders to look at these either. They didn't want the beautiful, color illustrations that introduced them to art appreciation. Perhaps this is due to the popularity of e-readers. More likely, it is due to clever marketing of tons of rather boring "Step 1" chapter books, and the underlying message that accompanies them telling 4 to 8 year olds that picture books are for babies.
It seems sad that a generation of four-eight-year-olds may be missing out on some of the finest children's literature with beautiful illustrations that allow their imaginations to soar. So I decided to make a list of books that might be overlooked by rushing kids into far inferior books for the sake of having chapters.
Here are a dozen my grandkids loved in preschool and still love in elementary school, even those who can read:
- Knuffle Bunny Free (should read Knuffle Bunny and Knuffle Bunny Too as well) by Mo Willems. Every child who has ever had a "lovey" can relate to this story of losing it and of finally letting it go. And the illustrations are wonderful.
Even my third grade granddaughter, who completed the Harry Potter series on her own, asked me to read her a picture book the other day. Did I tell her she was too young? Not in a million years. We cuddled up together with the book and she paused to examine every illustration.
I think the market that book publishers have created for "chapter books" aimed at preschoolers and beginning readers is sad. It's part of the overall educational push down of learning experiences more appropriate for older children to younger and younger kids. Much like what has happened to Sesame Street, kids these days get the message that picture books are for the under three crowd. So when they are the right age to experience the books on another level and truly understand them, that ship has sailed.
I'll confess I am just as guilty as the next grandmother of buying the Step One version of a Disney story for my grandkids because it was what they wanted. I loved seeing their excitement over a simplified version of Frozen. But when I sat down to read it to my grandkids who can't yet read, I missed the rich language and art in books like the twelve I cited. More importantly, my grandkids missed out on an age appropriate experience with children's literature.
I hope my shout out to picture books might inspire you to consider these as holiday gifts for the under eight crowd. There are so many great choices. Ask a children's librarian for suggestions. There is plenty of time for chapter books as kids mature and can actually read them in their original form.
Readers, my list is by no means complete. Please share the names of other picture books for children ages 4 to 8.
A version of this post originally appeared in ChicagoNow on November 10, 2014.