Every once in awhile I’m overwhelmed by the stacks of books spilling out of my kids’ bookshelves and I resolve to pare them down.
I’m usually not very successful.
Instead of culling, I spend hours reliving the past -- all those nights I sat on the rug in their room, and they’d pull out a few books from the shelf and back up to my waiting lap to snuggle and read our favorite stories until, sometimes, we both fell asleep. We’d make the animal sounds from “Brown Bear, Brown Bear,” count down with the bears in “Ten in the Bed,” or hunt for the mouse and balloon on each page of “Goodnight, Gorilla.”
I flip through them now and memories leap off the page. The way my son called Corduroy’s rag-doll friend “Girlo” and hooted every time he saw the bare behind in “No, David!” How my daughter delighted in the pink cupcakes of “Pinkalicious” or stuck her tiny fingers through the holes eaten by that hungry caterpillar.
I just can’t get rid of books. Especially picture books.
Which is why I was distressed a few weeks ago when I read that publishers scaled back the number of picture books released this year.
The economy is a factor -- beautifully illustrated books aren’t cheap -- but the New York Times story cited another reason: parents who pressure their kindergartners and first-graders to move on to chapter books so they can keep up with increasingly rigorous standardized tests.
To which Deborah Stevenson says: “For God’s sake, people.”
Stevenson has a book-lover’s dream job: editor of the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books at the University of Illinois and its annual gift guide for children.
First of all, she says, it’s not the end of the world if your child doesn’t choose the challenging, highly educational book you have in mind. Reading should be FUN.
“They have plenty of time to read books of all kinds, of all different lengths,” she says.
And picture books aren’t just chapter books-lite. Kids learn from the illustrations.
“Things really do happen differently in picture books, aesthetically, narratively,” Stevenson says. “You’re going to get material that you tend not to find someplace else -- folk stories, glorious stories.”
Then there’s the sheer beauty of a visual narrative. Picture books have “some of the best art you’ll find in our current day. Why would you not let your kid look at art?”
Consider “The Napping House,” the story of a boy and his grandma and a cadre of pets who pile on top of them for a rainy-day snooze. The illustrations start out gray and sleepy, but as the pile begins to wake, the scene gets lighter and more colorful until they’re all dancing in the sunshine.
Or “10 Minutes ’Til Bedtime,” which has just a handful of words but packs a ton in the fanciful illustrations by “Goodnight, Gorilla” author Peggy Rathmann. Hamsters on a tiny tour bus keep the little boy hopping for those last 10 minutes and provide endless fun for young readers at bedtime. Every time we read it, we find something new.
Picture books are expensive to produce, so they’re not often big money-makers, Stevenson says. There are definitely fewer available this year, but “it’s not quite the tragedy that it’s sometimes made out to be. I’m just not yet convinced that this year was the beginning of the death of the picture book.”
She’s more concerned that publishers might be focusing their energies on young-adult books, to the detriment of readers in second, third and fourth grades who have been “shortchanged for some time now.”
Meanwhile, publishers are experimenting with e-books, at least at the young-adult level. It’s a nice source of income, as print books have to sell 10,000 books to break even, she says.
They haven’t published many e-picture books, at least not yet. The size of the screen is a major limiting factor. So many decisions about a picture book are based on its dimensions -- a double-page spread with illustrations bleeding off the edges carries a lot more impact, for example. And that’s hard to pull off on a black-and-white Kindle.
Color and resolution are improving, though, and publishers have started producing complementary e-products for books, such as educational tools or interactive artwork. Stevenson found a 99-cent iPad app for the book “Duck in the Truck” that adds an animated component to the art -- the truck moves across the scene, the duck flaps his wings.
“It’s nicely done,” she says. “I wouldn’t consider this a substitute for the book experience, but if Mom’s driving and Dad’s in the back with an obstreperous 3-year-old,” well, why not?
It’s our future, I’m sure. Kids (like adults) seem to love every bit of technology thrown at them, from video games to iPods to cell phones and laptops. Computers are just cool, a whole new way to experience the classics.
And yet ... there’s something about a book. The feel of the pages, that new-book smell when you first bring it home, all those flaps to lift and tabs to pull and bunnies to pat.
For me, there’s the “Sweet Smells of Christmas,” a holiday tradition in our family for a quarter-century. We insist we can still sniff the orange and the hot cocoa and the peppermint, long after the smell was scratched away.
In a world of fleeting 140-character thoughts, books are solid. You can hold them, pass them on to your children’s children, confident they won’t run out of batteries or become obsolete in two years.
And let’s face it: Who wants to fall asleep with a computer screen in their arms?
What’s your favorite picture book? Leave a comment below, or contact Julie Wurth at 351-5226, jwurthnews-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Photo: Debra Stevenson, editor of the Bulletin of the Center for Childrens Books at the University of Illinois, shows off some of the books on the Bulletin's 2010 gift guide. Vanda Bidwell/ The News Gazette