Pictures books are in the news today; apparently they’re becoming obsolete. According to a recent investigation by the New York Times, a host of factors have recently contributed to declining sales: high prices, digital thingamabobs, Young Adult Fiction (vampires, the apocalypse) bogarting shelf space - the usual laments. Especially newsworthy, however, was the consensus that parents are all of a sudden hurrying their kindergartners into more challenging chapter books in the interests of earlier literacy. Yay, we are a nation of strivers once more!
Or anyway a couple of tough neighborhoods. I was going to take some time off today, catch a movie, maybe head over to the Strand, and will probably end up regretting this change of plans, but allow me to add just one more word to this not exactly scientific analysis – pish - and we can all of us go on our merry, rationalizing ways. Because isn’t it also remotely conceivable that children’s picture books are not flying off the shelves these days, and out of inventories, and into our larger cultural attention, because they’re really not that great? Sure, eighteen dollars is a lot of money to spend on something cut and pasted from TV. Admittedly, I do not have much of a Rolodex to verify this theory, but our sagging expectations of this art form’s ability - to enlighten, to entertain, and even cultivate a little literacy while we are at it - cannot be unrelated to the obviously diminished expectations of the people who make it, and market it, and stock it (“enticingly,” explains the Times) next to board games and toys - presumably the brain-building kind.
So: pish. I’m off to the movies now, and will leave you to contemplate Judith Viorst’s and Diana Cain Bluthenthal’s Just in Case, which begins to approximate the compulsive hysteria of an industry always on the edge of a self-fulfilling crisis. “Charlie knows how to be ready. And Charlie likes to be ready,” repeats Viorst while this lonely little worrywart prepares for every eventuality – lions getting loose, mermaids dragging him out to sea, a bossy, mean babysitter “who won’t read him storybooks,” and nothing left to eat in the house except old dirty socks: the great thing about picture books, I don’t need to remind you, is it’s never really clear if all of this stuff is actually happening, or being imagined. Same with Charlie’s solutions, in no particular order: making a hundred and seventeen peanut butter sandwiches, packing a parachute, and wearing a cape and a fierce black mask – wait, that doesn’t sound like a fatalist’s burden. In fact, it feels downright heroic.