Both picture books and young readers seem to be disappearing as a new target market takes shape
· Photography by Nicholas Prior
books discussed in this essay:
Chuck Dugan is awol
by Eric Chase Anderson
Chronicle Books, 2004, 224 pp., $27
by Margaret Wise Brown
HarperCollins, 1947, 32 pp., $9
The Disappearance of Childhood
by Neil Postman
Random House, 1982, 192 pp., $20
I didn’t really see the genius of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947) until after several readings. Initially, it seemed antiquated and simplistic (“Goodnight room, Goodnight moon, Goodnight cow jumping over the moon”), a mere 130 words spread over thirty-two pages. It is essentially a fugue, a few notes that are repeated with variations, eventually evoking something complex. She is describing the place between waking and sleep, a landscape that is magical for children and an unfortunate, semi-permanent state for parents. Goodnight Moon, like other children’s perennials (Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and the works of Dr. Seuss) have endured the way certain pop songs do, because they capture an essential rhythm.
There is no more democratic art form, other than perhaps finger painting, than the children’s picture book. Almost everyone, it seems, has an idea for one, or is writing one, or would if they had the time. But they are harder than they look. The first children’s book I wrote (The Trouble with Justin, 1993) was finished in a day, but that happy pattern was never repeated in the books that followed (among them When Vegetables Go Bad! ; Yuck, a Love Story). Now they take longer, as the subtleties of the form, the ruthless economies, present themselves. The publishers’ catalogue copy states that my books are for children between the ages of four and eight. On those occasions when I read to kids, I find eight is a bit old. They are distracted, often disarming, still sweet though flirting with early adolescence (two girls struggling over a Barbie pen, one of them saying through clenched teeth, “Fuck off, Madison”). There are moments when I’m reading publicly that I wonder if the children’s picture book is a dying form. I look at the children and sometimes wonder if they too are a dying form.
There are fewer children’s picture books being published these days, and the erosion of childhood itself is one of the reasons, though there are others. Historically, children’s books have largely been driven by library sales: 80 percent of the books in North America went to institutional markets. Librarians were the gatekeepers of kidlit, and who better? Educated, concerned, in touch with children. But budgets have suffered over the years, and book budgets now have to accommodate videos, dvds, and other multimedia formats. Canadian librarians also need to consider books in other languages that serve local ethnic populations. So the book budget is further diluted.
The retail market presents other challenges. Children’s books don’t have the same exposure as adult books—reviews, book shows, author interviews—and as a result, it can take six months for a new children’s book to find an audience. The selling cycle of chain stores is short and unforgiving, and while chain stores stock books in creative ways, the staff isn’t really equipped to guide you through the thousands of possibilities. Unlike independent bookstores, there is rarely anyone who can introduce you to a new author, who can create a bestseller. So the chains do better with recognizable series (Franklin the turtle), and franchises (Disney), and familiarity (Pooh). It is one of the reasons for the rise of children’s books written by celebrities; they provide instant recognition. That list includes Prince Charles, Madonna (who has written five now), John Lithgow, and Jamie Lee Curtis. This summer Ray Romano has a book (Raymie, Dickie and the Bean), as do George Foreman (Let George Do It!), and Jason Alexander (Dad, Are You The Tooth Fairy?).