I wrote a piece in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, a look at three picture books about kids living through challenging circumstances: Growing up in East Texas during the Depression, building a new life in the Bronx in the 1960s after escaping from Castro’s Cuba, and hiding from the Nazis in the Italian countryside during World War II. The headline was So You Think Your Life Sucks, You Privileged Whiny Ungrateful Little Fuck.
Oh wait, no, that was just the headline in my HEAD.
All three of these books are admirable in different ways. One has lovely language, one has gorgeous art, one has a gripping story. But I don’t know whether kids will adore them.
The children’s book editor of the NYT has a special love for picture books and is a huge champion of this genre; her passion is a nice counterpoint to the idiocy of a front-page NYT story last year about the sorry state of children’s books, which the reporter attributed largely to competitive parents pushing their spawn helicopter-ishly into chapter books, strapping heavy volumes to their tiny hands with bonds of steel and propping open their tiny eyelids with Clockwork-Orange-like eyeball-baring devices for several hours a night before turning to Singapore Math. (The main parent source for the front-page NYT piece — yes, the ONE, to indicate a supposed trend, something we can’t get away with in women’s magazines — now maintains that she was quoted out of context, and though her blog has since been taken down, her very distressed post to that effect has been referenced all over the Interwebs.) Anyhoo, in short order, Publishers Weekly offered a more nuanced look at the retail picture for picture books, and more recently there was this piece by Anita Silvey in School Library Journal. Silvey acknowledges that sales for picture books constitute a smaller percentage of booksellers’ income than they used to, but offers some reasonable ideas as to why…such as, y’know, the fat, shiny demographic bubble of teenagers, and the cultural trend of adults reading young adult novels. (No one disputes that the young adult category is doing fabulously, and there’s TONS of great YA lit out there right now.) But Silvey also notes the fact that most of the perennially awesome-selling backlist titles are classics many of us remember from our own childhoods, and says that the pressure on authors to write shorter and shorter is hurting current children’s books.
I’m not so sure. The three picture books I reviewed for the NYT this week are LONG. LONGETY LONG LONG LONG. They have complex narratives. They have nuance. But here’s the thing: They cost around $17. Each. I can see these three books — ironically all about children suffering deprivation and injustice and hardship — having great shelf-appeal for wealthy parents who worry about their kids’ wussiness and kvetchitude. These parents can afford a book that costs significantly more than the average American earns per hour. Again, I admire these books. I find them all interesting in different ways. But I suspect that many kids would find one or two of them spinach-y. (Read ’em all and decide for yourself. You know your own kid.) And did I mention that they’re expensive?
I imagine different kids love different books, just as adults do. Some love long, some short. My now-seven-year old wants to read Feivel’s Flying Horses — which is hella long, as the kids who are older than mine say — over and over because it has beautiful words, beautiful pictures, a setting Maxie loves (Coney Island, though it’s a different Coney Island from the one she visits today), familial love, merry-go-rounds — which means HORSES, aka EQUINE JUSTIN BIEBERS, and the story of a good person triumphing over adversity and seeing his loved ones reunited by dint of his hard work and creativity. But hey, Maxie also loves the completely wordless books of Barbara Lehman. Let a thousand word lengths bloom! There are great and lousy books of every length and every stripe. And author. It’s super fun to mock picture books by celebrities, what with them mostly sucking, but John Lithgow’s I’m a Manatee is hilarious and smart, and Julianne Moore’s Freckleface Strawberry, with the winsome art of LeUyen Pham, isn’t bad at all.
The upshot is: SEVENTEEN BUCKS IS A LOT OF CHEDDAR. And a lot of us are in ugly financial straits these days. We are unemployed or underemployed. But we’re using libraries (I love the NYPL so much, and OMG, the new web site is awesome and there seem to be more digital books than ever) and teenagers are buying [more affordable] chapter books (and adults are buying books written for teenagers) and I have no idea how my favorite category, middle-grade fiction, is doing because do I LOOK LIKE I work for PW? I just write about parenting and the Jewy. And I’m no futurist like many of my geek pals. And hey, maybe we’ll lose all textuality and end up zapping with apps in our cortexes as we zip hither and yon on our jetpacks. But for now, I think picture books that pass the do-I-want-t0-reread-this-a-million-times test will continue to sell among those of us who can afford to buy books. My 2-year-old nephew is a good test case: He lives in the Bay Area, his mom’s an online game producer and his dad works at Google (GEEKS I TELL YOU) and he uses an iPhone as if it’s an extension of his hand. Yet his house is full of physical, paginated books as well as digital ones. We send him books for b-day prezzies. But only books that I a) think are good and b) suspect he’ll want to look at again and again. Most books fail this metric, because most books — like most things in our Eden-less, flawed world — are imperfect. But it’s our job as parents to expose our kids to as many kinds of books as we can, and to purchase the books we think they’ll love as long as said books don’t break the bank or destroy our soul (still hate you, Katie Kazoo). And sure, we should all get our kids a you-entitled-little-vontz book now and again.