Friday, October 8, 2010

The New York Times Gets It Wrong!

Picture Books are not losing sales because parents are reading inappropriate age level chapter books to preschool children. 

Picture books sales are down because many parents are not reading aloud to their children at all.

I live in Franklin, Massachusetts, a former dairy farm and mill town that in the past two decades has grown into a major suburb of Boston. Right now there are no librarians in our school's libraries and our public library-- the first public library in the United States-- has reduced hours of operation and reduced staff. So, like many towns across the county, Franklin has only a handful of professionals who can educate parents, especially preschool parents, of this basic fact:

The best way to prepare your child for school, the best way to help your child to succeed in school, is to read aloud age-appropriate books to your child, and to create a language enriched environment for your child from the day he or she is born. 

As the president and executive director of the NCBLA, and also because I am a children's book writer and illustrator and teach writing workshops to elementary and middle school children, I spend a great deal of time in schools working with kids, teachers, and parents. For the past ten years literacy statistics have shown that across all socioeconomic levels approximately 49-51% of all parents read aloud to their children. Based on the interaction I have had working with kids and parents for three decades, I believe those numbers to be inflated.  I also believe that the statistics related to parents' reports of their children's TV hours and screen time to be vastly underestimated. From what I hear and see working with experienced talented professionals, reading aloud to kids is becoming an "endangered" activity.

As a teacher of writing working with primary students, there is one sure way I can tell if kids spend time reading and if their parents have read aloud to them.  I ask them to write a story. Kids whose parents read aloud to them automatically include dialogue in stories. They try to use punctuation even when the use of periods, commas, and questions marks has not been formally explained to them. They loosely organize a story with a beginning, middle, and ending. They have broad vocabularies, though words may be misspelled. They have been exposed to books outside the classroom; they have been read to by a family member outside the classroom. They have a huge jump on every other kid in the class. And in the course of over twenty years offering writing workshops in mainly middle-class communities ( because those are the communities that have either the funding or the grant finding skills to bring in a children's author for an author visit), I find that that the number of kids with these skills is becoming devastatingly smaller.

Reading families tend to hang out with reading families. For example-
Over ten years ago I attended a meeting at the Children's Book Council not only to introduce members to the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance but also to share some disturbing observations with them. One of those disturbing observations was that, out in "the field" I had noted that boys were increasingly becoming disinterested in books. Many boys were drawn to interesting nonfiction but most only read fiction with strong male lead characters. (Girls avidly read books with either male or female main characters.)
I suggested that  the publishing world might consider publishing  more adventure stories with male main characters, more great nonfiction, and also that publishers recruit more quality male writers (at that time female writers, and editors, far outnumbered male writers and editors)-- in an effort to induce more boys to read.  I also suggested that publishers think about creating a reading campaign targeting boys and dads because quite simply, the most powerful inducement to getting kids to read, is positive role modeling. Kids read books, newspaper, online materials, if their parents read books, newspapers, online materials. Kids go to libraries if their parents go to libraries. Kids find time to read if their parents find time to read. 

A male editor/writer from a major children's publisher was seated to my left at this CBC meeting. He scoffed at my observation, belittling it, stating that boys read, men read. I was dead wrong. All his friends read. All his friends' sons read. Every male he knew read fiction. I had never met this editor before and had no idea where he lived, but hazarded a guess asking him, "Do you live on the upper west side of Manhattan?"

He did. Reading families tend to hang out with reading families and have no idea that probably half, if not the majority, of our nation's families have not bought even one new book in the past year, have not visited a library or even read a new book in the past year.

WHY? Because in reality, as a nation we do not value education. In a capitalistic society two things show you what that society really values-- what a society spends its money on, and how people in the society spend their time. We do not spend real money on education. As parents and family members, for many reasons, we do not spend a great deal of time with our kids without an electronic screen shining its weird light somewhere in the foreground or background.

There has not been a major united national literacy public education campaign since the 1960's. There has been no national parenting education figure since Dr. Barry Brazelton retired from the public view. Television screens are everywhere-- in subway and bus stations and plane terminals; in subways, buses and planes; in restuarants and stores; in cars and mini-vans. What happened to families singing, telling stories, reading, listing to music, on those long and short family car trips. We had three small highly active, imperfect, and often whiny children and traveled from Massachusetts to Ohio two and sometimes three times a year for extended family events. Those car ride activities-- reading books aloud, playing games, telling stories, singing songs, listening to music and books on tape, are some of our now grown kids' favorite memories. I doubt if the kids who are now watching endless videos in the car on short and long car trips, are going to have fond memories of  falling asleep to Nickelodeon and Disney programs. Kids want their parents' time and attention, not a screen.

Just this past month, interactions with people in my own town shed light onto the reality of reading in America. At the local hair salon, the young mom cutting my hair told me she had tried to read to her child-- an 11 month old, but she would not sit still for a reading of Green Eggs and Ham. The young mom had fond memories of reading Green Eggs and Ham as a kid.  What she did not remember until I asked her, was that she had read Green Eggs and Ham as a primary grade student. She not only did not realize that Early Reader books were inappropriate for an 11 month old baby, she had never really thought about the concept of age appropriate books.

A few weeks ago, I ran into one of the best teachers in town. It still amazes me that everyone in a town, especially the kids, knows who those great teachers are. Mrs. "D" has been teaching for over 25 years and loves her kids, loves being a teacher, but admitted that in the last five years she has been prone to despair. She is not only overwhelmed with the avalanche of testing that she has to deal with, but she is also worried about the current generation of parents, many of whom send their kids to school totally unprepared to learn.

Franklin is a middle class town where the majority of parents have college degrees or experience. Last year Mrs. "D" had twenty eight second graders. Only six of those second graders knew who Curious George was. Curious George is one of the most popular and commercialized children's book characters. In the first weeks of school, when Mrs. "D" suggested that her kids explore her vast classroom library, only a half of her students settled in comfortably to read. The other half, easily distracted, had no idea what to do. A few children had no idea how a book worked as an object. Equally disturbing, Mrs. "D" found that many of her kids were preoccupied with the subject of vampires, so much so that she individually interviewed each child informally over the course of a few days and discovered that out of 28 second graders only 3 understood that vampires were not real, that they were fictional characters.

When she shared this experience with me, I had a twenty-three year flashback to my first parent volunteer experience in our eldest daughter's kindergarten class. It occurred in late October and the kids were all sharing what they would be for Halloween. The number of kids dressing up as Freddy Krueger stunned me. The number of kindergartners who had seen Freddy Krueger and Texas Chain Saw Massacre movies stunned me.

As with the horror movie popularity in my daughters' class, kids today are obliviously watching a whole lot of things on television and at the movies that are not appropriate for their age level. This may be with their parents' blessing, but they are probably watching a lot of things that their parents have no idea that they are watching-- like crazy vampire movies and television shows. And remember we are not talking about teens, we are discussing the viewing habits of primary grade age kids. And apparently, no one in these second graders' lives, with the exception of their teacher, is explaining to these kids that vampires are not real, that there is a big difference between fantasy and reality.

What needs to be done?
Obviously we need a huge national parent education campaign to teach parents that they need to spend time with their kids no matter how tired they are. Parents need to know the best way to prepare their kids for school is to read aloud age-appropriate materials to their kids and expose them to age-appropriate media. They need to know what that term "age-appropriate" means and why reading a chapter book to a 4 year old may, in actuality, discourage that child from further reading. Parents need to know that their neighborhood library has all the books and media they need to enhance their child's life and prepare them for school. They need well funded libraries, they needed professionals in those libraries to help them find interesting, exciting, appropriate books for their kids, and they need to be encouraged to take their children to their library.

They need to know how  important picture books are to a child's development. They need to know how much thought and care creators and publishers of picture books put into producing books that not only ignite a young child's imagination and curiosity, but inspire them to read more.

Mary Brigid Barrett