I think there is a trend for kids to read longer books younger, at least in the sort of community I teach in. But I don’t get the sense that this causes them to abandon picture books earlier. Rather, they read both. In my classroom today I’ve loads of picture books and the kids love for me to read them and to read them again and again on their own. Twenty years ago I focused pretty much exclusively on chapter books. So while kids seem to be reading chapter books younger they are also enjoying picture books when they are older.
[I]t was BECAUSE of picture books that [my son] was reading Stuart Little at 4, not despite them … And even now that he’s 7 and reading from the 9-12 wall at the store, we don’t eschew the picture books. When I left for work this morning, in fact, he was switching between a YA title, Silverwing, to a picture book by Jamie Lee Curtis (no shit).
One of my nieces reads much like I did as a kid, so I’ve been thinking quite a bit about kids’ books and reading recently.
I started reading when I was 4, before I started school. I don’t remember learning to read. It was like an on-off switch, I guess, much the way math always was for me. Once I figured it out, I just could. But that doesn’t mean I immediately ran out and started reading adult fiction. I was 7 or 8 when I started dabbling in grown-up stories, but it wasn’t until I was 10 that I started regularly picking up my parents’ novels and reading them before they had finished.
Although I had the ability to read pretty much anything, what I wanted to read were things I could relate to: stories with kid (or teen) protagonists, stories about school, friends & (fr)enemies, and dealing with parents and little brothers. Just because those books were too easy for me reading-level-wise didn’t mean I wanted to skip over the stories. Even after I started reading grown-up fiction, I still continued to read YA right alongside. And I’d still go back and re-read my favorite picture and chapter books on occasion.
What the people who are pushing their kids to read up seem to be clueless about is that a story can be profound even if the reading level is basic (or non-existent). David Wiesner’s Flotsam has no words, but it still tells an engaging and imaginative story, one that actually requires the reader to think more to understand it than if it had words:
I think the ability to understand/interpret story is a more difficult skill than simply being able to read. People take more or less time to learn how to read, but most eventually do. On the other hand, some people never figure out how to interpret a story on their own (as you can tell by reading reviews at places like Amazon & Goodreads).*
When one is an early reader, it’s easy to get caught up in just devouring words. For me, it wasn’t enough just to read, I had to read fast. I read so fast that I often missed plot points on my first read of a book (something I’d notice when re-reading, which fortunately I often did). A wordless picture book like Flotsam forces the power-reader to slow down to figure out the story, developing creative and analytical thinking skills. And that’s a good thing!
*Afterthought: I think this is also the reason why many wannabe writers think writing a children’s book will be easy. They are just looking at the words (surface elements) and not thinking more deeply about the story. In reality, writing a complex, nuanced story with few words and a simple vocabulary takes a great deal of skill.