Goodnight to Goodnight Moon?

The NY Times says that the picture book for children is disappearing, largely because so many aspirant middle-class parents are pushing their children aggressively towards reading chapter books early in life, and receiving some endorsement in this move from teachers who need to prepare students to deal with No Child Left Behind-inspired testing programs.

Ok, I could just endorse the obvious counter-revolutionary message that children need visual literacy too, and work up all the necessary bits of predation on the vulnerable minds of anxious parents. The world is increasingly visual, your children will need to be visually literate in a world full of new media technologies, THE PICTURES THEY ARE COMING FOR YOUR KIDS SAVE THEM NOW.

I could serve up the usual contrarian strategy of arguing that the New York Times story is full of it because it misperceives the subject of its concern, that just because the picture book per se has lagging sales, it doesn’t follow that published work that combines words and pictures is no longer of interest to children and their anxious parents. Maybe they’re buying Jeff Smith’s Bone instead of a ‘classic’ picture book, and so no need to worry, really.

I think what I’d rather do is say that this is a classic admonitory fable about the ghosts that are haunting expertise in the 21st Century, and about how a “Hippocratic Oath” for experts and policy wonks is needed which puts special emphasis on being mindful about unintended consequences.

It would be nice to lay the death of the picture book (if that’s really what’s happening) squarely at the feet of NCLB. But behind NCLB is a much less institutionally aggressive skein of expert investment in encouraging early childhood literacy, and in flogging improved literacy as a key component of readiness for 21st Century careers.

Expert authority may have much less influence in American public life today than it did in 1960, but one segment of the population is still intensely glued to what experts recommend or demand: the professionalized middle classes, who exist in a state of perpetual anxiety about social reproduction. They want to know one thing: what must they do to secure a steady, reliable future for their children in which their children will do jobs and have status approximately commensurate with their parents (or better)?

When experts in education, childhood, psychology, economics, what have you, venture forth into the public sphere to say that our schools are failing to do something utterly essential, or that tomorrow’s children must absolutely have some skill that they do not have now, or that oh my GOD SWEDEN and CHINA and ARGENTINA all have started teaching children how to program in Java while they are still in the WOMB, you know what that’s the equivalent of? It’s like going up to someone who is starting to develop a dissassociative identity disorder and pretending to be one of those little voices from a satellite that he’s hearing that tell him that everyone’s out to drain his precious bodily fluids.

Middle-class parenting is precisely where expertise and the authority of both state and civic institutions often have their most toxic intersection, and where unintended effects blossom like ragweed in September. The double vulnerability of those parents is especially intense now: as they lose many of their most treasured markers of social difference, they’re also waking up to just how much economic ground they’ve lost in the last two decades, and how much likelier their children are to continue that downward mobility.

What a lot of those parents need now are experts who will help them chill the fuck out about the lives and education of their children, who will remind them of how robust children are, who will reassure them not to sweat the small stuff. Your kid is not going to get crushed in 2025 by an army of monstrously capable technological prodigies from South Asia because you didn’t have them reading chapter books by kindergarten. They’re not going to live in some burnout post-imperial ashheap simply because they couldn’t play violin, speak Italian, and program their own database in Scratch by the end of 2nd grade.

Experts who have advice about what parents, teachers and children owe to each other have got to ramp it all, let advice (and curricula) be more generous and heterodox, lower the stakes. If earning your share of attention in the public sphere involves words like urgent, necessity, failure, catastrophe? Better make sure that what you’re flogging really justifies those words. Otherwise, it’s just malpractice, purchasing a membership in a long and dishonorable lineage of selling similarly disposable urgencies whose necessity was long since dispensed with in favor of the next new thing.

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11 Responses to Goodnight to Goodnight Moon?

  1. alkali says:

    The headline “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children” is misleading: they are still a staple. Parents are still reading their kids picture books, but just a little less than before — perhaps 5% to 30% less, depending on which stat from the NYT article you choose.

    I live in a community of uptight yuppie parents (I am one myself!) and no one I know of has urged their children not to read picture books. My 5-year-old sometimes asks for picture books, and sometimes for chapter books, and we do what she prefers on any given night.

  2. jfruh says:

    Or it’s possible that the whole thing is just B.S., as I find is increasingly the case for Times “trend” pieces these days. Remember the one a few months ago about how child-rearing experts don’t believe kids should have a single best friend anymore? I read a follow-up piece elsewhere that said that the experts quoted in the article (all both of them!) felt that they were quoted out of context to the extent that they found the conclusions drawn from their statements were unrecognizable to them.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I think that was sort of my option 2: it’s not happening. But this is where the Times is part of the cultural economy of expertise: it helps to generate a list of fears among uptight strivers, who then go on to inflict those fears on their communities and institutions, which often then creates a feedback loop that helps the fake phenomenon become a real phenomenon, at which point the Times says, “See, I told you, it’s really happening!”

  4. jfruh says:

    Let’s hope that this feedback loop does take place for the “catio,” the only NYT fake trend of late that I’ve found endearing.

  5. richwiss says:

    Pfft. They would learn Java. That’s so 2001.

  6. josef_kaye says:

    This is a somewhat unusual post coming from a thoughtful writer 🙂

    “[O]ne segment of the population is still intensely glued to what experts recommend or demand: the professionalized middle classes, who exist in a state of perpetual anxiety about social reproduction…unintended effects blossom like ragweed”

    And so on…are these real people? Do you know these people? It seems a bit all too convenient, this idea of middle class families that rush out to follow every latest semi-authoritative pieces of child-rearing advice. Is there any evidence this is actually happening (beyond book sales, from which fact alone one can conclude pretty much nothing)?

  7. pxib says:

    I work at a public library and can assure you that picture books are no less popular than they were years ago. I can also provide a simple theory besides parental over-interest in reading skills:

    Picture books are a bad investment in money/entertainment terms. Even a favorite picture book only buys you 5 minutes a night a few times a week. Parents regularly come into the library and check out twenty or thirty picture books, only to bring them all back the following week and take twenty more. That many “First Chapter” and “Easy Reader” books last the full three week checkout period.

    Nobody checks out that many books otherwise, fiction or non-fiction. Ten books a week is a grueling pace. Money is short nowadays, and compared to buying all those picture books, even video games look affordable.

  8. ivan812 says:

    pxip makes a good point. In an environment where all book sales are down, it’s not surprising that $18 picture books are down more than the norm: they’re so clearly luxury items to actually own as opposed to take out of the library. That said, I don’t think the NYT article is completely made up. In my own (Midwestern) small city there’s a lot of anxiety about how well 6, 5 and even 4 year olds are reading and a lot of in my view misplaced desire to push ever-younger kids towards more “advanced” texts. The desire to prevent a 6 year old from “wasting time” on aesthetic pleasure/delight when he could be improving his reading comprehension did strike me as sadly symptomatic.

    On the other hand I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading a 5 year old the Wizard of Oz or the like — both kinds of book can have a place at this age.

  9. benjamin says:

    apologies for deviating from the topic at hand, but I was wondering if you had come across the following post from thesimpledollar? Seems to crisscross with much of what you’ve argued in the past regarding the purpose of higher education. Here’s the link:

    by the way, had an awesome chance to meet with Swat’s new president yesterday night in Seattle (as well as find out who the other Swat alums were in the area and what they were up to). it’s great that she’s taking the time to hear from and make some personal connections with alumni. I go back and forth between considering my time at Swat as valuable, but definitely a part of my past, not my present, and considering Swat as something I still should be connected to and invested in. Nights like yesterday’s certainly make me think Swat has a place in my present and future.

  10. elbujo says:

    I understand it is a kind of objective perspective you seek–but you are so detached from the motives of these parents to understand that the more general idea driving this is the desire to do what is best for one’s child. This is a very common desire–it probably comes closer to being a universal drive than anything I can think of.

    In other words, you have to be there.

    We live in a profoundly competitive society, in which desirable social slots are getting fewer and fewer. And the tiny margin of difference between middle and upper management can be a vast difference in life satisfaction–whether you regularly take trips to India or spend your time in the backyard, barbequeing.

    I’ve never seen a group of people more driven to give their kid the competitive academic edge than college professors. Most of the professors I know are working on a second language for their kids or bemoaning the fact their kid doesn’t have one. The only people I know taking their 4 year old to violin lessons at 7:30 AM on Saturday are college professors.

    My view? They actually know the stakes. Their behavior is rational. Their kids will get into top schools and have vastly more opportunities than less study driven, inattentive parents (like me).

    The really middle class people don’t take their kid to violin lessons. They take them to soccer. Teamwork–go along and get along, no need to be extraordinary. That’s a very middle class ethos.

    It is hard to chill out, because what really *is* best for one’s child? Going to Swarthmore for example, is quite good for one’s child. How does one get there? Science camp helps. You teach there. Surely you must have noticed this.

  11. Western Dave says:

    I don’t know what kind of college professors you hang around with but Swat professors are not the type to have their kids being all “getting an edge.” That said, Tim’s daughter probably knows more about X-men than is healthy for an elementary school child. Which, in the long run, gives her a tremendous edge for getting into Swarthmore given how important X-men literacy seemed to be to large segments of the undergrads 25 years ago (cough) SWIL (cough). (For non-Swatties, SWIL = Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature the geekiest among the geeky and represent probably 10-15 percent of campus population with another 10-15 percent -at least- in basic sympathy but find the group too geeky even for them.)

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