14 March 2011

Picture Books in a Golden Age?

Sunday’s issue of the New York Times Book Review carried this editorial note:

Readers of the Web version of the Book Review may have noticed a new feature, “an online-only review of a new picture book each week, supplementing — but not replacing — our print coverage,” to quote Pamela Paul, the Book Review’s new children’s books editor. Paul, who had the idea, will be writing the reviews herself.

Why single out picture books? “Children’s literature has entered what many believe to be a new golden age,” she explained. “One in which the artistry in picture books rivals the latest apps, even as the creativity of game designers influences illustration and pacing. Online is often the best place to showcase this work.”
This strikes me as a “bugs into features” explanation of a change that leaves out the downside of the story.

Technology and artistry may indeed make this a “new golden age” of picture books, but right now there’s significantly less gold to be found in the form. Demographic trends have inexorably shrunk the market of young children. Barnes & Noble has downsized and deëmphasized the section.

Publishers that once got by on picture books alone have had to expand into middle-grade and young-adult fiction or become parts of larger presses. In contrast, YA imprints are booming. Agents and editors continue to call the picture-book market “soft” or “slow,” meaning lousy.

All that probably means there’s less picture-book advertising money for the Book Review. So even if the books themselves are terrific, they’re not going to command as much expensive real estate on the printed page until after the next baby boom.

All that said, Paul is undoubtedly correct that the web is a better place for showing off picture books. The registration is better, the colors brighter, the size and number of page images potentially larger. And if a crossover with “apps” is going to boost the form’s economic viability, as so many hope, reviewing the results in a digital medium makes sense.


Gail Gauthier said...

Gee, don't I remember reading that children's literature was entering a Golden Age back in the '90s? How often does this happen?

J. L. Bell said...

I think there was a big “Golden Age” from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s pushed by better printing and production technology and a mini-Baby Boom.

The next “Golden Age” was brought on by Harry Potter and the realization that folks could make boatloads of money in the field. And that focused on middle-grade and then young-adult series with a heavy fantasy element.

This “Golden Age”? I’m not sure there is one, at least for picture books. I think the Times editor was sweetening the pill of a plan to run fewer picture-book reviews in the printed magazine.