As a writer as well as a reader, I often encounter debates as to whether old books or new books are better. One camp says old books are the best. After all, they’ve stood the test of time. The other side says writing styles have changed and improved, and new books are superior.
This is such a huge topic, so let’s just take picture books as our example.
The lovers of old books think classic picture books are the best. After all, they’ve been loved by multiple generations. Our mastery of the English language has degraded and must be elevated by reading older works. Older stories are longer and contain longer, more complex sentences. They train children to pay better attention.
Writer friends and editors say to put every word on trial for its life. Your story should contain no unnecessary word. Be exact. If your words say exactly what the pictures will show, they are redundant. Every story must have character, tone, and theme without ever feeling didactic.
So, who is right?
Well, they both are.
The beauty of older books resides in the complexity of their language and the simplicity of their stories. Many of them have stood the test of time, and they are worth reading with your kids. If you ask people what their favorite picture book is, many will mention a classic. Some of my favorites include Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings, The Little House, Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, The Oxcart Man, Miss Rumphius, Roxaboxen… If you haven’t read any of these, add them to your library list as soon as possible.
But, honestly, as a writer, when I hear people tout the virtues of old books and denigrate modern ones (often without even reading them), I get slightly depressed. I don’t have a time machine, after all, to enable me to publish in the “golden age” of children’s literature. But then I remember: at one time, those old books were also new.
So, what’s so great about today’s picture books?
I’m so glad you asked.
- The words and pictures are designed to complement and complete each other rather than just reiterate. Take any classic picture book and read it. The pictures may be lovely, but rarely do they illuminate anything that isn’t already stated in the text. In modern picture books (the well-done ones), the pictures are meant to bring a new layer of meaning to the text. See books like Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, We Found a Hat, Let’s Play, They All Saw a Cat.
- The characters increasingly (though imperfectly) reflect the world we actually live in. It’s challenging to find an older book featuring a child with disabilities or a non-white child portrayed without prejudice. Children need to see themselves and those around them in books. Here are a few favorites that show racially diverse children: A Bike Like Sergio‘s, 10 Little Ninjas, Beautiful, or Last Stop on Market Street.
- There is more variety in the art. I realize to some people, this may seem like a bad thing. But there is no one style of beauty. Most of us would say we love impressionistic painters like Monet or Van Gogh, but at the time, impressionism was denigrated. Don’t be an art snob. It’s good the enjoy many styles of art. Even books with seemingly simplistic art can be very pleasing to the eye. Some of my favorite art is found in books like Sleep Like a Tiger, Du Iz Tak?, and Miracle Man.
- The spare text may seem simplistic, but it takes great skill to tell a complete story in only 500 words. I’m not saying writers in the olden days were lazy, but today’s picture book authors are practically poets, distilling their text to its essence. Some very short but well-written books include Home, Waiting, and After the Fall.
- One word: non-fiction. We are living in a renaissance of non-fiction picture books. From biographies to books about animals, from STEM topics to historical events, there are beautiful, well-written, engaging books about practically every topic being published today. Some of my favorites include An Egg is Quiet, Mesmerized, Finding Winnie, Balloons Over Broadway, and Locomotive.
- Humor. How many funny classics do you read? Not just ones with some funny moments. I mean, laugh-out-loud funny. After all, the Bible says that “a cheerful heart is good medicine.” Some hilarious books I love are Mustache Baby, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, and Ninja Baby.
The language sings. In the same way that language in older books can be beautiful in its complexity, the language in modern books can be beautiful in its careful choice of words. Some favorites are In a Blue Room, Bear Snores On, and Swan.
I’m not saying, by any means, to throw out your old books and read only the new. But I do think we need to realize that they each have something wonderful to offer. So when it comes to new books versus old, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Choose both, and your child’s world will be richer for it.