I was in the school library today looking for a book to read to some first-graders, and as I perused the picture-book shelves—a significant share of the library's real-estate—I wondered how many of those books the kids were actually reading. And it's not only because it's hard to find picture books you like at libraries—their spines are so thin you have to pull each one out to see if it looks interesting. No, the real problem is everyone wants chapter books or comics.
Not that there's anything wrong with either of those. Good chapter books draw you in and expand your world like no picture book could ever do, and good comics are great for developing readers like Harvey and 6-year-old me. Lots more good things to say about both, elsewhere. But picture books are awesome too, and for lots of reasons they're just what first-, second-, and even third-graders need. For one thing, they're more like what kids that age are producing themselves: short, illustrated, stand-alone stories. And the pictures hit the sweet spot between chapter books and comics: they can keep kids' interest and give scaffolding for imagining the events of the story, without filling in all the gaps like most comics do.
Most importantly, though, picture books are great examples of good writing. Like poets, picture book authors faced with limited space need to shape their language carefully, and the elegance that engenders is just what kids need to be exposed to as they develop as writers themselves. Any kid that wants to can do plot—kids plot all the time in their imaginative play—but to write good prose they need to be exposed to good prose.
The reason for all the chapter-book love also points to how picture books are helpful for kids developing as readers too. The way reading is taught now drives kids to achievement: how many pages can you do? How long can you read in one sitting? How many inferences can you write down on post-it notes? To be reading chapter books, then, is a badge of success proudly trumpeted even by kindergarteners. Only... most chapter books at that level are terrible. And when kids are only reading books—bad books—as status markers, they'll stop reading entirely when their peers stop thinking reading is cool. Like in second grade.
The perception of picture books is that they're for little kids (and the child's definition of little kids is always someone littler than me) and that they're easy to read (they're filed under "E", for goodness sake!). That's obviously far from the reality: plenty of picture books feature vocabulary kids won't find in chapter books until they hit the stuff written for middle-schoolers. And you can find picture books that address the issues of people of all ages. (Some libraries have even started shelving some with the chapter books as "advanced picture books" or suchlike—which I think is solving all the wrong problems!)
So the problem: kids think picture books are babyish, and when they pick them up they can't read them anyways; and even if they want to find a good picture book it can be hard (and—a subject for another post—there are plenty of bad ones). What do we do about that? Why, it's easy: read to kids! When we grown-ups pick good books, and show kids that we care about those books and think they're worthwhile, and read the words expressively, and invite discussion about the stories... we're inviting the kids into a world of literacy instruction that's more than skill-building in reading and writing. It's creating life-long appreciation for the wonders of the written word. Then they can enjoy chapter books and comics at their leisure; and write em too!