I evaluate a lot of kids illustrated books. Every month I buy dozens and dozens of new books based on recommendations from multiple resources and people. Among the conclusions I’ve developed through that process is the undeniable observation that a lot of older illustrated children’s books are just not very good by today’s standards
I say undeniable because for quite some time I had trouble believing it. The realization was slow to take hold because, as far as I know, the same is generally not true of literature in general. But with illustrated books for young children, I’ve found that most of the classic books I’ve read are simply not very interesting, both in terms of written content and visual content. They have simple stories that don’t go very far and in the end leave you hungry for more content. The illustrations are, by today’s standards, uninspired.
That’s not to say that most contemporary illustrated children’s books are great or even good; as I’ve stated elsewhere in other articles, there are a ton of mediocre and even bad modern kids picture books, and very few are truly outstanding. But I’ve found even many fewer outstanding ones among classic books.
As I mentioned, this determination came as a surprise to me, and as a result this puzzlement I’ve pondered about possible reasons that illustrated books for young kids have improved with time. The theory I’ve come up with is that it’s not that the talent of the authors has necessarily improved (although that’s a possibility) but rather 1) the number of authors has increased, and 2) the nature of the audience and/or the expectations about the audience have changed. The classic books Ive read often seem dumbed down. Contemporary authors, of whom there are no doubt more than in the past due to all the new avenues available for establishing a writing career and publishing books, as well as the greater acceptance in general of cross-over artistic and cultural talent (such as the actress Jamie Lee Curtis and the comedian and singer “Weird “Al Yankovic writing illustrated children’s books), seem to have a better understanding of the full capabilities of young children. And at the same time it’s possible that young children are more sophisticated nowadays due to the greater variety of media and activities they are exposed to and the earlier, more robust preschool education they receive.
I have not given up hope on identifying additional classic books that I can classify as outstanding illustrated books for children, but I do not hold out a lot of hope for finding many of them.