STURBRIDGE, MASS. — THE outlook for children's books has never been brighter: Sales are at an all-time high, as are the quality and diversity of the books. Sales figures for 1991 are projected to top $1 billion, nearly a five-fold increase in the past decade, according to Diane Roback of Publishers Weekly. Despite this rosy scenario, however, illiteracy remains one of the nation's top concerns. Are children reading? Questions about this paradox were put to a panel of award-winning children's authors and illustrators, who gathered on a recent crisp fall morning in Sturbridge, Mass., to receive this year's Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children's Literature.
John Archambault, who travels widely in his work as a storyteller and who has a great deal of contact with children, says he finds it ``disconcerting and disquieting'' to receive letters from fifth- and sixth-graders who write that ``Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,'' the deliciously rhythmic alphabet book he co-wrote with Bill Martin, Jr., is their favorite book. The book, which won an honor in the picture book category, is aimed at 2- to 6-year-olds. That would seem to put it far below the average reading ability of upper elementary schoolers.
This has given him cause to ``ponder whether I agree with John Updike,'' he says, ``who said recently that he thinks the power is leaving the written word and moving to the visual.''
On the other hand, Mr. Archambault adds, from what he has seen in his travels, ``Books are being read. [There is] a whole educated parenthood out there who are reading to kids and getting more involved, and I think that's definitely influenced'' sales. ``I think libraries may be being used less,'' he adds. ``I don't see parents trotting off to the library with their kids as much, but they're purchasing home libraries for them....''
The upswing in children's book sales, fueled partly by demand from this crop of more involved parents Archambault speaks of - baby boomers, most of them with discretionary income - also has its roots in the classroom, says Jean Fritz, a popular writer of biographies for young readers. (Anita Silvey, editor-in-chief of the Horn Book Magazine, calls her ``one of our finest writers for young readers.'')
``They're really using [children's] books more in the schools,'' Ms. Fritz says. ``And thank goodness they're abandoning textbooks for trade books.''
Archambault seconds this, adding that the response ``Chicka Chicka Boom Boom'' has received in classrooms ``shows that as far as basal readers go, we have taken the life and spirit out of the language with that `See Spot, Dick and Jane' mentality.''
When asked if she views television and video as a threat to literacy and children's books in particular, Fritz replies, somewhat surprisingly, ``It doesn't have to be. I think in the past it has been, but [we're seeing] an upturn now.'' Again, she points to the schools. ``Having teachers introduce the books to children, educating teachers to children's books - this is having an effect.''
The use of ``real'' books (called trade books, as opposed to textbooks) in classes has caught on quickly in the past few years, especially at the elementary level. Teachers, administrators, and curriculum coordinators are discovering the value of this ``whole language'' approach to teach a wide range of subjects.
The whole language philosophy has been slower to reach upper grade levels, Fritz says. ``I would like to see more teachers in junior high and high school who are turned on to books,'' she notes, ``but I don't think it's quite reached there yet.''
Studies have shown that junior high is an especially crucial age for attracting and retaining readers. Competition for teens' attention is stiff: Not only is there TV to contend with, but also, for most youngsters, a budding social life.
If Fritz is correct, and the pendulum is beginning to swing back to books (especially if more teachers find ways to link the best and brightest children's books with topics and themes), a significant effect may occur. As the sons and daughters of baby-boomers mature there may be a ``trickle-up'' effect, and studies and test scores, now so bleak in their pronouncements, might reveal a new generation of avid readers.