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‘What Does This Say?’ The Cursive Conundrum in Picture Books

I love cursive.

The problem (aside from the fact I’m pretty bad at it)? In picture books, more often than not, kids can’t read it.

That’s right, the text might as well be in Wingdings:

A librarian friend and I have recently been noticing little instances of this. Sometimes it’s used for the title or author/illustrator information on the cover, occasionally you’ll see it used for the text inside.

Some might say that picture books, in general, are read by adults to kids, so it isn’t a problem.

Some might say most of the picture book audience can’t read yet.

And I’m the first to admit that I love the personal quality a little cursive can provide. It makes a book look like an actual person made it.

But the fact remains – young readers are left stumped.

So cursive in picture books: where do you stand?

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. Cursive needs to go in children’s books. This is coming from an “old” person who is realistic enough to know that kids (and very soon their parents) have difficulty deciphering it and it presents a roadblock to comprehension that is unnecessary. There are enough “cursive-like” fonts that are easier for kids to read.

  2. You almost have to treat cursive like you would a bilingual book; it’s fine for picture books since mostly adults are reading them to children but realize that kids will look at it in wonder as cryptic like a foreign language or notice it like a design element. That’s ok though! Think of it as a design element.

  3. Elizabeth Floyd says

    My daughter likes to pretend to write in “scribbly” (cursive). I think it’s good that kids know it’s there. I also think it’s good we make sure they keep on learning it in school and don’t let it become obsolete.

  4. sometimes beautifully written cursive writing is exactly what a book needs. But the unfortunate thing is that kids cannot read or write it anymore. The school I work at has a larger number of middle school students whose 3rd grade teacher didn’t ‘teach’ it and the older grade teachers are just now realizing it. To the point that there is actually a ‘cursive writing’ elective! So so sad!! And shame on that (now retired) 3rd grade teacher for dropping the ball! Maybe with cursive in books someone will take the time to teach or show the kids how to do it :)

  5. It’s becoming a problem in graphic novels too. We recently recommended the Popularity Papers series to a friend who’s entering 3rd grade. (She was already reading Dork Diaries and Dear Dumb Diary.) Her mom took one look and said that she wouldn’t be able to read them b/c of the cursive. Apparently they’re not introducing it until 3rd or 4th grade these days, if at all.


  6. I vote: keep the cursive coming! That’s my old-school gut instinct speaking and I pray my voice does not sound as “OLD” as I once believed my parents’ opinons sounded. I’ve noticed this trend and I did think it was a design choice or style. I like the cursive – don’t have any idea if this is an accidental or intentional trend but I think I’ll explore this. I had not realized that cursive was showing up in some graphic novels rendering them unreadable to some middle grade students. hmmm.
    Caution: research and thinking may result in a change of opinion!

  7. I lean on the side of it being a design element, there for the reader to decipher. Harder for a book entirely in cursive, like Popularity Papers, but even then I think if a kid is really interested in the book, they will work it out or ask questions. And then they will feel really proud of themselves for cracking the code! I used to teach third grade and always wrote in a mix of print and cursive on the board. At the beginning of the year, my students would complain “We can’t read that.” I told them to ask if they had a question and give it a try. By January, they were all reading it, even if writing it took a lot longer.

  8. Looking through our bookshelves, I’m realizing how many titles and bits of text are in cursive! My six year old is just learning to write in cursive in his Montessori School- I think it’s important to introduce it to new readers, familiarity leads to recognition.

  9. When this topic comes up, I always wonder where are all the people pining away for Secretary Hand, or for that matter Crosshatched letters. Sure, I’d love every kid to be able to read Elizabethan manuscripts and Jane Austen’s letters, but I’m not too worked up about the fact that they might need them transliterated into a standard font. Pretty sure that’s where cursive is going too.

  10. I’m with Mark – cursive is on the way out and I won’t miss it. Literacy changes. That’s OK. I also think it’s a lovely decorative flourish that can spark conversations with even very young children. After all, when you’re reading a picture book the BEST way to read it is to talk about it. So why not discuss that sometimes writing can look that way? It can even be a gateway into understanding that “writing” = symbols representing letters that come together to make words.

    But as to readers … personally, I would have been confused by, say, the GERONIMO STILTON books. That was hard for me as a beginning reader. But we know that more confident readers often love that kind of text as it can feel more engaging and it can make chapter books feel closer to comic books for reluctant readers.

    Have y’all heard about Dyslexie? http://www.dyslexiefont.com/en/dyslexia-font/ I found out about it thanks to the awesome Hank Zipzer.

  11. It makes me happy to see people speaking up in favor of cursive! The title of my first book was supposed to have been rendered in cursive (which made sense for the title: Scribble), but was changed to print at the last minute, which still makes me sad. To me, saying that an artist or designer can’t use cursive is like telling a writer they can’t use “big” words.

  12. Michelle Coates, MLIS says

    If we do not teach children to read and write cursive, they are functionally illiterate when they find themselves without a working computer and printer. Allowing them to merely type and print makes research impossible. Primary source documents are most often written in cursive.

  13. Younger kids can’t read cursive in picture books, but it might pique their interest, especially if it’s in a book they enjoy, with or without an adult.
    The school district I’m in does not teach cursive. However, this year the 5th grade teachers are squeezing it in because they are concerned about their students inability to read and “decode” important primary sources.

  14. Of course cursive should be in children’s books, based on the author’s, illustrator’s, and publisher’s decisions. Children enjoy and learn from picture books long before they can read printed type. Carry the “they can’t read it” argument one step further and we might not have any text in picture books! And picture books are art, not just learning tools.

  15. It is no big deal to teach children (or their parents!) to read cursive without investing the time to learn to write it. It takes about a half hour. I know it. As I teach another form of cursive, italic, I include a lesson in reading it. Although I see no reason why students need to write the commonly known sort of cursive, it certainly is worthwhile knowing how to read a method of letter formations that is all around us.

    If I am notified of a followup comment, I offer a free PDF, “Reading Cursive.”

  16. I love cursive as a design element. The aesthetics in the book “Stuck” make me extremely happy… that is until I’m trying to read it upside down to a full house at storytime. The cursive trips me up and hurts my fluency and I’m a literate adult.

    This is to say, the purpose of the picture book really determines whether cursive has any place in them. Are they for independent readers or are they an art form to be enjoy for their look and feel?

  17. Beverly Spitzer says

    I can’t imagine a world in which children can’t even sign their names uniquely, because they don’t use cursive; much less be unable to read primary sources, and other bits of cursive in their lives. Some people believe that all children need to learn is “keyboarding.” What they don’t know is that many, many studies have shown that children retain things better when they write notes down, as opposed to tapping them in a computer, as many college students do today. Also, the practice in writing cursive builds essential hand skills and neural connections. If children see cursive in picture books, even if they can’t read it, it will be less intimidating when it is time for them to learn cursive (third grade when I was in school, in the seventies).

    • I can’t imagine a world in which children can’t even sign their names uniquely, because they don’t use cursive

      This is something that we often hear said, and it certainly is an interesting opinion.

      However, it doesn’t make much sense. We all know people who write and sign their names in the same hand they were taught at the age of eight. It’s hardly “unique” to use the Palmer script, or D’Nealian. We also all know people who write and sign their names in a print hand that they’ve more or less improvised so their signature is hard to copy.

      And of course, one doesn’t need to “sign” ones name in script. It is legal to use print, or to use a small drawing, or to make an x, or to use a custom designed stamp – so long as you use a consistent mark that represents you, you’re legally in the clear.

      If we were serious about teaching children cursive, btw, we’d teach it to them starting in first grade, and teach them print later on. But we don’t, because we’re not serious about it.

  18. Our school no longer teaches cursive at all. I worry about how much more difficult this is going to make historical research for our kids. Ironic since many of those great documents–even recent ones like the 1940 Census–are now freely available online. But written in cursive.

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