Saturday, 14 June 2014

OUT FOR THE COUNT: Why are publishers becoming averse to longer picture book texts? • Jonathan Emmett

One of the most insightful articles written about picture books in recent years is Anita Silvey’s Make Way for Stories published in the School Library Journal in 2011. In it Silvey, a children’s author and former publisher, highlighted a trend towards shorter picture book texts.  Bemoaning the lack of substantial stories in contemporary picture books she observed that:
“So much of what we see, no matter how clever it is, can be described as a joke book. Some are very good jokes, but once you’ve read the text, you don’t really need to read it hundreds of times. Words have been pared down to a bare minimum; writers sometimes are told to use no more than 500. You can tell a great story with less than 500 words—think of Where the Wild Things Are (338 words) and The Carrot Seed (101 words)—but you may have to be a genius to do so!”
Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is a masterpiece of minimalist writing,
but is less ALWAYS more when it comes to picture book texts?

Silvey goes on to say that

“With long texts, often over 2,000 words, a parent only has to read one bedtime story. At 500 words a book, the same parent might have to read four contemporary picture books to get the same satisfaction—or even get the child to nod off. So is it any wonder that parents have started to veer away from contemporary picture books when their children are four or five? If they want a long story, they’re forced to move to chapter books and older material.”

A recent Publishers Weekly blog post by children’s author and bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle on a similar theme, prompted me to go back and re-read Silvey’s piece. Silvey was writing about US picture books, but the trend she describes is just as evident in UK picture book publishing.

When I first started working in children’s publishing 19 years ago the rule of thumb was that picture book texts should not exceed 1,000 words. These days many publishers are reluctant to take anything over 500. As Silvey commented, you can still tell a great story in 500 words, but richer more complex storytelling is often better suited to a longer word count. And, rightly or wrongly, many parents equate age appropriateness with word count and believe that if a picture book only takes five minutes to read instead of ten or fifteen, it’s time to move a child along to something more “challenging”. The irony is that, as well as being more richly illustrated, picture books often contain richer language than chapter fiction. On several occasions I’ve taken a text that I wrote as a picture book and adapted it for publication as chapter fiction and - while the word count can go up - the level of language often has to go down. The reason for this is that picture books are often read to a child by an adult, who can cope with more complex sentence structures and explain unfamiliar words where necessary. Whereas it’s generally assumed that chapter fiction will be read by a child on their own, so the language level has to drop to reflect this.

Pigs Might Fly, my picture book with illustrator Steve Cox, received the most votes in the “Younger Children” category of the 2006 Red House Children’s Book Awards despite running to 1,114 words. Have young readers become averse to longer texts since then – or just publishers?

Although chapter fiction is often illustrated, few chapter fiction books are as lavishly illustrated as picture books. Appealing illustrations help to draw readers into a story. Where has that character suddenly appeared from? What are they saying? The only way to find out is to read the text! This is a powerful incentive, so it’s a shame that children are expected to do without it if they wish to read longer, more complex stories.

Of course there are some perfectly valid reasons for reducing word count. One of the basic principles of picture book writing is that one does not have to describe in the text what can be shown in the illustrations. Pacing is also important and sometimes the best way to maintain a reader’s interest is to "cut to the chase." However reducing word count often means cutting jokes and entertaining elaborations or even omitting entire scenes, characters and plot threads that contribute to a story’s overall appeal.

More words on each page does mean less space for illustration, but it can also mean a child spends more time studying the illustrator’s work. When an adult reads a picture book to a child, the story is paced by the amount of text on each page. If there is only a few words on the page, illustrations are either passed over quickly (so that the reader can find out what happens on the next page) or the storytelling has to be put on pause while the illustration is pored over. So if words have been cut to enhance the pace of the story it can end up having the opposite effect, with storytelling having to stop and start intermittently.

A picture book with a thousand words costs no more to produce than a picture book with a hundred. So why don’t we relax the word count and let some longer, richer storytelling come through? We might find that children will keep reading picture books to an older age if we do.

Sometimes 'less is more', but often less is just … LESS!



Jonathan Emmett's latest picture book is HERE BE MONSTERS, a swashbuckling tale of dastardly pirates and mysterious monsters, illustrated by Poly Bernatene and published by Macmillan Children's Books.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter @scribblestreet.

48 comments:

  1. Excellent points! Thank you, Jonathan.

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    1. You're very welcome. I'd be interested to hear if other picture book authors share my concerns about the constraining of the format and if, as Silvey suggests, it's effectively limiting the picture book market to preschool readers.

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    2. I've certainly been told that it is the 2-5 year olds I should be aiming for because, apparently, picture books for above that age 'don't sell'. That's clearly a bit of a sweeping statement, but it would be interesting to know how the relative sales work out between picture books for pre-school as compared with five upwards.

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  2. That's interesting, I've never been given a target age like that.

    In my experience there's a significant difference between the picture books that sell well and the picture books that prove popular in schools (although there's a considerable overlap between the two).

    3 in 10 UK children don't own any books and I think most of these children won't come across picture books on a regular basis until they start school at 4. If publishers are encouraging picture book authors to focus their efforts on the preschool end of the market, it doesn't bode well for this group of children, who don't have an opportunity to establish a reading habit until a later age, but have developed a taste for more sophisticated storytelling through film and TV.

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  3. A really thought-provoking post, Jonathan - thanks! My books are definitely in the longer length category of picture books and can be up to 1500 words, with extras like extracts from the fairyland magazine 'The Looking Glass'. The additional word count gives loads of room for detail and jokes and, like you, I think children are sophisticated enough to cope with extra threads of story, or side character development. My kids always loved the longer ones, a big favourite for us was 'Tim all Alone' :))

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  4. Great to hear of someone pushing the word count in the other direction, Abie! I've not read any Ardizzone, I'll try to check out 'Tim all alone'.

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  5. So glad I read through all the comments too, because you said something very intriguing in the June 14 12:35 comment that I hadn't really seen before and it is so true! I have always thought that parents push their children into chapter books too early and as a result the early chapter books are actually watered down picture books with simple text for independent reading. But what I hadn't considered until now is that by limiting picture books to the 2-5 age range, publishers are actually contributing to the educational gap we see so often between children who come to school ready to learn and those who do not. Many children (here in the US) do not go to preschool, library or bookstore story hours, or have books at home. If we relegate picture books to only preschoolers, these children will never have the experiences of rich language, story telling, or pleasures of reading for fun before they will be expected to master independent reading in grade school. I wonder what the effects on the gap will prove in the future?

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    1. I think it's already having a detrimental effect on literacy in the UK, Juliana.

      Children's publishers are businesses and it's understandable that they will want to focus on the younger end of the picture book market if that’s more lucrative, but I’m not sure this strategy makes good business sense in the long run. If the children that come to picture books at a later age don't find them appealing and consequently don't establish a reading habit, they’re not going to be reading children's fiction or YA when they get older.

      I think there's a class element to it in the UK. I’m generalising a bit here, but the kids that establish a reading habit as preschoolers tend to come from middle class homes that have more disposable income to spend on picture books. The kids that don’t start reading until they come to school tend to come from lower-income families who are less likely to buy picture books, so publishers are less inclined to cater to their reading tastes. When they start school these kids have to learn to read using picture books that might have appealed to them as preschoolers, but are sometimes (not always!) a bit simplistic for their older tastes.

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  6. This is so interesting. Yes it is sad that it seems the norm to move kids on from picture books so young. And get them on to chapter books too soon. Like a lot of parenting, its a competition. When I'm buying for my kids friends I find myself being careful not to get something that looks too "easy" lest I offend the parents, or too "difficult" in case I look like I'm showing off what my son reads. I think they enjoy picture books (partly because they are nearly always read with a parent) until at least aged seven or eight.

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    1. I agree, I think most children enjoy reading picture books until at least seven or eight, but publishers seem to be losing interest in this older end of the market.

      On a positive note, Hampshire’s School Library Service organise an annual picture book award that’s just voted for by year 5 pupils (age 9-10).
      http://www3.hants.gov.uk/sls/sls-reading/illustrated-book-award.htm
      It would be great to see a few more schemes such as this that show young readers (and their parents) that it’s OK for older children to read picture books.

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    2. Yes definitely. It might send the message that its not all about improving, but just enjoying and loving books! Thanks for the reply.

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    3. Really interesting, Jonathan. And in the school visits I do, I've stopped being surprised that the 9, 10, 11 year-olds are always asking for me to read picture books to them. I used not to read them to the older children and do different sessions with them but they would ask why I wasn't reading the books to them. I read five picture books to my 7 and 8 year olds last night (at their request after a while of reading older stuff) and we all loved it. It's so true about competitive parenting, trying to get your child reading older stuff quickly. It's really sad. We all lose out.

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  7. Hampshire Schools Libraries Service are all round utterly brilliant in my experience. Lucky Hampshire children!

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  8. I'm all for longer (and older) picture books. But publishers do generally, in my experience, seem to want to keep them to 500, even 400 words - so that's how I find I write. I'd love to have more room to develop picture book stories, and not always feel that I was only writing for age 5 and under. Older children really like the picture book format, but are too often made to feel that they 'should have grown out of that sort of book by now'. I wonder if there's a danger, on current trends, of illustration becoming 'more important' to editors / publishers than the words.

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    1. I think there is a trend for publishers to see picture books more as vehicles for great illustration than great literature and that's a worrying development as far as children's literacy is concerned.

      Your fellow Picture Book Den author Michelle Robinson made the following incisive (and rather daring) observation in this post on another blog. (http://gfysoul.typepad.com/my-blog/2014/03/talking-to-michelle-robinson.html)

      "I’m not excited by much of the writing coming out of illustrators - sorry, folks. There are great texts out there not making it while some pretty duff ones are getting made because they look gorgeous. Kids are getting short changed. Great stories need great art; great art needs great stories - otherwise it’s not a great book, just an okay one."

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    2. Yes. And it's a great article, that Anita Silvey one - I love where she says 'If I could chart a course to rescue picture books, I’d suggest that we establish the writer again as half of the equation. We need real stories, and long stories, that can be read more than once.'

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    3. Umm. . . how does she know that great texts are out there and not making it? My rejections are not something anyone else knows about unless I choose to tell them. (not that they are 'great' of course!)
      Jonathan E - picture books aren't and never should aspire to be 'great literature' any more than they should aspire to be 'great art'. I agree there should be a balance and it can seem as though illustration wins out, but a truly good picture book is a blend of writing and illustration such as one can't do without the other. it ain't a competiton. They should aspire to be 'great picture books'.

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    4. I can’t speak on Michelle's behalf, but speaking purely in relation to my own work, many of what I consider to be my best picture book stories remain unpublished, while other lesser stories that conform to current trends (including word count) are more readily picked up by publishers. Of course - that’s my subjective opinion!

      I don’t agree that picture books stories can’t also be great children’s literature or that picture book illustration can’t also be great art - even if their creators don’t aspire to this. But I can agree that a good picture book is a blend of good writing and illustration and that one factor is no more important than the other. I believe that Michelle was making this same point at the end of the quote.

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    5. I guess I meant that if you take the illustrations or the writing out of their joint context they are diminished.

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    6. The best picture books are when author and illustrator (and editor / art editor) are at the absolute top of their game. When everyone's creativity is firing on all cylinders, there's an alchemy that makes the end result even more magical than the sum of its parts. I love finding that magic, and I love pursuing it.

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    7. I've been quoted out of context here - I was answering a question about personal bugbears in picture book publishing; nothing to do with story length. Quite happy to answer questions about that on the actual thread it's posted on! On this matter I agree with Malachy and Sarah. Great books are great books, and they're the product of many people, not just wordsmiths. Children deserve brilliant books, and there's always room on the shelves for more of them, no matter what their length/colour/inside leg measurement. But I must say I'm finding plenty of lengthier picture books are being published, and I'm not seeing a trend for shorties (even though pithy word counts are my thing).

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    8. Hi Michelle. Sorry if you feel I've quoted you out of context. If you scroll up, you'll see I was responding to Malachy's comment about "current trends, of illustration becoming 'more important' to editors / publishers than the words." which I thought your comment was pertinent to, rather than the word count issue I was addressing in the blog post - although I think the two are related.

      I also provided a link to your original post so that the quote could be seen in context.

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    9. Sorry, no need to apologise - I know what you were getting at, I've read the whole thread. I think my point was: quality matters. Length is really (in my mind, anyway, when I'm writing) neither here nor there. Whatever it takes to tell the story in the very best way possible. Which was also my point on the other blog. Words, art, everything, in every case, should all be about getting it right for that particular story. Telling it the best possible way. Some of my stories come out short, some long. Some lengthen or shorten once the rest of the team get on board. I've got two small kids with massive appetites for books, and we're finding plenty of long AND short picture books to read. If anything, I keep reading other writers' books and thinking 'Wow, they're really lengthy compared to mine, maybe I'd get away with chucking more story in!' But that's not my style. I think there are all sorts of stories getting into print right now.

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    10. As you say, story length ought to be “neither here nor there” (within reason), but it does seem to be an issue with many of the publishers I work with. My agent came back from Bologna this year with a message from one publisher to “Tell Jonathan he needs to write shorter texts” and I’ve had similar responses from several of the editors I work with for some years. As a consequence I’ve been making a conscious effort to write texts nearer the 500 word mark, but I often feel like I’m reducing a story’s appeal by doing this. The 1,114 word ‘Pigs Might Fly’ story I mentioned in the post is one of my most popular books on school visits. I don’t think it would have anything like the same appeal if I whittled it down to 500 words.

      Perhaps it’s just the publishers that I work with. Most of them have an eye to the US market for co-editions, so it may be that they are responding to the US trend that Silvey was highlighting. Abi mentioned that the picture books she writes for Corgi (who I haven’t work with) often run to 1,500 words and you mentioned that your children are able to find plenty of longer picture book stories. I’d be interested to know who they’re published by.

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  9. In my experience reading regularly to kids of all ages, especially kids in the foster care system, they crave complex stories. The short picture books are fun, but the the ones that have complex plots, jokes and great illustrations are the ones that they really respond to. They love classic tales and folk tales. If the illustrations are lame, they don't care so much -- it's the story that enthralls them.

    And I have kids in their teens come back to me and want to share picture and storybooks with me.

    When I was a mom reading to my kids, we always wanted to read the longer stories. There's little descriptive language and little character development in the very short ones -- they are more like appetizers before a developed story.

    I fear that for more complex stories, very young children have to turn to their television programs, movies and video games.

    I'm glad more writers for children can self publish so that there is more diversity in picture books and children's literature of all genres.

    Thanks for your bringing up this important topic. I hope this phase of publishing restrictions ends soon.

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    1. There are several dynamics at play here and I think you’re right about a scarcity of longer, more complex picture book stories helping to drive many children towards TV and movies. One of my favourite children’s films of recent years is Pixar’s 'The Incredibles'. This was a U certificate in the UK, which means it is suitable viewing for children 4 years and older. You’d struggle to find a contemporary children's picture book that contain storytelling as rich and complex as this movie's or any other U certificate Pixar movie.

      The nub of the problem is that content standards (not just word count) that are only really suitable for preschoolers are being applied to picture books being read by school age children as old as 7 or 8. Many of these older children are abandoning picture books in favour of the more complex (and often more exciting) storytelling found in TV and movies. This is a shame as, if they kept reading a little longer, these children would find that there’s a wealth of rich, complex storytelling in contemporary children’s fiction and YA, but children’s publishers are shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted as far as many children are concerned.

      I think what we need is a much more diverse, less prescriptive attitude to picture book content that reflects the varied tastes of both pre-school and school age children.

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  10. Janice A. Vailes15 June 2014 at 23:09

    Hello All! I have read the article and read the comments as well. I for one, think children picture books can be a little longer. I have published five (5) picture books and at least two are in the 900 to 1000 word range. It has been my experience, since writing and illustrating my books, I found it a little hard to tell my stories in 500 words. The article is on time as well as your comments. :)

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  11. When I taught kindergarten, I always began the year with the complete anthology of Curious George. At the beginning of the year, the children were not used to sitting still very long, but they were entranced by Curious George. I'd look at those wonderful stories and wish writers could still be allowed to write longer stories now-a-days. Who would want to condense down all of the sweet details about that little monkey?

    I think it is all about what is sure to sell, and publishers are afriad to take the chance. We just need to get a movie star to write a long picture book!

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  12. Oh dear. Most of my picture books are in the 750 to 850 word range. And I get regular requests from students as old as eleven and twelve to read one particular one of mine - if the topic is right the age is irrelevant. I can only hope this trend doesn't take hold in New Zealand. The word count surely should be whatever is needed to tell the story well.

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  13. Although as a parent and career Nanny I enjoy reading a wide range of books, it is difficult to find modern picture books that are not just a step above a short, easy-reader. One does often have to turn to the classics to find this. And it is very sad, because exposing very young children at a young age to a wide vocabulary has many later benefits in school and in life. As a growing trend, this make little sense to me. Children as young as 3 and four love language and using interesting words to express themselves. It's a natural love that continues as they grow, and is only limited by the information they are able to input into their minds. If they are offered only simple words and sentences, it stands to reason they will only be able to express themselves in simple words and sentences. Great post. I shared on twitter and google+

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  14. Thanks for all the new comments above. The post seems to have touched a nerve with both authors and readers.

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  15. I only half agree with you. I think there needs to be more diversity in picture books: they should be allowed to tell different kinds of stories and have a variety of readerships, everyone from babies to adults. But I would hate to see a growing 'trend' for more wordy books; I think 'trends' are half the problem. An individual book needs whatever it needs to tell that particular story in a certain way.

    And yes, I think we need more picture books for older children, we shouldn't be dumping them into picture-less books at 7. Comic books are a great example of picture books that often have more words. Some illustrated chapter books could have less words and bridge the gap better. That's one of the reasons I was so excited about 'Oliver and the Seawigs', it's almost a picture book in that respect.

    But words shouldn't just be there for the sake of it; there's nothing more frustrating than having to limit the scope of picture world building for a clunky, overwritten text. Writers have to earn their space, too; words don't intrinsically have more value. As a child, I was equally entranced by Maurice Sendak's 'In the Night Kitchen' and the long pseudo-scientific 'Gnomes' by Rien Poortvliet & Wil Huygen. But I didn't read the Gnomes text for years, it was the pictures which drew me in, and gradually I started to pay more attention to the words. I don't ever think I read all the words from start to finish, but they were there if I wanted them, for further explanation.

    Let's have lots of different kinds of books. Buck trends.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Sarah. I don't think we disagree to any significant degree. I'm not arguing that "words should be there for the sake of it", but I do think that well-written, longer picture books stories can be every bit as satisfying and appealing as well-written shorter texts.

      I think children need BOTH short and long picture book texts.

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  16. This is such an interesting discussion. I've been writing for about a dozen years, and the word-count has dropped drastically during that time. I hope, as these cyclical things (like fashion) go, that longer picture books will return as part of the whole kids' lit world. I wonder if the richness of the language is being sacrificed because a) kids today spend more time reading alone (rather than sharing books with an adult) and b) the big publishers make most of their money from the chapter book series so prevalent these days.

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  17. Great post and comments! I agree with the point about some picture books having more complex language than early readers. My eight year old is re reading all her picture books, she still loves the pictures but now has the reading skills to enjoy them herself. I'm an illustrator and a keen reader, so I was always picky about what I chose on both counts content and illustration. Also let's not forget libraries - books are hopefully available for everyone for free.

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  18. Great blog and discussion. I think under-5s can cope with quite complex ideas, layers of meaning and visuals, actually. They certainly do when it comes to apps, for example. Perhaps the '500 or less words' stricture might be partly to do with the need to sell the picture books easily abroad, where they will be translated into languages that are significantly longer.

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  19. Kate Priestley16 June 2014 at 14:21

    This is a really interesting discussion and a topic that's been worrying me lately as a Children's Librarian. Over the last couple of years I'm being increasingly asked for easier picture books by families visiting the library. It seems that most of these are families who don't have English as a first language but are very keen to learn. They want to read picture books to their children but lack the language skills themselves to cope with the longer stories. We've had to buy lots more or the most basic books like Eric Hill and Rod Campbell. Having done a weekely storytime for nearly 20 years I've also noticed a marked decline in the ability of young children to sit and listen to a story in a group situation. This could be a language issue again and also partly to do with 3 year-olds all being at nursery now, but even so I think some of them lack reading stamina and these are the ones whose parents and carers are actively encouraging them to read.

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  20. What an interesting combination of blog and comments. I found myself agreeing and disagreeing! I feel some of the longer picture books are simply verbose, without adding much to the story. Perhaps the packaged TV and film spin-off picture books are particularly guilty? Whilst a short picture book can be akin to poetry – so much can be said in so few words because space is left for the reader (and listener) to fill in the gaps. These ‘gaps’ are provided in the illustrations, words and concepts.

    Therefore thought-provoking older picture books can have few words. I think ‘Varmint’ (Helen Ward and Marc Craste, Templar, 2007) is a good example of this. You have to ‘read’ the words and pictures and extrapolate further using your own knowledge of the world, over population and environmental issues. This is not a picture book for the under-fives. Thus perhaps it’s a case of persuading parents and book buyers that fewer words do not necessarily equate with easier stories.

    Having said that, fewer words for the under-fives can also mean a richer story. Would a book like ‘This Is Not My Hat’ (Jon Klassen, 2012) be as thought provoking if there were more words? It’s the ‘gaps’ that enrich the story.

    Now that I’ve given support to ‘strong’ books with few words, I’ll also agree that a variety is best because this encourages different types of stories. The more quality stories the better, regardless of word count!

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    1. "The more quality stories the better, regardless of word count!"
      Hear! Hear!

      I wrote the post to make the case for diversity. I certainly don't think all picture book stories would benefit from having a longer word count.

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  21. Great post and comments! How I wish the market would turn back to higher word counts. Why can’t there be two levels of picture books: short fun ones for story time and more extensive ones for older readers who also happen to enjoy beautiful art? My favorite picture books have always been the longer ones and unfortunately, those are the kind I like to write, as well. I can’t even imagine what a loss it would be to chop half the words out of Miss Rumphius, or Library Lion, or Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride.

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  22. I just completed the second picture book for Boyds Mills Press about two cousins, Bobbie and Joanie, and their adventures. Each book is a little over one thousand words. Why? Because the plot needed that many words to tell the story in the best and most fun way possible. I've written and illustrated shorter picture books that were fine. But I also find the trend towards the very, very short to be disconcerting in that I tend to think of those books often as a series of visual gags tucked neatly into a book form. After raising three kids and reading bedtime stories for years, I can tell you for certain that kids really do enjoy longer stories, interesting story arcs, and complex illustrations that they can lose themselves in.

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  23. Coming a bit late to this, but thanks for bringing this up, Jonathan. I've also experienced prejudice against longer texts in recent years, but editors still want a story - which means writing shorter texts in which the pictures have to carry more narrative. I enjoy the challenge, but find there is less opportunity for word play as a result.

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  24. Wow, so much to think about! In my experience, and what I've been hearing recently from publishers (vis the SCBWI Professional Series picture book panel just last Tuesday), what it boils down to is that because picture books are co-edition led, UK publishers' Rights teams are asking Editors for shorter texts because that is what foreign customers are requesting and what they can sell. It's interesting, though, that this trend is also the case in the US market, because they aren't as dependent on co-editions for their own lists and secondly, because the US do have a well-established market for longer picture books, especially in the non-fiction genre (which was mentioned recently on Picture Book Den). Still, the fact remains that US editors, too, are after shorter books and consequently this impacts on UK publishers, because their pie in the sky Rights sale is one to America due to its large market share. I also wonder if there isn't a perhaps misguided sense that today's children have shorter attention spans due to competition from other media and our modern society's compunction towards instant gratification? Also, an inkling that parents are harried and haven't got time to read longer books? Not that I necessarily agree, but... sad, but true, editors are demanding 500 word-count picture book texts and if we want to sell our work, what can be done? The tide must change somehow - someone will no doubt break the mould and create a must-have longer picture book that will then have all editors jumping through hoops for the ones languishing in our bottom drawers for just such an opportunity! So, now, there's a challenge...

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    1. Great to have an editor's perspective, Natascha (although I know you're an author as well!).

      Rights departments do seem to wield an awful lot of power these days. Several of my stories that editors and UK sales teams have liked have been torpedoed by Rights department who don’t think they will sell abroad.

      I worry that this emphasis on appealing to the varying preferences of overseas markets is resulting in a trend towards ‘lowest common denominator’ stories that are less appealing to UK readers than they might otherwise have been.

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  25. Exactly - that's the problem with writing to fit a 'brief'. As other commentators have said, the strongest books are just right because they are the story you want to tell rather than something written to fit into a mould that is not the right shape.

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  26. I wonder if I could comment here as an agent. Yes, most publishers are asking for shorter texts - I've been told in the past that it's to do with the coming into the marketplace of parents of new babies who may not be confident readers themselves but who want to do the right thing and read to their babies. Shorter texts are easier for them to handle. But as with the second 'unbreakable' rule of picture book text writing - Don't Write Rhyming Texts - there are always going to be exceptions made for an exceptional text.

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    1. That's a really interesting insight and something I hadn't considered before. I accept that picture books need to cater to parents of different reading abilities just as much as children of different reading abilities. However I still think the market is big enough to accommodate both short, simple stories and longer, more complex stories for more able readers (child or adult). I think the current 'lowest common denominator' approach of only taking shorter texts is likely to turn more able readers off picture books, thus reducing the market in the long term.

      With regard to rhyming texts - about a quarter of my picture books rhyme (and ALL of my pop-ups) so I'm pleased to say that's one rule that my publishers allow me to break on a regular basis.

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  27. You make lots of interesting points. As many previous commentators have indicated, a lot depends on age, content and the way the book will be used. Too many picture books are advertised as bedtime stories when they are better suited for classroom read alouds or story time books. My books are nonfiction so that introduces another dimension. Bottom line for me is that the word length should be what it needs to be without taking away from the message that the illustrations have already conveyed. I agree that the text should not be wordy, but it needs to have enough meat to convey everything that the writer needs to clearly communicate.

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