Monday, 8 August 2016

Why Are Picture Book Sooooo Short? Musings on Word Count




Every agent and publisher seems to be in agreement – do not send us anything but short picture book texts, preferably under 600 words. 


“Parents don’t want to read long bedtime stories," they argue. "They are frazzled at the end of long, busy days.”



“Children have short(er) attention spans – from babyhood they are already learning to get stuff quickly.” 


“Translating long texts is more expensive, so long texts don’t sell abroad.” (Without co-editions many picture books are financially inviable).


“Long picture books don’t sell.”


“Older children don’t want to read picture books – they
want to read ‘proper’ chapter books and early readers just as soon as they are able!”



Hmmm, is this all really true? Are we (literally) selling our children short? By publishing only shorter picture books are publishers making them the norm and therefore creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?


Let me preface what comes next by saying that I love picture books and believe there is a place for lots of different kinds of books. After all, as a child and an adult, we read different books at different times of the day and different times of our lives. This is the wonderful thing about different sorts of stories. 


Consider for a moment what a longer picture book can offer:



A deliciously more involved story for slightly older children (and adults who are still children) who are able to sit still longer, savour more intriguing vocabulary, enjoy rhythmical language and delight in more sophisticated visual literacy.


I decided to do a little bit of research. If you look, there are some very successful
longer picture books such as:

 







Notice how the writing in these books is not just long for the sake of long. No, they have been well-written, well-edited and are tightly structured. The writing is artful writing, not waffle. But it may just be about 1000 words long. It doesn’t feel like it takes an age to read, though. As a reader, you savour the experience, the journey into a different world, the emotional connection with the characters and their situations. Arguably, the types of stories they can tell resonate a little deeper perhaps?

By contrast, reading a super-quick, reads-almost-like-a-joke quirky contemporary picture book feels just like that – almost breahtless sometimes, a super-quick ‘done it’ moment in time. Of course, lots of these books are fun and make important contributions to the wealth of children's literature available. But I wonder: shouldn't picture books also satisfy older readers who are in a different place on their literary journey?  


Also, note that many of these examples are classics. They still sell. They can’t be dinosaurs yet. Short attention-spanned children and over-tired adults must be reading them still!

Some editors are clearly acquiring these longer picture books that grow with young readers.



Who, I wonder, will be bold enough to break the cycle and recognize that there is a place for these sorts of picture books (and not just non-fiction ones), that we oughtn't to be selling our young readers short, that longer picture books are needed too?

Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  Check out my small-group coaching Cook Up a Picture Book courses!

Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. 




29 comments:

  1. I totally agree, Natascha, and wrote a similar plea for longer texts in my very first Picture Book Den post a couple of years ago (http://picturebookden.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/out-for-count-guest-blog-by-jonathan.html).

    You asked who "will be bold enough to break the cycle"; I've raised the issue on Twitter a few times in the last couple of years and Nosy Crow responded to say that they've recently published a few books that have gone beyond the 1,000 word mark, so hopefully the tide is changing.

    I hope so. At the moment I fear that the picture book industry is 'painting itself into a corner' with respect to word count and age appeal.

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    1. Glad to hear publishers are considering it!

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  2. Great post, I bet it'll get a good response. Personally I find there are plenty of longer picture books. I'll lend you my kids, they can pick all the horribly lengthy picture books out of the library shelves from a mile off! Alas, most of them are not well written classics, they're simply overwritten and unremarkable! My son is just at the stage where he 'ought to' be starting to want to read chapter books, but he still wants lots of colour and full illustration. There are books around that sort of do it, they're just not in lovely large picture book format. I think there's also a design issue - I write pretty short books (usually around 300 words) and am always being asked to lose lines to create more space within the pictures. I'm not sure you can have so much interplay between text and image - the picture book's mighty selling point - once you get into lengthy text. It would more likely be words set next to pictures, and only a small part of the content would be illustrated. So essentially it ends up being a chapter book that's simply way more expensive to produce! I'm just starting writing longer books myself and wondering what sort of format they'll end up in. I don't suspect they'll become 32 page full colour glossy glories!

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  3. Hi Good points - now the publishing industry has moved on in terms of producing beautiful picture books this needs to feed into the longer ones too. The examples I cited for this well and some bold publishers go for a longer extent. Our kids deserve it!

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  4. I agree! As both a parent of a 3 and 5 year old and a picture book author myself, a lot of the shorter texts are just too short. The kids feel cheated when they are only allowed a certain number of books before bed, shorter texts don't allow much time for enjoying the illustrations, and generally my children prefer something a little longer anyway. I agree parents don't enjoy reading a picture book that goes on and on, but I think up to around 800 words isn't too long for most preschoolers

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  5. To be honest I am beginning to think that picture books in the UK are stuck in a deep rut (though I have just come back off a week's holiday and I'm sitting with a big black back-to-work cloud over my head). Only a few publishers (Nosy Crow would be one) are strongly editorially-led. Others seem to have creative forward-thinking quickly squashed by sales who want 'same again please'. I am going to order a couple of the lovely-looking US examples you have shown us.

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    1. Yes it can be difficult when sales and marketing have a lot of say over the kinds of books that are being published, which is why it is interesting that longer, timeless classics continue to sell - despite the word count!

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  6. Interesting post & comments thread. Add Ripple Grove Press to the list of US publishers that focus on story & that don't shy away from longer word counts. Candlewick Press is another one (see Jeri Watts' A Piece of Home, 2016). Atheneum Books for Young Readers published Evan Turk's debut picture book, The Storyteller (June 2016), that is not only lengthy, but based on A Thousand Nights & is a story within a story. Edwidge Danticat's/Leslie Staub's Mama's Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation (Dial Books/Penguin, 2015) is also quite lengthy. Generally, I find that the more serious the topic, the more leeway there is in terms of length. Folktales are also longer. Finally, I've found a few recent UK books that are longer, too: I am Henry Finch, Alexis Deacon/Viviane Schwartz (Walker Books, 2015; Candlewick Press in the US, 2016) & The Most Wonderful Thing in the World, Vivian French/Angela Barrett, Candlewick Press in the US, 2015, but I believe previously published in the UK, possibly Walker Books. All of these are reviewed on my blog, Wander, Ponder, Write, http://www.patricianozell.com

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    1. Thanks for pointing us to these longer books as well, Patricia!

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  7. As a teacher I loved reading the longer stories to my nursery and reception classes. Not only does it build stamina and active listening skills, it gave them opportunities to really hear rich language in context, so important for the child learning to express themselves.

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    1. Thank you for adding your teacher's perspective to the debate. Rich language and more complex plots are important parts of developing critical thinking, storytelling skills and empathy in our children, pivotal for all our futures.

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  8. I never realized Tikki Tikki Tembo was so long. It was one of my kids' favorite read-alouds when they were little. I believe there is a place for longer picture books too, because people of every age enjoy picture books and they don't always have to be super short! Now if I can just stop panicking every time a picture book draft exceeds 600 words! (though I admit I think of reading it aloud many times in one day and that motivates me to write shorter--haha)

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    1. That's one of my favourites to read aloud, too!

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  9. Congratulations, Natascha, on a thought-provoking article. I, too, have made similar comments in my blog. From the ages of four upwards, children are able to concentrate for sustained periods and their vocabularies have expanded enormously. While they may be learning to read at this age, most parents still read TO them so, while two short stories may suffice at age three, it it not uncommon for parents to be reading three or four short stories (500 words) per night when children turn four. And it is at this age when longer picture books come into their own.

    There are some superb longer picture book texts out there. Some of my children’s favourites are:
    Burglar Bill (1,570 words). Puffin
    Pigs Might Fly (1,114 words). Puffin
    Sir Scallywag and the Battle of Stinky Bottom (980 words). Puffin
    The Princess and the Giant (1,299 words). Nosy Crow.
    It’s Snow Day (1,087 words). Puffin
    That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown (924 words). Orchard

    While publishers without children might argue that parents should be reading school age children picture-less books at this age and transitioning them into ‘real’ books, the truth is that most four, five and six-year-olds still enjoy snuggling up with Mum and Dad, being read to and looking at pictures. They are having to learn to read themselves at school so it becomes doubly important for them to unwind and daydream at home in the presence of a fabulous picture book and a comforting arm around them.

    Rather than forcing children to jump from short 500 word picture books to chapter books (and people wonder why the interest in reading often starts to tail off at this age), longer picture books have a huge role to play in developing early literacy and fostering a life-long love of reading.

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    1. Thanks for adding these points to the debate, Julie! In our house, we too often read several shorter picture books at bedtime books. They are still top of the menu of choices.

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  10. I totally agree. As granny to a nearly 2 yr old I'm enjoying rediscovering picture books. There are some beautiful new books out there but a definite shortage of good new longer texts so I fall back on old family favourites such as 'Tiger who came to tea', Mog and - a huge family favourite that deserves to be much better known - 'The Giant Jam Sandwich'. Surely these lovely stories are an essential stepping stone between the couple of words a page story and early chapter books.

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    1. Yes! I love the Giant Jam Sandwich! moira

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  11. This is a very interesting discussion and one very close to my heart. I think there is a definite gap in the market between picture books with a low word count and chapter books. I write picture book texts and my fellow Scoobies in my critique group often comment that although my stories don't "feel" too long on reading, they realise there is no point sending them off to publishers or agents until they are cut. I taught young children for many years and I think we are doing children a great disservice if we never expose them to longer picture books. Teacher friends remark that they have difficulty finding new books to read to five and six year olds and often read the stories I read to my class and my own children twenty five years ago, most of which have already been mentioned. Surely there is a place for well written and illustrated longer picture books for kids to enjoy at school and at home.

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  12. Great points and close to my heart too! Creating a world for younger kids to inhabit - and return to - is part of this too which a cynical marketing department might fear means less turnover? But the US and other European countries publish some jewels of 'creative non-fiction' and historical/ biographical picture books too (that appeal to younger ages than the UK prize-winning Shackleton). Surely the cuts to UK libraries including school libraries is partly to blame for the lack of such books in the UK? I also think there's too much government emphasis on literacy per se, rather than giving all ages of children visually stimulating books so they WANT to read them. Financing the production of such books is helped in some other countries by library funding...sadly not in the UK.

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  13. Thank you for making such a coherent case for longer picture book texts. Here's hoping the publishing tide is turning again.

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  14. Thank you, Natascha! Great post!

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  15. Dear Natascha Biebow,

    Most traditionally published picture books today are 800 words or fewer. Writers with longer manuscripts need to consider condensing their picture book text more or making their stories into chapter books by expanding the text. Certainly, well-known writers and artists can publish stories of any length, but most of us do not fall into that category. It is difficult for most writers to fight the publishing industry word limits. Also, note that most picture books should be at a second- or third-grade reading level. Authors need to apply the Flesch-Kincaid reading level tool to their manuscripts. You can find this on Word as part of the Spelling & Grammar Check statistics.

    Best wishes!

    Janet Ruth Heller
    Author of the award-winning book for children about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006; rpt. 2012), and the middle-grade book for kids The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015).
    My website is http://www.janetruthheller.com

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  16. Interesting post.

    When I submitted my first manuscript it was 1,000 words (which was the guideline at the time) and thankfully it wasn't edited down too much. This book stayed in print longer than my shorter stories, all of which were heavily edited. I don't know why this would have been, there may be a variety of reasons. But I do wonder if the lower word count is putting off some parents/grand parents etc. from purchasing books with a shorter word count.

    There are many different types of readers and publishers should cater for this by producing both short and longer picture books.

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  17. So true. Variety of length and style is exactly what's needed in picture books. Apart from anything else, how often are parents reading to different age children at once? And a lack of longer pbs is likely to contribute to reading aloud being curtailed all the sooner. In fact I worry that there are not enough good 'transition' books being published at the moment at both ends of children/young people's reading lives. It seems terribly short-sighted all round.

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  18. Angela McAllister12 August 2016 at 11:26

    Great to read this, Natascha, and very timely. Obviously many of us have been struggling with this. I think part of the problem is that, while there is much focus on children once a book is made - reaching them through sales, using books in school, measuring literacy skills, etc. there is rarely, in my experience, any discussion of children themselves during the creation of a book. Isn't it strange that we don't bring children into the heart of the creative process from the beginning? If we did that, we'd easily make books that children would return to again and again - great stories, well told and brilliantly illustrated. How ridiculous it is to approach a story from the beginning by counting the number of words! If a story is fascinating, exciting and intriguing why would you want it to end? The word length should grow naturally out of the subject matter for a book to have integrity. The glorious possibilities of a visual narrative allow a writer the luxury of leaving some of the storytelling to the pictures and, together with the valuable skills of an editor, use the word space to maximise what can be delivered by the text. I love the twelve spread format - it challenges the writer to craft their words carefully and the designer to use the space for pictures well. And it can be done very successfully, as the great examples above have shown. As everyone who has commented has said, a longer text can offer lasting pleasures and benefit an child's literacy skills. And while some may see it as drag for a tired parent, from the child's point of view it is a chance for longer, more engaged contact. Pure gold. If making a book began with a focus on the story to be told and the child who will share it then we would have a richer, more satisfying selection of books to offer. After all, there is fantastic growth in illustrated non-fiction, where we offer children extended text alongside exciting graphics. Why do we short change them with their story books?

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    1. Angela McAllister12 August 2016 at 11:38

      Just to clarify, I didn't mean to suggest that writers themselves don't keep children very much in mind!

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    2. Of course Barrington Stoke DO use teams of children to work as editors and advisors on all their books, an its sometimes a surprise to the adults what comes in that child advice.

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  19. When considering what editors and publishers want today, we can't really look at a list of classic books and fairy tales, because historically they were all longer. Additionally, we have to remove biographies from that list because they( and other nonfiction) also tend to be much longer. Strictly considering contemporary fun picture books, I don't see a changing of the tide in that department. Editor's want them shorter.

    When I critique the work of new writers who argue that their lengthy manuscript should be ok (using examples of outdated picture books), typically their work is wordy and telling, with unnecessary details that could easily be left for the illustrator, and filled with meaningless "stage direction" that slows the story. There are, of course, exceptions especially for stories intended for somewhat older children. But a well-written picture book needn't be a thousand words or longer. When I have helped tighten some of those lengthy stories, I assure you the 700 word book is a better read than the 1200 word book. And in the end the author always agrees.

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