Monday, 16 June 2014

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

This post was originally published on Picture Book Den, a blog about picture books by picture book authors and illustrators.

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 one with one 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!

There are lots of comments from picture book authors, illustrators and readers beneath the original Picture Book Den version of this post which you can READ HERE.