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Just wondering why PB word length keeps getting shorter?

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I can understand wanting to keep the number of pages down, because PBs are expensive to produce.  But lately word requirements at some publishers are as low as 700, or even lower. Seems as if a range of 500 up to as much as 1,500 or even 2,000 wasn't so unusual at one time.

I mean, the number of words can be divided up into the number of pages, be that 32 or 28 or 24 or 16 or whatever, and many classic PBs which are still popular have quite a few words on a page. So why such a low limiation on words?  As I said, just curious!

 :bear :books3 :reading2 :whitebunny
#1 - June 16, 2010, 08:21 AM

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Supposedly parents like to get their required bedtime reading over with in as little time as possible.  I don't know if that's true, but that's the conventional belief.  It also might just be a cyclical trend and longer books will come around again.

Anybody else?
#2 - June 16, 2010, 08:25 AM
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Supposedly parents like to get their required bedtime reading over with in as little time as possible.  ...

Ack!  :ahh :faint I thought reading to my daughter was one of the most fun parts of parenting!  :star2 :reading2 :baby1
#3 - June 16, 2010, 08:29 AM

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Me, too, Ann.  We're still reading to our kids, 12 and 10, and loving every word. :)

I'm interested to hear what others think about your original question.
#4 - June 16, 2010, 08:53 AM
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Picture books haven't gotten shorter. It only appears that way because people don't clearly distinguish the different kinds of picture books. Among the different kinds, there have been some changes in #s published.

The "classic" picture book -- the kind in which the story is carried by both the illustrations and text--has always been short. Think of "Where the Wild Things Are" and other classics. This is a healthy category.

Shorter still are the concept books, for toddlers and below. There are more of these published than in the past, I think partly due to 4-color printing being less expensive and difficult than it used to be.

What has happened is that there are fewer of the older picture books, which can and do have more text, being published, and I don't think that's to do with parental impatience. It's connected to the rise of the easy/early reader format. Now, stories for 1st and 2nd graders, that might have been publisihed in the past as longer picture books, are more likely to be seen as a better fit for easy reader. Some, though perhaps not all, kids that age, just learning to read, would rather have the smaller, older-looking easy reader book than the picture book....
#5 - June 16, 2010, 08:57 AM
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I have to confess that there were nights when laundry was waiting, papers needs to be graded and Curious George got the on-the-fly Reader's Digest condensing.
#6 - June 16, 2010, 09:06 AM

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I checked very recently (like, a few weeks ago) and picture books were still very standard in page count. It's not an expense issue at all. Harold's got the number on this. I think there's a push to get kids reading chapter books like never before, so they graduate much earlier. We once would have read longer books to them, now they read to us at that length.
#7 - June 16, 2010, 09:12 AM
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The evolution or rise and fall of formats in children's publishing is a complicated story. Three factors to keep in mind are (1) that the easy reader format was essentially invented not that long ago--in the early 60's, I think, at the then Harper and Row. (2) Cheaper and better scanning, which came in in the 70's and has continued to improve, elimiinated the need for pre-separated art. And then (3) there's electronic design, instead of paste-ups, which makes just about any design possible... Throw those into the mix with societal changes and the gradual rise of the bookstore market and gradual decline of the library market, and you would need to write a book to chart the whole thing.
#8 - June 16, 2010, 09:20 AM
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My two cents as a pre-K teacher:  I pick quick reads, especially at the beginning of the school year.  I want kids to  be engaged and love reading.  They often don't have the attention span and I don't ever want them to not look forward to a book.  Hence I pick quick books, Willum's, Shannon, and Sendak.  Later in the year I introduce a longer book, but not too much longer.   Again, the hope is that kids will love to be read to, and read. 
As a parent it was the best part of the day and I read to my girls well into their teens.   Miss those days!
#9 - June 16, 2010, 10:09 AM

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What Harold said and the following:

My son is an illustrator, so we have talked about this quite a bit.

Where the Wild Things Are by Sendak was, of course, an industry changing book. It not only cut the number of words in a successful PB drastically, but it also changed the way the words and illustrations work together. I'm not an expert on this, so there easily could have been other books that did this before Wild Things, but Wild Things is the book that hit the radar and won the awards and made the splash.

If you look at PB's from the 40's and 50's, you will see that they are very wordy by today's standards. My son owns a book from this era that is typical: something about a kitten. On each double spread, one page is dense with text (200 to 300 words) and the other side has a generic picture of a kitten doing nothing. The illustration has really no connection with the story other than the fact it is a picture of a cat and the story is about a cat. The words tell the story; the illustrations are almost optional.

Today, the illustrations in a PB are as much a part of the storytelling as the words are. Today, you don't write: Sophie wore an orange shirt with purple overalls and bright, white shoes.  The illustration shows that. If the color orange is an integral part of the story line, that is different. But in terms of just describing what Sophie wore, the illustration does a lot of the job.

Also today you might write a line like: Ethan had trouble fitting into the band. Then the illustrations could show pages of problems Ethan had breaking instruments, tripping over stands, dropping music, etc., all without words.

I know my son gets annoyed when an author tries to do his job for him. Again, I don't mean to imply descriptions are never necessary; I only mean to say that illustrations are part of the story and as such take the part of many words.


Laurel  :daffodil
#10 - June 16, 2010, 10:39 AM

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Picture books haven't gotten shorter. It only appears that way because people don't clearly distinguish the different kinds of picture books. Among the different kinds, there have been some changes in #s published.

The "classic" picture book -- the kind in which the story is carried by both the illustrations and text--has always been short. Think of "Where the Wild Things Are" and other classics. This is a healthy category.

Shorter still are the concept books, for toddlers and below. There are more of these published than in the past, I think partly due to 4-color printing being less expensive and difficult than it used to be.

What has happened is that there are fewer of the older picture books, which can and do have more text, being published, and I don't think that's to do with parental impatience. It's connected to the rise of the easy/early reader format. Now, stories for 1st and 2nd graders, that might have been publisihed in the past as longer picture books, are more likely to be seen as a better fit for easy reader. Some, though perhaps not all, kids that age, just learning to read, would rather have the smaller, older-looking easy reader book than the picture book....

Yes, another perfect answer from Harold. Thanks, HU.
Jean
#11 - June 16, 2010, 04:08 PM
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Thanks for your insight, Harold. I grew up reading the longer, picture story books. When I look back on some of those, they seem way too long now. I guess it depends on the story. One of my PBs is only 158 words, but the illustrations are so detailed that you probably could spend just as much time looking at them as you would reading a longer book.
#12 - June 23, 2010, 03:54 PM

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When I visit schools I'm told again and again that first graders are reading chapter books after midyear. Everything has been accelerated, so what I used to teach in first grade is now taught in kindergarten (and what I taught in kindergarten has moved down to preschool!) Parents are reading their K-2 kids chapter books now, not just picture books.

This is one reason I changed my picture book blog from writing lessons to booktalks. More and more of the picture books that came in for the blog were really for preschoolers, not elementary school, and the writing lessons I had on the blog were too old for preschool. So I moved to a new spot and started blogging with a new format:  http://picturebookday.wordpress.com/

 
#13 - June 23, 2010, 06:06 PM

Danna Smith

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I think the shorter picture books are selling best right now so that is what publisher's want. I do believe it is because parents want a quick read.  I prefer reading and writing very short bp's.  My rhyming ones average 250 words and prose go around 700.
#14 - July 29, 2010, 10:18 PM

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To piggy back on Harolds' wise words, I also see a growing need for early chapter books for older struggling readers. In schools, it used to be that the high-flying blue birds read from one reader (basal textbook with several stories) while the slower red robins (or whatever) read from another. The basals all looked very similar from the outside, so there was no shame in carrying around one or the other (although kids knew anyway whch group was the high group and which was the low).

With the elimination of basal readers, schools now use book sets for reading groups. And as an ESL teacher of upper grade elementary students, I can tell you that the cover and format of the book go a LONG way in getting kids to either read a book out in the open or shove it to the backs of their desks.

We've also drastically cut the use of Science and Social Studies text books at the elementary school level. You no longer hear a teacher say, "Okay class, open your books to page 64," because not everyone can read what's on page 64 (or any other page, for that matter).  I love it when I find a NF book that looks like it's for older kids, but has text that my lower readers can read. National Geographic Kids has three versions of each issue for 3 reading levels, and they all "look like" grade-level magazines.

In fact, when giving the alternative state standards assessment in my state (Virginia) to ESL and Special Ed. kids, one requirement is that we use what's called "respectful text." For example, if the standard is distinguishing one genre from the other, we can't give a story about a talking bear who  loses his first tooth to a 5th grader, even thought that story might be on his reading level.  Henry and Mudge, however, tends to be fine--Henry could be 6 or he could be 10, and kids love Mudge's antics. Same with Nate the Great.

Good discussion--thanks, everyone!
#15 - July 30, 2010, 12:38 AM
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I heard an editor, Anita Silvey, speak about length of picture books at a SCBWI conference.  She said 500 words max and she... kinda, sort of joked..."If you can figure out how to make it with 0 words, that would be even better!"

I once asked esteemed author/illustrator Barbara Berger who wrote (Grandfather Twilight, Philomel, 1984 ) one of my all-time favorite picture books, how to write a genuine picture book.  She said, "The writer must leave a lot unsaid, leaving lots of room for visual storytelling art."  That made a lot of sense to me.  Hope this helps.  Good luck.
#16 - September 23, 2010, 07:21 AM

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It's interesting, because you still see a lot of classic PBs, which are much longer, on the shelves at bookstores, so I assume someone is buying and reading them.   :moose
#17 - September 23, 2010, 08:25 AM

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These are the word counts on the last five picture books I sold:

690 (Candlewick)
835 (Peachtree)
860 (Candlewick)
975 (Knopf)
620 (Knopf)

I've tried writing the very short kind, but I'm not good at it and haven't sold any. I think my books may slant toward the older end of PB readers, although I had a woman email me recently and tell me that the 620-word one was her eighteen-month-old son's favorite book! (Maybe it's the chewiness of the cover . . .?)
#18 - September 23, 2010, 09:29 AM
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Mara, out of curiosity, are those ficiton or non-fiction titles?
#19 - September 23, 2010, 10:02 AM
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#20 - September 23, 2010, 10:06 AM
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This is something I wonder alot about too... as a writer and an educator.  As a teacher and teacher trainer, I am always on the look-out for fabulous picture books that I can use in a lesson with kids.  I don't have time to use a chapter book or novel.  Teachers search for mentor texts to use in the upper grades (3rd-5th and beyond).  Jane Yolen and Patricia Polacco are excellent examples of books that we use all the time.  Harold- do publishers know this?  When teachers use these books, librarians purchase them, kids check them out and look for them in book order forms, and in the book stores.  They become 'favorites' that kids want to read over and over.

I feel like editors are trying to put picture books in a box for younger readers but teachers are trying to encourage older readers to notice what gifted writers are doing.  Teachers know that every minute is precious and try to use their time wisely.  There is so much that can be taught out of a picture book in a short amount of time. 

Thoughts...? ???
#21 - September 28, 2010, 06:16 PM

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Teachers search for mentor texts to use in the upper grades (3rd-5th and beyond).  Jane Yolen and Patricia Polacco are excellent examples of books that we use all the time.  Harold- do publishers know this? 

Yes, publishers know this. Editors don't spend ALL of their time in meetings. Not yet, anyway. That's why books like the ones you are thinking of still get published, and why those classics someone else mentioned stay in print. They get bought, so publishers are happy to provide them.

Again, we have to keep in mind that there are different age groups and different kinds of PBs. For the younger PBs, by which I mean true pre-school PBs, texts of 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 hundred words hit the current sweet spot. Older PBs can get longer, and they do still get published, just not in the numbers they used to be. Keep in mind that in relative terms, the school market is not as big as it used to be...
#22 - September 28, 2010, 07:36 PM
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Sorry Harold- I didn't mean to imply that publishers don't leave their offices (hehe).  I guess I was just wondering if it was something that was a consideration when adding manuscripts to a list?  I was recently at a SCBWI conference and the editor kept referring to picture books as a genre for ages 3-6 and in my mind I was thinking that is not the only age range.  Rambling, I know.  Thanks for your quick response.  Any further advice on writing picture books for older readers?
#23 - September 29, 2010, 06:25 PM

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As a parent, I really like the shorter PBs.
Even as an infant and toddler, books under 500 wds held my son's attention, and we could read five or six of them in a setting. When he got older, the PBs we'd been reading all along became great tools for teaching independent reading. He could get through the whole book by himself, with minimal frustration. 

He's in kindergarten now, and his taste in books has become decidedly non-fiction. He wants books with facts and photographs. My little brother was the same way as a kid. When we picked out books, I went for the "stories" and he went for the books about "Going to the dentist" or "How a clock works".

At bedtime, we've moved on to novels.
We will always have a huge collection of PBs, because he still likes to pull them out once in a while, and because I will never stop buying them. The art is just amazing!

Anyway, I think "PBs" have become more and more for preschoolers, even though the age range usually says something like 4-8. My son had pretty much outgrown new PBs by 4&1/2.
#24 - September 30, 2010, 07:22 AM

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Yes, in stores most PBs are on shelves labeled 4-8. A few, such as Pat the Bunny, are on shelves labeled Babies or Toddlers or 0-3.
#25 - September 30, 2010, 08:22 AM

ladylind

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I went to the Writers and Illustrators For Young Readers conference in Salt Lake City this year and they were also emphasizing low word count.  They used HIGHER, HIGHER as an example.

http://www.amazon.com/Higher-Leslie-Patricelli/dp/0763632414/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1285955087&sr=8-1

It is a darling and clever book with only 8 words (I think).  They had us put together our own story in eight words and it is really difficult, but well worth the effort.  Of course, she is also the illustrator, but this doesn't need to be the case.  You can write a really tight text and punctuate it with very effective illustration notes and achieve a low word count.  Although, I should emphasize that the illustration notes should only be identifying information that can not be determined from the text, and not describing for the illustrator how the scene should look. 

All this to say, these books are clever and in demand because they show the story instead of telling it.  There is room for interpretation and critical thinking.  But I do not doubt that longer PB's will still be published in the future; this may just be a passing trend. 

#26 - October 01, 2010, 11:03 AM

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I can't remember where I heard this recently, but a person of authority (editor or agent) said that the No Child Left Behind Act, by shifting the attention of teachers to the tests their students have to take, had really cut into the PB market.  He or she said that teachers used to spend an enormous amount of their own money on PBs for their classroom (I know my mom, a second grade teacher, did), but that kind of teaching time has been eroded away significantly because of the amount of time teachers spend just trying to get through all the content they have to cover.  Not being a teacher, I can't speak to if this is true or not, but I thought it was interesting.
#27 - October 01, 2010, 11:58 AM
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It is a darling and clever book with only 8 words (I think).  They had us put together our own story in eight words and it is really difficult, but well worth the effort.  Of course, she is also the illustrator, but this doesn't need to be the case.  You can write a really tight text and punctuate it with very effective illustration notes and achieve a low word count. 

I would like to see an example of an eight-word book that has a separate author and illustrator. I am guessing there may not be too many out there.
#28 - October 01, 2010, 02:19 PM
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Maybe there should be Picture Books and Picture-Word books...   :D   
#29 - October 01, 2010, 02:42 PM

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Maybe there should be Picture Books and Picture-Word books...   :D   

That would be nice! Then people would stop looking at me funny when I say I "write" picture books but don't draw the pictures.
#30 - October 01, 2010, 02:47 PM
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