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Is Someone Teaching that all words are BAD in a story?

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I love wordless books if they are well done. My son also loved reading them before he could read. They're like puzzles in which you have to find the story. There were a few that we went through over and over because there was something new to discover each time. They were also very helpful in my ESL classroom, where we did write the story on post it notes. (Hmm, maybe I learned some pacing this way.)

But those wordless books are a different art form from the ultra short one joke picture books, the dialog-based picture books, and the picture story books, etc. (Actually, you can have a longer dialog based one joke book too - There's a Monster at the End of This Book is all dialog with a single punchline. It's not new.) Often picture story books are a great way to ease kids into a hard topic. I'm thinking of books like Fly Away Home, Baseball Saved Us, and Smokey Night. That some of what we consider newer forms and formats existed long ago only points to the importance of all forms. They each have a purpose.

I await the swing of that pendulum.
#31 - August 10, 2015, 12:44 PM
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Have you looked at Linda Ashman's site? She has some fabulous advice and even shares her submitted MSs. One that I remember had a lot of illustration notes and not much text (if memory serves it was RAIN! which was illustrated by Christian Robinson and is a fabulous book). Shutta Crum's MINE is another great example of a text that was submitted with a lot of illustration notes.

The thing to take note of though is that both of these authors are established authors who really know their stuff so editors are likely to look more favourably on a manuscript full of illustration notes from them.
#32 - August 10, 2015, 01:53 PM

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I just received a manuscript that has LESS than 30 words to it and ALL of the story is told through NOTES! WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE????

Okay...I've GOT to write a blog post about this...ugh...
#33 - August 15, 2015, 03:13 PM
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I don't see a problem if it's done well. So I'm guessing these stories aren't that great or don't work with so few words? Maybe these writers have read RAIN or MINE! or other books that have very few words and are great, and simply want to do something similar?
#34 - August 15, 2015, 05:39 PM

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I don't see a problem if it's done well. So I'm guessing these stories aren't that great or don't work with so few words? Maybe these writers have read RAIN or MINE! or other books that have very few words and are great, and simply want to do something similar?

I would have no trouble with something like this if it were rhyming or had an amazing concept. In fact, I put one up that was only dialog as a top ten out of 100 pb's I judged. But you can tell if it's being done to save words. It's mind boggling and when speaking about why people are doing this, they tell me it is to conserve words.

Also, I think an author should think long and hard about doing this and leaving almost everything to an illustrator to convey. That takes power away from the storyteller. I guess it's just my opinion, but yes. If you are going to attempt this, it'd better be good! But then it's all subjective, huh? 
#35 - August 15, 2015, 07:32 PM
« Last Edit: August 15, 2015, 07:35 PM by Pam »
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What about the kids? Graphics are everywhere, from the diaper box to the tee shirt, but kids need words, sophisticated language, well-written, complex stories. Or at least they used to. That was the great advantage of kids whose parents took the time to read to them. Whether it was Shakespeare or the Bible, Velveteen Rabbit or Seuss, kids loved it and grew their vocabularies plus their understanding of how language works. I'm sure the scanty-on-words books must be selling, but not in best interests of next generation, I feel. Would you make them the main reading material for your young child? Would the editors, agents, authors? And, why are the PB classics with words and real stories still selling well?
#36 - August 28, 2015, 10:14 PM
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...but kids need words, sophisticated language, well-written, complex stories...That was the great advantage of kids whose parents took the time to read to them. Whether it was Shakespeare or the Bible, Velveteen Rabbit or Seuss, kids loved it and grew their vocabularies plus their understanding of how language works...

Well said, Carol.
#37 - August 29, 2015, 10:24 AM

 :applause
#38 - August 29, 2015, 10:36 AM

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I am late to this thread but want to chime in to say that I encounter this too, working with picture book authors, both as an independent editor and in a recent webinar class. Authors should not try to art direct, which they don't do well and don't have the training for--they should write.

As was already noted, writers seem to be trying to produce texts like those seen in author-illustrator PBs, which typically have fewer words. But I still see books by authors with an illustrator in the 500-700 word range (think Sophie's Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller as just one recent example). That allows you to really write a story. Trying to compete with author-illustrators is a mistake, and I've been saying so to the people I work with. Do what you do well.
#39 - August 29, 2015, 11:38 AM
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This^ comment from Harold deserves a lot of LIKES. It's also spot on.  :exactly
#40 - August 29, 2015, 12:47 PM
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I have a sorta-confession. With so much talk about PBs leaving room for the illustrator, after having written so many PB texts that were over 1,000 words, and after hearing the everywhere-advice that PBs these days are 500 words or less, I decided to send a sorta-poem as a PB text to an editor after a conference. The sorta-poem is only 233 words. I just thought, why not?

Was I surprised when the editor (and she's a top-notch, seasoned one, too!) kindly wrote me back! Her comment was: "I like your voice in this story (you have great energy and bounce and you clearly love words) but I'm afraid it's not quite right for my list--it feels a bit on the slight side." (COLOR MINE)

I think her comment has a bearing on this discussion, though I'm not quite sure how! If I ever figure this PB thing out, I'll let you know!!! In the meantime, I'm writing middle-grades!! (And oh, one of my poems came out this month in LADYBUG, so maybe I'll keep writing poems as poems??)
#41 - August 29, 2015, 04:59 PM

Dionna, I would defiantly pursue this editor. She likes your voice and your skill. The 'slight side' comment most likely refers not to the length of the book but to the weight of the story--you know, what makes a poem a magazine piece rather than a picture book.  In your next book (if you decide to pursue this) focus on the level of problem and cleverness of resolution, and make sure the story has 14 picture-able actions that move it forward.

You have the voice. Find the story, and I bet you sell a book!

:) eab
#42 - August 29, 2015, 07:33 PM

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Wonderful thread. Thank you.
#43 - August 29, 2015, 08:50 PM
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focus on the level of problem and cleverness of resolution, and make sure the story has 14 picture-able actions that move it forward.
No one has ever explained to me the PB craft as succinctly as that!! That makes perfect sense, and it sounds so doable. Thanks so much. EAB! Perhaps PBs won't forever evade me.   :flowers2
#44 - August 30, 2015, 03:25 AM

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I am late to this thread but want to chime in to say that I encounter this too, working with picture book authors, both as an independent editor and in a recent webinar class. Authors should not try to art direct, which they don't do well and don't have the training for--they should write.

As was already noted, writers seem to be trying to produce texts like those seen in author-illustrator PBs, which typically have fewer words. But I still see books by authors with an illustrator in the 500-700 word range (think Sophie's Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller as just one recent example). That allows you to really write a story. Trying to compete with author-illustrators is a mistake, and I've been saying so to the people I work with. Do what you do well.

EXACTLY! :)
#45 - August 31, 2015, 07:25 AM
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I think authors who are not illustrators *can* and *should* write good stories with very few words. I am, however biased. Over my career, I have sold 9 picture books of with fewer than 250 words--most fewer than half that number.  Some have been in prose some in rhyme. My latest, RED TRUCK, YELLOW COPTER and soon to be published (okay, next spring) BLUE BOAT have just 120-ish words each. One of the two I have going to acquisitions now has 119, the other just 64. One in prose, one in rhyme.

It is an extreme art form, but if you feel drawn to it don't give up or despair because you are not an illustrator. Just learn and learn and learn and practice and practice and practice….and practice.

:) eab
#46 - August 31, 2015, 08:40 AM
« Last Edit: August 31, 2015, 08:50 AM by Auntybooks »

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Auntybooks, that's great that that has worked for you. But I have encountered many writers for whom that approach does not come naturally, and they need to know that PB texts do not have to be 200-300 words...
#47 - August 31, 2015, 08:04 PM
Harold Underdown

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I agree that they don't have to be, Harold. I love longer books. I just don't want to discourage writers who are not artists but still love the short form.

It can be done--and it is not a mistake for writers to try it. You just have to understand how to do it well.  :yup

:) eab
#48 - August 31, 2015, 09:24 PM
« Last Edit: August 31, 2015, 09:28 PM by Auntybooks »

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I don't think all dialogue or mostly dialogue means the same as "almost wordless".

The words in dialogue can be just as lush, lyrical, and intriguing as words outside of dialogue.

A lot of the popular and very good kids books lately have been mostly dialogue:
Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus
All the Elephant and Piggie books (Yes, I'm a Mo Willems fan)
The Day The Crayons Quit (Letter format, but that's still entirely dialogue)
If You Ever Want To Bring An Alligator To School, Don't!

I'm going to stop here because I know you don't want to read a long list of dialogue-driven books.

Point is: When I read books to my own kids, I prefer the dialogue to be the meat of the book, with very little description.

Oh, and when I was at SCBWI LA, editor Jordan Brown said he wants writers to cut out as much description as they can muster. He doesn't do many picture books, but there's that.

As far as picture books that actually are wordless... I always put those back where I got them in a hurry.
#49 - September 01, 2015, 06:11 AM

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Pam, late to the discussion but I've been reading this thread with interest and puzzled that you've rec'd so many manuscripts to critique that have this problem. I'm not aware of anybody teaching that all words are bad.
I also want to encourage others who want to write short and well. I've written several short folktales (retellings), some original fiction (PBs), and loads of NF that is short and it is something I learned how to do. My first short stories for even little kids were around a thousand words ... and learning to get to the essence of it in just a 100 words took a lot of time and patience.

A suggestion: type out the short stories and PBs you like (including Evil Aunty's) and see how much every word counts. Double or triple space between page breaks to see how much room there is for the illustrations. Only rarely do I add in art notes. In fact, I have always been very pleasantly surprised to see how the artist brings a whole another layer to the story. I couldn't presume to tell them how to do their job, because their vision is so much greater than mine. It adds. Never subtracts.

Oh, read poems.

Another helpful resource is picturebookbuilders blog.

Good luck to all,

Vijaya
#50 - September 01, 2015, 07:03 AM
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I just have to add that visual literacy is a thing. It's becoming more important every day. Graphics are everywhere from the side of the bus to the Google map. Kids need to learn those skills too. Wordless books often help teach them. In fact, you can't build Legos without visual skills.

That's not to say words aren't important. There needs to be balance. There's room for books that teach both forms of literacy and books that show the interplay between the two. Give me all kinds of books.
#51 - September 08, 2015, 03:04 PM
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Don't hate me but I suspect the concept of "visual literacy" has been created to justify giving kids what we used to call "comic books" as reading material. Graphics are indeed everywhere and the average kid understands them without being taught. Or at least did. They're fun and accessible because they're easy. What happens when we expect a child who is used to graphics and videos to pay close attention to little black symbols? To work at it to derive meaning. But, isn't it supposed to be easy?
#52 - September 08, 2015, 03:32 PM
Carol Samuelson-Woodson

I wonder if comic books were every considered a poor form of writing??? They are certainly classics now.

Ree
#53 - September 08, 2015, 10:04 PM

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Ree, comics were always considered a poor form of writing (and often they deserved the reputation, the writing was basic and done fast because comics were pumped out by the hundreds per month)
There are graphic novels that are very text heavy, there are those with almost none (such as Matt Phelan's GN's)
I love a well conceived wordless pic book, it allows a child's imagination and creativity to be put to task. I'm thinking the trend to fewer and fewer words has to do with what was said earlier, the target age range seems to have been lowered as more 6 year olds start into reading chapter books. At a round table Q&A a few years back a well respected Agent on the panel said the age for pic books is more like up to 4. The two Editors chimed in saying they felt it was more like up to 6, but the agent may be right, that 4 is probably the age where BUYING pic books peeks and lessens after that. I know my granddaughter is getting out of pic books, as she is just entering grade 1. They still enjoy them at that age, heck so do I:) but parents, grandparents are probably not buying them as gifts etc.
At 3 and 4, too wordy pic books can loose an audience. I read one book that was around 1500 words once and saw 3 and 4 year old kids laps into a comma:)
If the art is too simple (not enough detail to keep them looking as you read) and the words too many, the child often times starts turning the page before your finished. I think higher or lower word count just depends on the style of art used, the subject matter, as to if it works or doesn't work.
#54 - September 09, 2015, 04:41 AM
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Graphics are indeed everywhere and the average kid understands them without being taught. Or at least did. They're fun and accessible because they're easy.

I agree to a point, but I do think at least some children need to hone their ability to grasp visual symbols. I certainly was/am one. When elevator buttons use stylized arrows and stove knobs use little pictures of circles, I have to stop and interpret. I've been heard lamenting, "Why can't they just say OPEN and CLOSE?" "Why can't they just say FRONT and REAR?" Of course, part of the reason is to help surmount language barriers, but my point here is that words are indeed easier for some, and some training and practice in interpreting graphics would not be amiss.
#55 - September 09, 2015, 08:04 AM
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 :sadcry OK, I'm going to get myself into real trouble here, but it's a topic I'm passionate about. (PISA scores anyone?) I agree that wordy picture books for 3-4 year olds are not what the market wants. Not what a busy parent wants. Not what a time-stressed kindergarten teacher wants. But as a parent, it's what I wanted and what I would hope for my grandchildren, and for that matter, for any child that I had influence over. Children's attention spans could not have evolved (devolved?) in so short a time. Are we turning the clock back to hieroglyphics? Picture writing? I'd say environment is responsible. If you start in infancy, with complex books, if you limit to zero! tv and videos and electronic devices, if the child is not constantly stressed and bombarded with stimuli and diversion, attention spans would probably increase (imaginations too) to where they used to be. This is just an idealistic view; not going to happen. In fact, this sort of parenting is now considered unfair! Gives a child UNFAIR advantage. Let the market thrive!
#56 - September 09, 2015, 09:34 AM
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If you start in infancy, with complex books, if you limit to zero! tv and videos and electronic devices, if the child is not constantly stressed and bombarded with stimuli and diversion, attention spans would probably increase (imaginations too) to where they used to be. This is just an idealistic view; not going to happen. In fact, this sort of parenting is now considered unfair! Gives a child UNFAIR advantage.

LOL Carol. I was one of those parents and many others criticized me for depriving my kids of electronics. However, my kiddos are growing up with normal attention spans. IN fact, now that they do use electronics, I see in them a distinct lack of focus. However, they know how to put those devices aside and work.

Vijaya
#57 - September 09, 2015, 10:37 AM
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I was one of those parents, too, V! And ditto with the lack of focus, now that they do use electronics. But we still have rules for when they need to be turned off.
#58 - September 09, 2015, 11:40 AM
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Vijaya and Jody, do you mean they are focusing so hard on the game/electronics that they lack focus on other things around them at that moment? Wasn't sure what you meant by "lack of focus"? I do remember saying things to my teen son (the 90's) while he was playing a game and I KNOW he never heard a word, he was so involved in whatever evil he was on a quest to obliterate from whatever fantasy world:)
I have to marvel at the extreme focus of my grandson, when he is consumed by Minecraft and constructing Cities/Worlds. I just wish that same focus could be transferred to his school work and book reading. It could be that because games such as this do not require the dyslexic (which he is) to read, but to only think and use their creativity, they feel a sense of accomplishment and pride that they don't get when they struggle with words or attempt to read out loud and make what they feel are fools of themselves.
I think for a balanced child, experiencing a bit of everything is not amiss. They will most times, inspired by us or in spite of us, find their passion and their way.

#59 - September 10, 2015, 03:46 AM
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I meant checking their phones while they're doing homework, that kind of thing. Sorry to derail your thread, AnneMarie!
#60 - September 10, 2015, 04:18 AM
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