More Picture Book Mulling

by Erin on November 21, 2011

in Musings, Overheard

(via Flickr)

There’s so much great discussion about picture books happening online during Picture Book Month. I posted links recently to two places that were generating discussion, and now Kirkus has done a much more thorough roundup. I absolutely love the convergence of this month and PiBoIdMo, as it feels like there’s a lot of positive stuff about picture books being shared (including this wise and fun weekend post from our own Ammi-Joan Paquette!), and I hear a new excitement in my picture-book-writing-clients’ voices these days. Last week the Oprah Blog even got on board with praising picture books as important parts of children’s lives.

Never for one moment do I doubt that importance…and yet perhaps because an inherent, unshakable belief in their meaning is imperative to me doing my job well (!), my thoughts about picture books and their place on the market have been swirling around something slightly different.

I propose that the discussion about picture books and the shrinking market and what we should do about it would be clarified if we talked about two different subcategories of books: “picture books” and “illustrated storybooks.”

This is the kind of discussion that often dominates Mock Caldecott Awards (such as here on the Calling Caldecott blog), because the Caldecott terms and criteria define “a picture book for children” as “distinguished from other books with illustrations” in that it “essentially provides the child with a visual experience.” (Presumably these discussions are part of the actual Caldecott Awards discussions, too, but those are done behind closed doors.)

It’s that “essentially” that rings the loudest to me. The experience is essentially visual. And so it makes sense that in the efforts to get to the highest level of the form, the word count has been drastically cut over recent years. (I’ve sold just one picture book that is more than 600 words in well over two years; a good number of them have had fewer than 300 words.)

I don’t think this is entirely a bad thing. The short picture book form is, in my mind, going through a renaissance—or perhaps “distillation” is a better word. We are seeing, in Anita Silvey’s words, “the subtle interplay between text and art” improve and improve in so many of the picture books published recently. There is so much meaning left unstated in subtle picture books such as Grandpa Green, All the World, The Quiet Book, and Stars. There is so much left to be hilariously imagined from the jumping off points of Shark Vs. Train, I Want My Hat Back, and Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! There is a richness of experience in this reading despite the short texts, and I do think more is revealed to the child reader in repeated readings and in the imaginative play and discussion that stems from them.

What we are missing, though, are those illustrated storybooks, I think of Patricia Polacco as the quintessential creator of storybooks. (Oh, Pink and Say! The Keeping Quilt!) Like Anita Silvey and so many others, I miss these longer-form picture books—those that are perhaps not “essentially visual,” but which use visuals to enhance the reading experience. This is the space where children learn more about story, about plot, about description—where they begin to take what they felt instinctually with shorter books and integrate into their understanding before they are reading chapter books and novels on their own.  Of course Patricia Polacco is still creating storybooks, and many others as well, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Even Kevin Henkes, whose Chrysanthemum is nearly 1,200 words, has kept to lower word counts for his more recent picture books.

I wish I could pinpoint why these longer books don’t seem viable in today’s market, but regardless of the reason, I wish I could change it. And I will do my part in getting wheels turning where I can, when I can, in that direction.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Sandi Hershenson November 21, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I have to agree with your perspective. As an author, I enjoy writing a longer story. Since I am very far from an illustrator, I tell my stories through words, and I hope that a publisher can match me up with an illustrator who can enhance what I have created. I often feel that when I edit to make a particular word count, I am losing details that can only create a richer story. As a parent, I love snuggling with my kids for longer than 3 minutes at a time while enjoying a story. As they get older and their attention span is longer (but not quiet long enough for a chapter book), they need longer stories too.


Sandi Hershenson November 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Out of curiosity. . . does this mean that you would entertain longer submissions?


Erin November 21, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I’ve got no lack of clients who have longer pieces in the drawer, so I’m afraid not at this point. But thank you for asking, and for commenting!


Mary November 21, 2011 at 5:41 pm

Thanks Erin.
I’m an author with a couple such books in my drawer. I have always loved them and it is the type of book I most enjoy writing. Sometimes I wonder if I am too nostalgic and that our kids are growing up in a world so much faster-paced that these books no longer appeal to them. I hope not. But I wonder.


Cathy Mealey November 22, 2011 at 7:29 am

I worry that these wonderful, tightly crafted, distilled books are getting kids addicted to the quick read and the one-two punchline. Children rush through the glorious illustrations to get to the ‘joke’ at the end. I watch them check out huge stacks of books from the library saying “I can read all these in a day!” because they are reinforced for reading in quantity. Having gulped down the story like sugar candy, they can summarize an entire book with two sentences. As a parent, it is difficult to justify spending $17 on a beautiful book that will be read once in 6 minutes. Although it is always thrilling to see children excited about books and reading, I do fear for the future of middle grade if we do not cultivate love of some longer stories for the very young.


Erin November 22, 2011 at 8:43 am

I have a client who told me about one of her children who adores longer picture books and reads them over and over, and another who loves the short ones and likewise reads them over and over. I can’t speak to the kids reading them once and casting them aside, but I do hear a lot about those that become favorites. I posted recently on Facebook about a friend of mine who hid his daughter’s copy of Shark Vs. Train because he was so sick of reading it with her several times every single night; she couldn’t get enough of it! And the reading of it expanded into a whole experience–pages where they each had to make up their own scenarios, and voices that had to used here or there, spots that she read and spots that he read.


Cathy Mealey November 22, 2011 at 9:27 am

Your friend is an extraordinary parent! I hope more parents will invest the time and energy to do that creative exercise with favorite books. It is not always easy to muster that originality and dedication at bedtime!


Susan Bearman November 22, 2011 at 9:54 am

It seems to me there should be room for both. I love picture books. I think the interplay between words and art should be ageless. And I’m not just talking about an adult’s ability to enjoy a children’s picture book, but the deliberate creation of picture books for audiences of all ages and levels of sophistication. We draw to many lines and limits in our world today. We should expanding, not contracting.


Tamara Smith November 22, 2011 at 12:29 pm

I love this post. I LOVE the magical alchemy of the text and art and child. And as a wordy (!) picture book writer, your words inspire me to embrace the work I need to do to create that subtle meaning.

Thank you, Erin.


Cynthia Levinson November 22, 2011 at 8:53 pm

I really appreciate this distinction, Erin. Yesterday, I read RUMPELSTILTSKIN’S DAUGHTER to my 5-year-old granddaughter. We both really enjoyed it; it spans several generations and contains plot twists that would be impossible to incorporate into many fewer words. I didn’t count the number of them but knew that it must be an oldie because there are a lot of them! Turns out it was published in 1997. It’s a fun illustrated story book for slightly older kids. At the same time, I became impatient with some repeated phrases (“and the valets and the guards” or something like that, who always accompany the king), which felt a bit amateurish (said the writer who’s never published either a picture book or a story book!). Maybe there will be a market some day for the, say, 1200-word story book that, through use of integrated illustrations that take the place of repeated valets and guards, would be more “efficient” than the one I read my granddaughter but also convey a more complex story line.


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