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.