The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books has put out its annual Guide Book to Gift Books, which I’d still say is a terrific resource for steering parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other holiday shoppers toward acclaimed new and recent books for young readers even if Can I See Your I.D.? wasn’t so nicely included on page 13.
But it’s the picture books on this year’s list that I’m interested in at the moment, and what I’m most curious about is their word count, thanks to Anita Silvey’s meaty new article in School Library Journal, “Make Way for Stories: There’s a good reason why people are passing up picture books.”
The entire article is worth your time, but here’s where — as a writer who struggles to keep picture book texts anywhere near as short as we’re typically told that they need to be these days — Anita’s words really hit home:
Recently, Sally Anderson, the founder and executive director of the Vermont Center for the Book, summed up in an interview what she most longed for in current picture books: “Books with good stories that you want to read again and again.” I, too, bemoan the lack of picture storybooks. 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 wordsâ€”think of Where the Wild Things Are (338 words) and The Carrot Seed (101 words)â€”but you may have to be a genius to do so! And there’s probably a limit on the number of stories that can be told well in under 1,000 words. During this time, by the way, informational picture books have retained longer texts. Novels have gotten wordier. But in the picture book arena, the prevailing wisdom is to shackle writers and get them to be as creative as possible with very few words.
Even if I take my own reason for loving picture booksâ€”they move from what children already know to what they need to learnâ€”I’d have to argue that a basic diet of picture books with an anemic amount of text doesn’t really do the trick. And I suspect that parents, whether they understand this or not, take a look at these short texts and feel the book a bit slight for purchase. Or a librarian conducting a storytime knows that he or she needs a longer text to fill storyhourâ€”rather than just a nice story minute.
I don’t know whether Anita is right, but now I can’t help but wonder if publishers’ emphasis on short picture book texts is the result of parents and other consumers saying they want them — so that a bedtime story doesn’t take all night, or for whatever reason — even as those consumers do something entirely different. Is the industry just asking these consumers what they want, or is it observing their actual behavior?
I’m reminded of the customer-experience work done by my friend Mark Hurst, nicely summed up in this blog post about OXO measuring cups:
But here’s the thing about the research: customers never said they wanted an angled measuring cup. In fact, users weren’t even aware that there was a problem to be solved. [Emphasis his.] Consumers didn’t say, “I wish I could read the markings more easily.” They muddled through without complaint. And yet the innovation came directly from observing customers. How?
Simply by observing the customer experience. The job of any product developer, any innovator, is to identify an unmet need – a pain point – a market opportunity – and the best way of doing that is by observing customers. Which means their actual real-world behavior – what they do, not what they say they do. This reveals the genuine customer experience.
I’d love it if some bookseller would put together two picture book displays this holiday season — one full of Dr. Seuss and Margaret Wise Brown and Robert McCloskey and all the other go-to authors of classics remembered by parents and grandparents, and one full of the picture books recommended this year by the BCCB. And I’d love it if that bookseller would take the time to find out what shoppers were thinking when they decided to buy a classic picture book, or a new winner, or neither of the two.
Your OXO example is very apt. It’s like Apple. Who knew that billions of people would covet a Dick Tracy watch that you could turn into an ocarina and a level and a map and a …–and that it could be engineered? Picture books are simple to engineer, at least compared to iPhones, and kids’ imaginations turn them into whatever they want, as long as there’s enough in them to play with.
[…] book writer after picture book writer say “Tighten it up!” And today, Chris Barton takes the thinking a step further. So much to chew onâ€”this is part of why I like the wide-open spaces of reading week; it gives me […]
I’d like to take it one more step
I’d really like to go home with parent and child, especially if they took one book from each display rack. I can’t see why parents would have any problem with me there in the child’s bedroom with them, so this is probably a really good idea. Because I’d really like to see how it plays out beyond the purchase point. What is today’s nightly ritual? Would the child want one book while the parent longs for another? The only way to find out is with me right there in the bedroom. I’m on it.
Excellent thoughts–and Anita’s article is fabulous as well. My son is 3 years old now, and he’s transitioning from the short, spare PB texts to those with longer texts. Just the other day, I brought home a stack of books from the library, and he gravitated towards all of the longer books, those which had a slower story with conflict, despcription, character development, and small nuances. We’ve been reading Julia Donaldson’s fabulous THE SMARTEST GIANT IN TOWN and he *loves* it, even though it’s quite longish. It’s fascinating to watch this develop in my own son–and it informs my own PB writing for sure! Thanks Chris for your great reflections here.
Thanks for this, Chris. Both your reflections here and Anita Silvy’s article interest me deeply. As someone who is obsessed with the experience of reading a picture book aloud, I wonder about the whole perceived needs of the consumer thing versus the reality too. Because the truth is a short book can take just as much time as a long book to read IF it engages the child. That child might stop the reader a hundred times to ask questions or study illustrations, for example. I don’t think word count is nearly as important as rhythm, pace, subject matter, space for the child, and plain old storytelling. Some picture books do all this in 300 words and some do it in 1200. And those books, in my experience, are the books that get read again and again.
So are parents buying those short “clever” pbs and reading them once, and are their children never asking for them again? Are their kids asking for their older, classic pbs again and again? Or is something else happening? I am curious.