Thursday, June 15, 2017

Why do we always assume children's picture books need an ultra-low word count? A ReadItTorial

Again, this one was inspired by an awesome Twitterer and author. Polly Faber, author of the fantastic Mango and Bambang children's books (along with Clara Vulliamy providing glorious illustrations) obviously has the magic touch when it comes to convincing publishers that "Word counts ain't all that".

The Mango and Bambang books fall into a category that's now becoming comfortably established as a unique crossover point both for children who are solo reading and want something meatier than picture book texts, and adults who don't mind chipping away at a collection of longer stories over the course of a few bedtimes (or - like us - devouring longer illustration-heavy children's books with large word counts in one delicious gulp!)

Polly was tweeting about one book in particular, the utterly sublime "The Man Whose Mother was a Pirate" by Margaret Mahy and Margaret Chamberlain.

A children's picture book from that golden era where, as well as glorious illustrations, you'd get gorgeous flowing passages of lushly descriptive text like this:

(apologies for the cropping there, the internet is rubbish for trying to grab images from inside books)
As a struggling author trying to keep in mind one of the golden rules of picture book writing - that no book shall exceed 1000 words, or in some cases even 600 ON PAIN OF DEATH I wonder when the global shift in opinion happened - and when we suddenly assumed that children were incapable of focusing their attention on longer books with more words.

Thinking back through the years of writing this blog, it reminded me that one of our personal blog faves had established this fantastic format many, many years ago.

Margaret Bloy Graham and Gene Zion's superb "Harry" series once branched out into the kind of 'stepping stone' picture-to-chapter book range we're thinking about.

Dubbed the "I Can Read" range, "Harry and the Lady Next Door" was first published in 1960 and shared the same identical wordier but still illustration-heavy format.

An excerpt from "Harry and the Lady Next Door". Innovative and engaging formats definitely aren't new!
As well as the higher word count, these books were also divided up into "Chapters" - again to get children used to the eventual format they'd find in what I guess we'd call 'middle grade' chapter books nowadays.

Looking back through the blog, I realised we'd actually never reviewed this one - possibly because I read it to Charlotte when she was officially 'too young' for it. But I do clearly remember her never complaining about the higher word count (quite the opposite - it's a huge treat to be read something that's longer, as it puts off bedtime for a bit longer and she would also get more time with us when we read it - Double win!)

So is the word count cull a recent thing? Is it being driven by a purely economical desire by publishers to ensure that books don't cost a fortune to print? Is it being driven by an assumption that a child's attention span is shorter nowadays in an era where fidget spinners come in and out of fashion quicker than you can say "What on earth does this thing actually do?"

In our experience, both my wife and I have found that a mix of book lengths for our own collection at home is vital. Shorter books for bedtimes when madam has stayed up far too late but still likes a book read to her to settle her and allow her to snuggle down to a good night's sleep. Longer books for times when we've got more bedtime prep time to spare and can luxuriate in something that's almost a mini chapter book. In fact we do also read chapter books over the space of a few bedtimes as well, everything goes into the mix and we're still hanging on in there as long as possible, reading to Charlotte every night and hoping that the day when she turns round and asks us not to is a long long way off.

Polly and Clara's middle grade / chapter book-ish format may not be new then, but it is so needed and we've extolled the virtues of this format (and indeed book size) before.

It would be great to see a return to somewhat wordier large format picture books and I believe the only agents for change here are - well, literary agents, commissioning editors and publishers taking that risk - and not just for well-established authors either.

Of course it might sound purely like I'm pushing my own agenda here. Yes, it would also be wonderful to once, just once, not get a rejection purely based on the length of some of my stories and manuscripts (because I really can't get most of my stories much lower than 1000 words in most cases, no matter how hard I try - and I feel that a lot of the shorter stories over-rely on the mythical invisible illustrations and illustrator's talent to convey what I'm trying to get across).

Do you agree? Pop a comment below, open comments are enabled on the blog now so it's easier than ever.


Vicki said...

Could. Not. Agree. More.

(Though I may be biased as I have written a longer picture book I suspect is 'unpublishable' - and not just because I'm not that good yet!)

There are handful of excellent longer picture books out there and they have been the favourites in our family. I'd particularly recommened Library Lion which is the book I wish I'd written. Equally popular have been the old StoryTeller magazine stories that I have managed to resurrect for my children via eBay and YouTube (see for an example).

I think longer picture books are vital for reading development and also for creating a love, not just of books, but of language - even when you don't understand every word. They have to be well-written for it to work, but when they are, you can sit back like Matilda and "allow the words to wash around you like music".

ReadItDaddy said...

Oh my goodness, those Storyteller mags (with the accompanying tapes) were absolutely fantastic!!

Glad this article struck a chord, really does feel like for middle graders my daughter's age, there really is still a huge demand for longer illustration-heavy books but again I keep getting the same thing back from agents and editors on word count being utterly vital and one of those 'unbendable' rules unless you're well established enough to get away with it (see Hoot Owl Master of Disguise for a recent example of a picture book that pushes the wordcount quite high yet manages to still be amazing and fun)