In the 18-plus years I’ve been a bookseller, the average word count in picture books has dropped, and dropped again, and dropped again. When we opened the bookstore in the mid-1990s, 1,500 words was at the upper limit of what was considered to be an acceptable length. Now that’s a laughable number, and the general rule of thumb is that you’d better watch yourself if you’re over 500.
Why are we so bent on brief? Is it because children have shorter attention spans? (They do. We all do. Or do we?) Is it because parents are working harder than ever and are too tired to face long reading sessions at bedtime with their kids? Possibly. Or is it because we are currently experiencing a trend of short, meta, funny picture books that don’t unfold a story with characters so much as riff on a clever idea? That’s a teeny piece of it, surely.
If William Steig were to come along now, he likely would be told either to take a strong paring knife to Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1425 words) or develop it into a chapter book. And Robert McCloskey, with 1,042 words in Blueberries for Sal? Better chop a few kerplinks, buddy. And Bill Peet, bringing Chester the Worldly Pig to a publishing house today? Are you kidding me with those 3,042 words? Get out of my office! And yet, children today still love all of those books with the happy fervor and attention span of children from the eras in which those books were written.
Authors need to earn those word counts, of course. Most manuscripts clocking in with high numbers truly don’t need nearly all of those words to tell their story. But someone like Kate DiCamillo can spin a tale like Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken in 1,419 words and earn all of them.
I worry that we are underestimating our kids, and in doing so, both pandering to the myths and acceding to the realities of the shorter attention span. Yes, we really do struggle to compete with every other form of entertainment out there. And yes, parents who always read three books at bedtime to their children might dread a really long one. But every single person reading this blog post is someone who understands the magic of a book that connects to your heart and soul, that sweeps your imagination to new places, that tells a worthwhile and memorable story. Those books live in us for a lifetime.
What are some of the long picture books the children you read to love (and sit still for)?