Making Stories Count: A Plea for Longer Picture Books
Sunday 1 May, 2016
I do not know if it is the UK in isolation or a global phenomenon, but there appears a reluctance by the publishing industry to produce picture books which go beyond 500 words.
Whilst publishers say picture books should not exceed 1,000 words many, in reality, plump for half this amount. The proof is seen on the shelves of stores like Waterstones and Foyles.
As a Mum of two boys, it is my opinion that some publishers are missing a trick.
From the ages of four upwards, children are able to concentrate for longer periods and their vocabularies have expanded enormously.
While they may be learning to read at this age, most parents still read them bedtime stories.
So, although two stories usually suffice at the age of three, it is not uncommon for parents to be reading three or, in my family’s case, four picture books a night when children turn four.
And this is the age where longer picture books come into their own.
Books like Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s “Burglar Bill” (Puffin, 1, 570 words), Jonathan Emmett and Steve Cox’s “Pigs Might Fly!” (Puffin, 1,114 words), Giles Andreae and Korky Paul’s “Sir Scallywag and the Battle of Stinky Bottom” (Puffin, 980 words), Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton’s “The Princess and the Giant” (Nosy Crow, 1, 299 words), Richard Curtis and Rebecca Cobb’s “It’s Snow Day” (Puffin, 1,087 words) and Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton’s “That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown” (Orchard, 924 words) enable families to read one picture book per night and sometimes a short 500 word book to round things off.
Harder to Find
Illustrated books pushing and exceeding 1,000 words, like those cited above, do exist but they are much harder to find in UK shops.
And if these books are not easily accessible, parents feel forced to move to the chapter book sections of stores, where books are text heavy with predominantly black and white illustrations.
I appreciate schools try to ease the transition with early readers in colour, but UK bookstores only appear to cater for full colour early readers in a limited capacity.
The few they sell are buried in the chapter book section of shops, not in the picture book section which is where I believe they belong.
In addition, they rarely hold the appeal of picture books in the truest sense because the language used in early readers has to be simplified to take account of the child reading the book on their own.
Is it any wonder that the enthusiasm for reading starts to wane when youngsters hit five and six?
While there are valid reasons why picture books are shorter – you do not need to describe what a character is wearing or their setting when images perform the task – to my mind some 500 words books are easily forgotten.
Story Integrity Compromised
The pictures may be bright, bold and colourful but the depth and integrity of a really good story can be lost when authors are forced to slash their words to accommodate fashion.
This isn’t an excuse for repetition or puffery but a plea to the publishing industry to recognise that four and five-year-olds are capable of sustained concentration.
Besides, when picture books are very short, the beautiful artwork of illustrators can be missed when adults turn the pages quickly due to the brevity of the story.
With a longer, more captivating story, youngsters have the opportunity to spend more time studying the illustrations.
Parents and children deserve longer picture books and 1,000 word illustrated books in 12 double page spreads cost no more to produce than picture books with only a few hundred words.
Longer Length Classics
When my children were reception class pupils (4-5 years), I read them the classic Ladybird picture book stories of “Jack and the Beanstalk” (1,778 words), “Rapunzel” (1,431 words), “Rumpelstiltskin” (1,261 words) and “The Elves and the Shoemaker” (1,260 words).
Never once did they bemoan the length of these stories. Quite the reverse, in fact.
They were engrossed in the narratives and the mind-bogglingly superb period illustrations.
So come on publishers…please re-think the narrow constraints of a 500 word picture book limitation.
One thousand words shouldn’t be out for the count, but up for the fight.