Thursday, July 7, 2011

Trends in Shorter and Shorter Text

Week of July 3—Picture Books for Your Summer Reading Enjoyment
Thursday, July7—Trends in Shorter and Shorter Text

Industry professionals might disagree with what I have to say today. But then again, I doubt that any industry professionals are reading my blog! I know that the picture book marketplace has suffered lately. I know that the economy is tough and that a $17.95 book seems frivolous when you need to pay the electric bill. I know that teachers are feeling pressure to show growth in students’ learning at earlier and earlier ages. I admit all those things have contributed to the decline in picture book sells.

I recently heard a picture book editor from a major publishing house say, “An eight-year-old wouldn’t want to be caught with a picture book under his arm.” Nothing could be further from the truth. My office at school is located in the back of our media center. Multiple times each day I walk in and out of the media center and see what kids are choosing to check out and sitting around and reading. Despite age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic level, or learning level, kids pick up, check out, and read picture books. Our school, like many, allows kids to check out two books at a time—one on their current reading level and the other a free-choice book. Many of those free-choice books are picture books. Are the parents of these kids buying picture books for them? I don’t know. But their teachers and school libraries are stocking classroom libraries and school media centers with picture books.

The only time I’ve seen a child shy away from a picture book is when a teacher has shamed the child—“Why are you still reading that? You are a better reader than that”—or when a parent has discouraged the child. Earlier this month at the book store where my critique group meets, I heard a mother say, “Well you can forget those [picture books], come over here and choose one of these paperbacks. You don’t need those baby books with pictures anymore.”

Yesterday at my local bookstore the display area that has always been dedicated to picture books was covered with chapter books and the picture books were tucked into shelves (most with covers not showing) out of view of the flow of foot traffic.

All of this to say, I fear that publishers and book sellers are partly to blame for the decline in picture book sales. I think their fear of losing market share and of changes in reading trends has caused an overreaction that now is feeding the decline in picture books. I think this is evident in the lower and lower and lower word count in picture books. How will you ever attract an older child to pick up a picture with 120 words? How will parents and grandparents see a value in a book that provides little to read, little to discuss, little to interact about? Is there, perhaps, still a need for very young picture books and picture books geared for children of other ages?

To illustrate some of the trends I see in picture books, look at the growing number of author/illustrator books. Now, I love author/illustrators (and I’m envious of their abilities). But sometimes the stories represented in author/illustrator works would be something we, as authors, could never sell because the word count is so low and the story is so short, that without the illustrations, the story hardly exists.
Written and illustrated by Ethan Long
Little, Brown and Company
© 2011

150 words make up this cute story about wanting to be unique and to fit in. Three short problems are introduced (one page each) before the black moment occurs (feeling left out). Then Chamelia’s parents step in with a suggestion of what to do. Chamelia tries out the solution three times (with no accompanying text) and finds success. In essence, this adorable book is an illustrated book with some words to accompany it. I can’t imagine an author could have sold this story without illustrations—they would have been told there’s not enough of an idea here. The talented author-illustrator was able to sell the idea with a little story and lots of great illustrations.

A Ball for Daisy
By Chris Raschka
Schwartz/Wade Books
© 2011

This is a completely wordless, $16.99 picture book. The story is told solely through illustrations. Cute, yes. Unique, yes. A read aloud, no. I do applaud the fact that parent and child can sit together and analyze the pictures, make up the story, and develop oral storytelling skills. However, if this is a trend (and time will tell if it is), authors who are not illustrators, cannot compete.

So what are we picture book authors to do? First, we need to continue to write the most compelling stories possible. Second, we must make sure we are controlling the number of words in our stories, instead of letting the words control the story. Third, we need to be an advocate for picture books in our schools, public libraries, and book stores. I, for one, am marching back up to my local book store and asking, “What’s the deal with the picture books?!”


JR said...

Rob, this is spot on! You are correct, I feel certain in my heart and mind, on all counts. Thanks for speaking up about this, and with specifics.

Rob Sanders said...

Thanks, Jackie!

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

You have articulated the situation perfectly! If only we could get editors, parents etc. to agree. I don't know why everyone is in such a rush to push kids into chapter books. I cherished every moment of reading picture books with my kids and held onto it as long as I could. And we read the kind of books that are no longer published due to length - Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Kind's Equal, and that one about the quiltmaker who won't make a quilt for the selfish greedy king and so many others!