500 Words of Summer

As a picture book writer (not author until I’m published), I often think about picture books. I read lots of them to my opulence of children. I sometimes review them. I try to try to write them. But what are picture books? What makes a good one? What makes a marketable one? What is publishable and what is not? Where is the world of picture books headed?

Before you get too excited, I do not have the answers to all (or any?) of these questions. I am (at a minimum) 6 steps away from the

  1. readers who decide what to buy from the many
  2. reviewers who decide what to review from the many
  3. publicists and acquisition teams who decide what to print  from the many books brought to them by the
  4. editors who only read submissions sent to them from
  5. agents who spend their time doing their ‘real’ jobs working with clients and doing their best to trudge through their slush piles full of material sent from the plethora of
  6. writers

(and I’ve probably missed a few steps along the way – yes, the New York Times reviewer can only print what his editor allows him to print, but you get the idea).

So who decides what makes a good picture book? Ultimately, it’s the reader, right? The child. But for a large portion of picture books, the parent will be reading to a child who cannot yet read to her or himself. So the parent must like it as well. Otherwise they’ll hide annoying picture books in the cupboard under the stairs where the kids can’t get to them. For some reason (a debate that I’m not going to go into here because this blog is about writing and books, not about parenting), it is believed that parents don’t have the time to read long picture books to their kids any more. When I dove into the world of children’s book writing, the first thing I learned was that picture book word counts should be at no more than 500 words in the current marketplace.

500 words.

If you’ve read every word in this post, you’ve already read precisely 361 words up to this point. If this post were a picture book, I’d better start wrapping it up right now. Recently, I’ve heard rumors that 600 words … or even 800 (shocking!) might be acceptable. I’m not sure I believe it, though – I still hesitate to cross the 500 word limit (I’ve even coded my word processor to highlight all words after the 500th in pink, like when you’ve written a tweet that’s too long).

There are some great picture books under 500 words. And because the picture book industry is on a two-year-tape-delay (it takes two years from the time of procurement to publish-date), we’ve got at least two years ahead of some very short texts coming. However, some picture books simply can’t be written in under 500 words. Some characters can’t be developed in under 500 words. I’m not saying I’m interested in reading a picture book that takes longer to read than a Geronimo Stilton or Magic Tree House (Morgan mission, not Merlin). I have one book (the first adventure of the S.S. Happiness Crew) that I swear takes a half hour to read … and I dread whenever one of the overabundance of children selects it (although Jane Dutton – not to be confused with the superlative Jane Sutton –  does a good job of developing 6 detailed characters).

But 500 words? A wise sage recently said that “Some of the most celebrated PBs lately have been more like long jokes rather than stories.” Is this truly the state of the picture book? A long joke rather than a story? We’re too busy to read a plotted picture book – a long joke is the best we can do? Forget character development?

I think (hope) things get easier once you’re published and have credentials. Industry people may know your name and look at your book even though it’s got 512 words in it. Your agent might know a publisher who is interested in printing a Nate the Great style book with ~2,000 words in it.

Maybe e-reader apps will read more picture books aloud to kids and longer books will be appreciated as you get more bang for your buck (time-wise) – as opposed to a book that’s read in under 3 minutes.

As that’s what ultimately decides the success of a picture book, right? The all mighty dollar (or, as Homer says, ‘the all ighty ollar’).

The All Ighty Ollar

If nobody buys the best book ever written, is it truly the best book ever written? If it never gets published, is it even a book? And thank you for suggesting self-publishing. Alas, I am not an illustrator and just not ready to go down this road.

So, in conclusion, the state of the picture book: 500 words or less. For at least another two years in print. Will there be a backlash? We must keep waiting to find out. And I’m sorry if you’re colorblind or red hurts your eyes. I felt I had to get this all out in one post. And I’m trying to prove a point.

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3 thoughts on “500 Words of Summer

  1. So, I understand the frustration. I’m not writing in this particular grueling area of kidlit–mostly because I like to tell a story in around 500 hundred words (50,000) or more. My hat is off to anyone who can abide anywhere close to the 500. Good luck and Godspeed. 🙂

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    1. In all honestly, it’s not that bad once you’ve trained yourself to do it. Most of my first drafts end up around 400 words nowadays, because I’m so conscious of the limit. That way, if something doesn’t make sense or requires further explanation, or some connecting tissue, there’s room to add.

      But you really have to use every word wisely…

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  2. Thank you for getting this all out. I feel with you. When I wrote my first fifteen versions I didn’t feel like I was under pressure with the 500 words limit, it was like a game to cut and cut and cut. Finally, I was at 440. But the story lost its shine. Like without flesh on his bones and no hair and no smile on his face. I began to fill it up again and I am at 587 words now. But I have to say that I’m not writing in English…. I feel that my story needs more words, and I will not put it on a strict diet. This 500 word limit remembers me the low carb or zero sugar or no dairy programs to loose weight. I think it is unnatural. Story writing is like eating. It should be a pleasure, and yes, sensual.

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