WRITING FEATURE Picture Book Word Counts… Is Less More?

When Jon Cox started writing picture book texts a few years ago, 
one of the first questions he asked was, ‘How long should my stories be?’ 

Looking at the classic books on my shelf, I saw a huge variation in length, from Rosie’s Walk’s ultra-economical 32 words to the extravagance of The Cat in the Hat’s 1,621 words. This was great! It surely meant that I could do what so much of the advice seemed to recommend – make your story as long as it needs to be. Most of my early texts were between 700 and 1,100 words. To me, that was what the stories needed. Sorted.

But, the more I researched, and the more people I spoke to, the more it became clear that texts of this length are not what most publishers are looking for. Obviously, literary economy is key to writing a killer picture book, but it seemed unhelpfully restrictive to writers that the upper limit was so low. It made me wonder what average text lengths of picture books published today actually are, and if this has changed from the past.

Says who?

Scour the internet and you’ll find a lot of suggestions from writers about ideal word counts. Most agree on a 400-600-word target, with 500 words the ‘sweet spot’. Most publishers, though, don’t specify maximum word lengths for picture book texts – Penny Morris, Associate Publisher of Macmillan Children’s, for example, told me that it depends entirely on the individual story and how many words it ‘needs’.

Sometimes it is argued that parents want shorter stories these days because they are so busy, but I’ve yet to see any convincing research to show this. From personal experience, when my children were young, they were never content with less than ten or so minutes of reading at bedtime – if a story was really short, they’d always demand another!

Picture book author John Condon (whose The Pirates Are Coming! was recently published by Nosy Crow) does admit to occasional underhand tactics at the end of a long day.
I end up skipping bits in the hope my son doesn't notice. Now that he’s learning to read, he’s aware I’m doing it, so I will have to resort to hiding the high word count books each night.
But he feels that, as a writer, he has a reasonable amount of freedom:
Lots of people talk about 500 words, but I actually don't remember my agent or any of the editors I have worked with putting that specific limitation on word count. Between 500 and 660 words (which all of my current stories now are) feels very comfortable for me.
The Pirates are Coming! written by John Condon and illustrated by Matt Hunt

Editor Laura Roberts (who has worked for Bloomsbury, Macmillan and Egmont) feels that picture book texts have got shorter over the past few years. She puts the trend down to a desire from publishers,
…to sharpen up narrative and language to create a more immediate tone and delivery of story, especially since humour and wit are playing quite a key role now in picture books.
She continues:
Another reason is there has arguably been more of an emphasis on the artistry of picture books in recent years and an increased desire to make the pictures do much more of the work. Picture books have become a real collectable adult purchase.
Laura recommends aiming for 550-600 words, and not exceeding 750.
It’s easier to trim words down in a text than put more in, so my advice would be to write what you want to write and an editor can always help edit down if necessary.

Things ain’t what they use to be… or are they?

But has there actually been a significant falling off of word counts? I did a piece of (not particularly scientific) research using the word counts I could find for some of the most enduring picture books from the 1920s to today. The samples aren’t large and I may have made errors – but the results, I think, are interesting nevertheless. (Note: I excluded outliers – wordless books, board books and texts over 2,000 words).

Average length
Sample size
under 400 words
999 words
617 words
540 words
513 words
643 words
604 words
539 words

To pick out a few salient points…

* Early picture books were really long! It is true that William Nicholson’s Clever Bill (1926) comes in at a trim 193 words, but that’s very much an exception. Most early classics positively sprawl – Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag (1928; 965 words) and Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain by Edward Ardizzone (1936; 1,551 words). This was a period of transition from the idea of the illustrated story to the modern concept of the pictures having at least equal billing with the text. Lovely though the artwork is, the stories could usually stand alone and not suffer unduly.

* The average length of a picture book since the 1950s has not changed hugely, varying only between 513–643 words on average in the last 70 years. The genre, as we know it today, become properly bedded in after World War II.

* There has, though, been a clear dropping of word lengths since the 1990s (though only to levels common in the 1970s and 80s).

* Rarely have more than one quarter of published picture books fallen within the 400–600-word range. There has always been considerable variation. Nevertheless, the number of 600+ word books has been on an approximately downward trajectory for decades.

That was then…

I’ll be honest. I think my texts have improved since I realised that – like many newbies – I was coming in with word counts higher than the expected norm. A few years down the line, it’s clear to me that my early stories were nowhere near as tight as they could have been. I’ve become more ruthless, more disciplined, more sensitive to the need to make every word matter.

The appeal of a good story has never changed, but how that story is expressed is subject to the tastes of the time. Some of those early classics now feel a touch flabby. (In Russell Hoban’s lovely Bread and Jam for Frances from 1964, 223 words of the 1,720 total are spent describing a secondary character having their lunch!)
Bread and Jam for Frances, written by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Lilian Hoban

It about variety and choice. There’s surely room for that in the market. Does Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back need more than its trim 253 words? Of course not. However, I’d love to see more longer texts being published – stories that last long enough to truly draw in and engage young readers. Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’ 2013 modern classic The Day the Crayons Quit, for instance, comes in at a hefty 999 words.

But, as a writer, it’s easier to make your case for more words when you’ve already got a good few published titles under your belt. Until then, it’s as well to remember Debi Gliori’s realistic words (in the 2018 Children’s Writers & Artists’ Yearbook) that picture book creators need to be,
… armed with a rough idea of what first publishers, then parents and finally, children might want (the order, sadly, is significant)…

Jon Cox has been a journalist and travel guide editor, and still is part-time teacher. He has written seven picture books for the thinkequal.org charity, and signed with Lucy Irvine at Peters, Fraser and Dunlop just a month ago. website: joncoxwriter.co.uk twitter: @JonCox17

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