Marcia Strykowski

Picture Story Books

francesOnce upon a time, when I first started out writing for children, it was picture books I wanted to create. I wrote numerous manuscripts, polished them, and sent them out to publishers. But for many of us authors, 32-page picture books can be an even harder sale than novels.
Picture books may look easy to write, but not only does every single word have to be perfect, nowadays these word-counts are getting shorter and shorter.
farmer pQuite a few publishers limit their picture book submissions to less than 500 words. 500 words!
And with so many wonderful picture books already on the market (often they don’t become dated as quickly as children’s novels) the competition is steep.
I’m not a wordy writer (my novels are usually under 40,000 words), and my picture book manuscripts used to come out to around 1200 words.
stregaIn the same way I feel there should be a Tween age group in between Middle Grade—or Juvenile, for you librarians 🙂 —and Young Adult, I also feel we should bring back picture story books.
Yes, kids may be ready to move on to early chapter books at a young age, but nothing beats cuddling up on the couch while a special adult reads a picture story book that lasts longer than a few minutes. cooneyWouldn’t you rather read one or two in-depth stories to your kids than ten quickies with funny punch-lines over and over?
There are plenty of families out there still reading to their school-aged children and I would think we’d want to inspire this activity rather than risk pushing children through reading levels too fast. polarSure, kids have shorter attention spans due to fast-paced media and parents may have less time to read to their kids, when attached to their own electronic devices, but do we really want to encourage this further?
bobo 2Many 3rd and 4th grade teachers love to read picture books to their students (and the kids love them, too!). Teachers often have to resort to books with older publication dates since so many of the newer books are aimed at the preschool set.

chrysanthemumWith picture story books, you’ll find the language more sophisticated and the sentence structures more complex than in early chapter books which are for kids to read themselves. It’s good for new readers to have books with simple language while they’re learning, but why not keep them interested in picture books at the same time?

yolenOf course there’s definitely a need for concept books and very short picture books, too, and there are some amazingly popular ones being released every day—Mo Willems comes to mind.
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Hopefully these simple, yet never slight books will be read over and over, with readers slowing down enough to take in the beautiful artwork flashing past.

I’m learning to get with the current picture book trends, to chop my word counts, but still…I love my copies of the classics shown throughout this post (and I’m thrilled to have most of them signed!).

lionWhat about you? Do you have a favorite picture book that might be a little longer than today’s standards? Or maybe you prefer shorter? As for me, I like both and I’m hoping there will soon be room in the market for longer picture books again.
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Word Counts for the books shown in this post are below.

A Baby Sister for Frances—1358 words. Published in 1964.
Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride—1809 words. Published in 1974.
Strega Nona—1245 words. Published in 1975.
Miss Rumphius—1243 words. Published in 1982.
The Polar Express—1054 words. Published in 1985.
Oma and Bobo—1091 words. Published in 1987.
Chrysanthemum—1141 words. Published in 1991.
The Girl in the Golden Bower—2829 words. Published in 1994.
Library Lion—1378 words. Published in 2006.

50 Comments

  1. Marcia, I agree with you completely. I notice that these longer picture story books are returning in books we put in the multicultural/diversity category. I think it’s because different cultures need to be presented in ways that add to the understanding of the story, thus requiring more words. I’m shopping around a manuscript now that fits that description. One editor told me not to be concerned about the word count. I love seeing all the covers you posted – I love many of them, also. One of my favorites is Alvah and Arvilla by NH author Mary Lynn Ray.

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    • Thanks for your interesting input, Joyce. I’m not familiar with Alvah and Arvilla, but I’ll check it out!

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  2. mukul chand

    Great pictures!

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  3. Bette Norton

    This is a great post! I love picture story books and I have quite a collection of them., Although my children and grandchildren are grown and I no longer teach preschool, every once in awhile I will treat myself to a picture book. I love to read them spending great attention to the beautiful illustrations. A work of art on every page! There is nothing that can replace sitting on the couch with a child or by yourself, reading a beautiful well done picture book. I miss reading circle at preschool, the best part of the day, holding up a well loved book and reading it to the children who would then afterwards sit and read it by themselves. They would repeat some of the words themselves turning the pages with excitement. As you pointed out, most kids today have a shorter attention span with the instant gratification that they have growing up. Reading with fast moving graphics to tell them a story on a Kindle or whatever, are not good learning tools in their development. I would love to see the longer picture books make a comeback in this fast paced hi tech world. Hopefully this will not be a lost art form. I love the picture books you chose to show here and that you are advocating for longer picture books!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m with you, Marcia. I love writing PBs that are around 700-1000 words long, and my kids love reading (well, being read) stories of that length. Our personal favourites are Robert Munsch books, which mostly land in the 750-800 word length.
    I’m also with you on wanting a level between MG and YA.

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  5. I’m onboard with you to bring back picture story books! When I start out to write a PB, it might be a bit too long. But nowadays I have learned to edit it down to the 500 word range. I agree the market is there for the ‘juvenile’ reader who loves picture books, but craves more substance. Perhaps someday. 🙂 One of my favorite picture story books is “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.”

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    • ❤ that book! Anything by Steig is sure to be a great read. Thanks, Lynn!

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  6. Marcia, excellent post. I used to have a big collection of PBs and when my children were little we’d read all kinds — fiction, NF, long, short, wordless, during the day. But when it was night-time, I really wanted the shorter, sweeter PBs. Mostly because nighttime was my writing time and I wanted to get to my own stories. I know, selfish.

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    • Good point, Vijaya. If you’ve been reading all sorts of books during the day, there are some beautiful bedtime books that shouldn’t be missed. Thanks for your comment!

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  7. Bobbi Miller

    What a great post and what a great selection of books!! All of these are just phenomenal.

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    • Thanks, Bobbi. There’s something so special about picture books; that combination of poetic writing and gorgeous art.

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  8. I agree. Another point I always made to parents of first and second graders who wanted their children to start reading chapter books, is that children need time to develop their reading skills. Older, longer picture books develop characterization, vocabulary, and plot. They could easily move on to easy readers, but they would lose the skills necessary to read a full length chapter book. I recommend that kids read easy readers independently, but practice reading with excellent picture books which are structured to scaffold their learning.

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    • Thank you for your perceptive comment, Juliana. I work at a public library and it’s sad to see parents sometimes labeling picture books as baby books while encouraging their children to move on to big kid books. When they do check out picture books, I always make a point of mentioning how I still read them for pleasure, myself.

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  9. I couldn’t agree more Marcia! Real literature for little listeners/readers. Like the Trina Schart Hymen fairy tales… (and we bought some copies of the Library Lion for our grand-girls when we were in the New York Public library bookstore this summer). Great post!

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  10. Loved seeing some of my favs in there! There are so many of these that I want to get for my kidlet. We do have Library Lion so far! =)

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    • Your kidlet is a lucky little guy to be surrounded by your great taste in literature! 🙂

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  11. If I have to pick my favourite, favourite, favourite picture book, it’d have to be MISS RUMPHIUS. I read it few years ago and it has remained my #1 in all areas of inspiration ~ message, storyline, art. Back to your question, Marcia, I generally prefer less wordy ones (that say a lot more through their pictures) but I do treasure some longer works as well, like some of Chris Van Allsburg’s books. I haven’t counted the words in THE FANTASTIC FLYING BOOKS OF MR MORRIS LESSMORE, but the book seems to be a bit wordier than most of the current PBs.

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    • I ❤ Miss Rumphius, too, and I'm grateful I was able to meet Barbara Cooney, years ago. I just looked up The Fantastic Flying Books… (another of my favorites!) and it has 52 pages and surprisingly only 728 words. This says a lot for the writing since it does have a grand storyline. Thanks for including this title into the discussion!

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  12. I love some longer PB picture story books. It saddens me to think that books like the ones you mention as well as authors like William Steig, Bill Peet, and similar others would likely be unpublishable today. Even the classic Golden books (Tootle,Pokey Little Puppy, etc.) would be considered unpublishable. This says nothing negative against books with spare text.

    As writers, we are repeatedly told to avoid trends and write from our heart. Yet we are told to strictly follow the “trend” of shorter PBs. Both longer and shorter PBs have their place.

    Here’s an interesting article on sophisticated PBs: http://schools.natlib.govt.nz/creating-readers/genres-and-read-alouds/sophisticated-picture-books

    Here is my blog on the sad state of bedtime reading: http://kuzujanakis.com/2015/09/18/once-upon-a-bedtime/

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    • I agree, plenty of room for both longer and shorter PBs. Thanks for the links, I will check them out!

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  13. mirkabreen

    The meatier picture books were short stories with illustrations, and I miss them. They were the writers’ media, with the art as augmentation. These illustrated stories were less for reading to kids than the sort kids read themselves in first to third grade. I gobbled the ones I had as a child, and had I stayed in Israel they’d still be in my possession, as beloved friends.
    Picture books have become purer artists’ media, and the writing has taken a back seat. Writers come up the idea and not a whole lot more, it seems. Many published picture books are in fact written by illustrators and their editors.
    On an optimistic note regarding the revival of story picture books, one of my critique group buddies noted a lot of longer PBs in bookstores when she last checked. I’d like to believe this is not a one year fluke.

    Since you mentioned Miss Rumphius, that book broke many “rules.” Not a child protagonist, spanning over a lifetime and not a short snippet of time, and it’s a bit episodic as well as quiet. This splendid book is an outlier in many aspects.

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    • Great comment, Mirka. I’m happy to hear that longer PBs have been recently spotted in the wild. I can’t imagine a world without Miss Rumphius in it!

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  14. I miss books with the combination of lyrical writing and beautiful art found in longer, and often older, picture books. Older kids are becoming writers/artists themselves, and prolonged exposure to PBs can only help them, give them something to strive toward. Great post!

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    • You’re right, there’s a lot to learn from studying picture books for young writers and artists. Thanks for your comment, Jan!

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  15. Hi Marcia, I certainly would prefer to read one or two in depth stories to my grandchildren, and I hope to get the chance this December.
    I adore picture books and have a few in my collection. My favourites are the church mice books by Graham Oakley and The Rabbit Problem by Emily Gravett. The Bear and Hare stories also by Emily Gravett are perfect for younger children.

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    • Great choices by talented author/illustrators. Both Graham and Emily are popular here in the states, too. Your granddaughters are in for a wonderful time. I can imagine you are counting down the days until they arrive!

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  16. Sue Fritz

    Thank you for such an awesome article!! As a former teacher, I feel that the popular picture books today are lacking in word choice and language. I used many beautifully written picture books as mentor texts for my students. They would write these amazing stories after hearing the language used in the mentor texts. Now, I just can’t imagine how a teacher could use these “fad” picture books as mentor texts.

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    • Sounds like you were a wonderful teacher. Many of the newer short picture books are extremely well done, but you’re right, they often feel too young for students who are already writing their own stories. Thanks for joining in the conversation!

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  17. Thanks for this post! I just had my first book published and it fits into this category, at a little more than 1000 words. I do believe children move on from picture books far too prematurely these days. I hope more will be published for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade readers and I also hope this age group will continue to be read to.

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    • That’s great, Dan! Congratulations on your new book. I’ll check into it. 🙂

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  18. I have a picture book that was 1600 words and I got it down to 1300 but it made me think that maybe the story was too long to be interesting like it was and needed to be rewritten –although I haven’t done it yet.
    I really liked Sylvester and the Magic Pebble but didn’t know about Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride and have put it on interlibrary loan. Am really looking forward to reading it!

    I hope Abigale Puffin gets her name in lights. I would love to read the story and thought your illustration was very good!

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    • Thanks so much, Carolyn. I haven’t sent Abigale out in years, but I’ll reinvent her someday. What I love about Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride: great character development, rich language, and lots of humor.

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  19. Ashley

    I like longer picture books with lots of paintings in them. That’s awesome you have signed copies of these good ones.

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    • I treasure those signed picture books. And I know just what you mean about picture books filled with paintings, Paul O. Zelinsky’s beautiful work comes to mind. Thanks for your comment, Ashley!

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  20. I have read most of the books you mentioned and really enjoyed them. I can’t imagine someone thinking they were too long. I have read quite a few of them to the children in my school library and they love them. I am impressed with all the work that goes into writing and illustrating picture books.

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    • I agree, Stephanie. I think the popularity of these titles will continue for many years and a few new picture story books will always make the cut, as well. But I know many authors are chopping their stories to bare minimum in order to meet the new requirements. It makes me wonder which version is really the strongest, the short final manuscript or the one on the cutting room floor.

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  21. Stella Luna, about a poor confused bat. The pictures are priceless, and it’s not a quick read. I agree, a ‘tween’ category would be a wonderful thing for picture books.

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    • Excellent example (48 pages and 1463 words). I remember my daughter enjoying Stellaluna. Maybe, since so many of us want it, there’ll be a tween category someday. Thanks, Cathleen!

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  22. I can’t believe I left out Allen Say–love his work! His beautiful 32-pg. book TEA WITH MILK, for example, has 1910 words and definitely fits the requirements of a picture story book.

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  23. The new industry standard of picture book word counts is actually what has prevented me from delving into them. Short books like Beekle are adorable and fun and clever, but like you, I desire a story with more time investment to read aloud.

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    • Good to hear your thoughts on this, Julie. Seems there should be plenty of room for both long and short picture books. I’ve also been thinking lately: why not market picture books to all age groups? In the way that coloring books are now popular with adults, many of us still enjoy beautifully illustrated writing, as well.

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      • That’s a grand idea! There have been some picture books aimed toward adults in recent years, but they’ve all been “gag gift” types of books (like “Go the F*** to Sleep” or “Do You Want to Play With My Balls”). I would love to see more artistic picture books marketed toward adults. There are so many beautiful short stories that could be told with accompanying art.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve just received a beautiful little book as a gift: The Wild Swans by Jackie Morris. It’s 175 pages, so definitely not a picture book, but with lovely illustrations throughout and not in a graphic novel way. I can’t wait to read it. Maybe this idea of artistic story books is already taking off!

          Liked by 1 person

  24. Reblogged this on Julie Stroebel Barichello | Author and commented:
    Marcia Strykowksi shares some excellent thoughts on the length and utility of picture books. Read more below.

    Liked by 1 person

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