Nonfiction Picture Books- Word Count Obsession
DEAR READER, THANK YOU FOR VISITING MY BLOG. PLEASE NOTE THAT YOU WILL FIND SOME POSTS THAT WERE WRITTEN MORE THAN A DECADE ACO. REMEMBER THAT MY EXPERTISE HAS CHANGED IN THAT TIME, INDUSTRY STANDARDS HAVE CHANGED, AND BOOKS HAVE CHANGED, TOO. IT’S A GOOD IDEA TO READ MORE CURRENT ARTICLES ON CRAFT AND USE MENTOR TEXTS PUBLISHED WITHIN THE LAST 5-8 YEARS. HAPPY WRITING!
I have a confession to make. I am a word count junkie. I have compiled my own booklet, listing titles I have read with their respective word counts and reading levels. The importance of word count has been beaten into me by conference speakers, submission guidelines, critiques, and myriad books on craft. Picture books should never exceed 1000 words, they all agree. The shorter the better.
Picture book writers understand the logic behind such advice. The standard picture book fits neatly into 32 pages. A template of sorts. Why 32 pages? It’s a simple matter of efficiency. Imagine a great big piece of paper folded and cut evenly into four or eight equally sized pieces – pages. Adding more pages increases the publisher’s cost, both in terms of paper, ink, illustration, and binding.
Add to that the limited attention span of young children and the standard indeed sounds logical, right? Ah, but there are exceptions. Especially with nonfiction. The specialty genre of children’s nonfiction opens new considerations for publishers and authors, including curriculum tie-ins, school library markets, and historical accuracy, etc. So, the rules tend to change. A lot.
I continue to be a student in the school of hard knocks, figuring it out as I go along. It’s taken a long time to balance the “standard” with THE common advice to use as many words as necessary to tell your story. Certainly, an author’s style mixed with his/her intentional choice of focus/language, and the intended reader age, etc., come into play. But take a look at a few worthwhile titles that demonstrate the enormous range of word counts and page numbers among nonfiction picture books. Note that I am not including board books or concept books here.
Notice how some books with low word count often exceed 32 pages? That opens up the subject of illustration, which I’ll dive into in a future post.
Frida, by Jonah Winter (Arthur Levine/Scholastic, 2002) 447 words, 32 pages.
About world-renowned painter, Frida Kahlo
Galileo, Starry Messenger, by Peter Sis (F,S&G, 2000) 570 words, 40 pages.
Lightship, by Brian Floca (Sibert honor book) (Atheneum, 2007) 354 words, 48 pages.
introduces young readers to the nautical floating lighthouses that once were used.
Ballet of the Elephants, by Leda Schubert (Roaring Brook, 2006) 886 words, 34 pages.
offers the inspiration behind the famous 1946 circus act of dancing elephants
George Crum and the Saratoga Chip, by Gaylia Taylor (Lee & Low, 2006) 1542 words, 32 pages. Of course kids want to know how the potato chip was invented
Eleanor, Quiet No More, by Doreen Rappaport (Hyperion, 2009) 1597 words, 48 pages.
Tightly focused story of Eleanor Roosevelt
Handel, Who Knew What He Liked, by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2004) 2742 words, 48 pages.
The Boy Who Invented TV, by Kathleen Krull (Knopf, 2009) 2742 words, 40 pages.
Walt Whitman: Words for America, by Barbara Kerley (Scholastic, 2004) 2764 words, 56 pages.
A voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet, by Kathryn Lasky (Candlewick, 2005) 3628 words, 40 pages.
So we writers of nonfiction picture books need to lighten up when it comes to word counts and pagination. Let’s just write our tightly focused stories the way our muse dictates, and let an interested editor worry about the hard-knocks.
If you’re interested in checking word count or reading levels of particular titles, jump over to Renaissance Learning, input your title, then voila!