Children's Writer's Guild Forum » Writing and Literature

How many words "should" a picture book be?

(8 posts)
  1. Sheila

    THE question that I get the most from members is: How many words should a picture book be?

    Before I give my own opinion, I would like to invite readers to respond. What do you think? How many words "should" a picture book be?

    Posted 6 years ago #
  2. phutchison

    I really think it depends on the targeted audience. Of course, books for infants and toddlers should be very sparse. But I have seen some very well done picture books for older audiences (I don't think you're ever too old to be read to or to enjoy a good picture book) such as Polar Express that have probably 1500- 2000 words. I agree with Amie's comment on Marvin's manuscript that the pictures should do some of the explaining, thus limiting the number of words the writer has to use. I think publishers are all over the place on this, too. I submitted a picture book manuscript for my class at the institute that my instructor said was too long (1200 words). Yet, Larry told us at the Highlights workshop they consider anything up to 1500. I'm anxious to see what other people say about this.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  3. Jennali

    At a recent workshop we were told the shorter the better, with a target of 400 to 600 words. But as with everything else a good story is a good story and you should look for a publisher buying your type of work. I think editors are trying to weed out manuscripts using any kind of criteria they can. I also think that many authors-to-be write their stories without the eye of an artist and often include too much specific detail that thwarts creative input by the illustrator. It should be a collaboration.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  4. I echo the comments about the number of words being variable depending upon the targeted reader-age. Obviously, for toddlers who have the story read to them, fewer words and bright pictures would be the best combination. For older children, I think part of the fun is in reading the story, so I would think that the number of words could be greater, with the illustrations bringing those words to life. Even for those, however, I would think a maximum of 1,000 to 1,200 words would be the "norm." In the case of my story, The Day that X Ran Away, I envision a reader who can read for him/her self, and so the story contains more words than another one I have written for younger children. Again, with respect to X and ONLY to X, I have found an illustrator who took the manuscript and illustrated the entire book! His illustrations perfectly capture the images I had in my head as I wrote the story, and (in my opinion) they enhanced the story, and did bring the character (X) to life. (Yes, I know publishers don't want us to submit illustrations with our manuscripts, and his work may never be accepted - this was done BEFORE I was enlightened!) So, to answer the question, 300- 400 words for very young reader picture books; 500 - 800 words for beginning readers; and 800 to 1,400 words for older, more advanced readers. (Sorry to be so long-winded!)

    Posted 6 years ago #
  5. Fernando

    I try to keep my PB's at a maximum 1000 words. I figure that is about what I need in order to describe the scene enough for an illustrator to get into my thoughts. If it needs trimmed to 850, I usually have enough exposition in there to throw out. I have submitted stories of less than 250 words. The least WC is 81. The responce on that one is still pending. i do not think the operative word "SHOULD" should be the operative word. Once you have seen the story in your head as a picture, use as few words as you are comfortable with to write the story as you see it. Someone will always be there to tell you to take 10 percent out again anyway.


    Posted 6 years ago #
  6. With this type of question, we need to look at WHO needs to know. In reality, it is the publishers who set the word count. This affects the writers, who must comply in order
    to get published. Down the line, the readers – parents & grandparents, teachers and children become accustomed to what they get. The true bottom line should be what works for the readers and listeners. But the actual bottom line will be what makes sense economically from the publishers viewpoint.

    With picture books, they must match cost of printing, which drastically increases with the amount of words and hence the required illustrations. Today’s children keep repeating “show me”, as in show me the giant…the snake…the girl, boy and school, and so on. At some point, the price will rise to a point where the child’s picture book becomes more suitable as a child’s coffee-table book. I have been reading books to children for decades, and I have a fairly good idea of their attention spans. A book like Santa’s Twin can be a one-sitting, enjoyable read. It is a visually beautiful and cleverly well illustrated book at about 4,500 words. At a $20 years-ago price, it goes well near the coffee and hot chocolate. But it WAS published (Harper Prism).

    By contrast, a child’s classic written over one hundred years ago by Rudyard Kipling contains only three black and white illustrations. The Elephant’s Child is over 3,000 words, and is one that I read regularly – even in schools (usually for K and 1st grades). Kipling’s other titles in the Just So Stories fall into a similar range of length. Student’s today still love these books, and teachers will also sit and listen attentively. But would a publisher print and distribute a current work of such length with today’s requisite quantity of illustrations?

    It may be said that children need illustrations. Certainly they enjoy them, but they do not really save words. They may save simple descriptions, such as “the large river was green and slimy looking”. But seeing such a river portrayed in color fills the eyes for a brief moment while drawing out a few “wows”. Yet “the great, gray-green, greasy Limpopo River” repeated often throughout the elephant child’s travels not only gets a continued and increasing reaction, but it also will last for years in the child’s mind.

    If we move to some more modern works, we can examine the trend of the Dr. Seuss books. Hop on Pop, sub-titled as “The Simplest Seuss for the Youngest Use”, contains 393 words. Green Eggs and Ham is one of 800 words, and the Do Not Open the Create, which is made from the movie version of The Cat in the Hat comes out at about 1520.

    Technically, the Do Not Open the Crate book is a chapter book, but it is fully illustrated and should not be placed in that category. Some schools will say that for young readers, three chapters in such a book would qualify as one night’s reading. From this perspective, these 3-chapter groups work out to between 600 and 700 words. This supports the rationale that word length is age dependent even in picture books.

    Lastly, in looking at what is a good word quantity, writers, in my opinion, should create what will work to keep the reader and listener tuned in to the book. Rhymes help the flow, as illustrated even with the length of Santa’s Twin. Certainly they are a driving force behind the success of the Dr. Seuss stories. But if the story itself is riveting it becomes an attention drawing magnet and length is irrelevant - as in the Kipling examples above. While we could count words in thousands of published books by modern authors sitting on home, school and library shelves, I expect we would discover they have the same pattern of word count. In other words a range from about 300 to 1500 going from younger to older readers.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  7. Sheila

    Tony, I think that you have made some great points! I also think that the drive towards picture books with fewer words says more about tired, stressed out parents, etc. not having (or making enough) time to read to children than it does about children's capacity to understand what is being read. Children are amazing and absorb a lot more than I think we sometimes give them credit for. They deserve great children's literature, and I agree with you that many of the classics like Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book stories would have a hard time finding a publisher today. The market, however, will follow the demands of the consumer. If we the consumers are more discriminate about what we buy, we can send a message that we want more than pretty pictures (no disrespect to illustrators). We also want longer beautifully woven stories that capture a child's imagination for more than a brief sitting WITH illustrations!

    I understand the pressures that parents and educators are confronted with in today's world, but we owe it to our little ones to feed their imaginations and their love of literature. As you correctly point out, it is just as important to teach children how to paint images with their imagination as it is to provide a feast for their eyes. This is a goal that I wish more publishers embraced.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  8. I don't think I have much to add to what's already been stated. Personally, I hate word counts. I feel like people who set word counts are like the Emperor in Amadeus when he complains that one of Mozart's operas has "too many notes."

    The one eyeopening fact that I took away from the Highlights workshop was to think about the difference between picture books (for younger readers) and story books (that have pictures, but rely more on text than do picture books). I think in reality this is also a false distinction, as many parents read "storybooks" to younger children, without considering the reading level of the story.

    Having worked in publishing for many years, I understand the publisher's point of view re: word counts. It's about several things: Marketing, Readability, and the practical issue of fitting a design template.

    I agree that the word count varies by the reader's age, but there are so many exceptions to the rule, so many successful books that don't neatly match a word count that it makes me wonder how closely we need to adhere to them.

    I think the bottom line when submitting a manuscript is to know what your publisher is looking for and make sure you fit those guidelines, especially if you're unpublished and it's your first story. If you develop a relationship with an editor, then maybe you can talk them into bending the rules for your second book.

    Posted 6 years ago #


You must log in to post.