Thursday, June 24, 2010

Nonfiction Picture Books- Word Count Obsession

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 what many nonfiction writers say. Simply use as many words as you need 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 speak to 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) 48 pages, 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

Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, by Tanya Lee Stone (Square Fish, 2010) 857 words, 32 pages.

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.

We are the Ship, by Kadir Nelson (2009 Sibert medal) 16,560 words, 96 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!


Mary Bowman-Kruhm said...

You make a great point, Donna, and say it well. I'm reminded of an article about Walter Cronkite in a recent Author's Guild journal. "Walter Cronkite," an assistant who worked w/ him wrote, "never met a sentence he could not shorten." I printed this equally great pointt out and taped it on my computer. (I'm not near my computer so hope I have quote exactly correct.)

carmenoliver said...

Well said!

I don't think word count is worth obsessing over until you've gotten the full story down on paper. Then it's a matter of choosing which words stay and which words go. Which scenes stay and which ones go. No easy task! I think this is true for fiction and nonfiction. I think the rules are there for guidelines kind of like speed limits. We know we mustn't go faster than the posted limits but somehow several of us do stretch the rules (who me?) The same can be said of writing fiction and nonfiction picture books. We aim to keep the words under 1,000 but sometimes the rules need to be stretched a little. Like you probably won't get a speeding ticket for going 5 miles over the limit. A warning maybe. But push it to 10 miles and plan on a cordial slap to your pocketbook.

I think it's important to always be aware of how many words we're using so that we choose the best ones to visually tell the story. But as Donna so eloquently says let's not obsess over it. They are after all just guidelines.

Great post!

Donna said...

Hi Mary. Thanks for commenting. Nowhere is the issue of brevity so important as in picture books and articles. Both are teeny tiny spaces in which to tell our stories, aren't they?

Donna said...

You know me and my over-analytical mind. I'm finally learning to ignore those invisible boundaries until the story is written.

Thanks for chiming in:)

Pragmatic Mom said...

Wow! Great list and I never thought about word counting picture books before! :-) But I will now! Thanks for the picks. I will check them out!!

I wanted to share my favorite picture books with you (though I failed to word count any of them!):

Pragmatic Mom
Type A Parenting for the Modern World
I blog on children's lit, education and parenting

Shelli Cornelison said...

Great list, Donna! And proof the word count matters only in relation to the story. You'll nail yours. I have no doubt.

Donna said...

Thanks, Shelli:)

Linda Zajac said...

Thank you Donna for posting this! It is exactly the information I am looking for and obsessing over. It does seem to me that sometimes you can't cut when it's NF because you also have to explain it.