Sunday, September 02, 2012

Why Do Picture Books Have Fewer Words? Or: The Death of the Storybook

The current word count for picture books these days is anywhere from 500 to 800 words. It was once common for picture books, and their longer companions, storybooks, to be 2000 or even 5000 words. This trend is not because kids are less sophisticated. It's not because kids have shorter attention spans. The problem is that adults have forgotten the purpose of picture books.

We used to have picture books, fully illustrated storybooks, and everything in between. Now by the time kids are in 1st grade they're supposed to abandon picture books altogether. Adults are pushing their kids to read chapter books as soon as they are able. There's no transition point. It's parents at the advice of educators who are doing this, and the picture book market is responding in kind.

We're in a time when preteens and teenagers read more than they used to. The quality of the books vary, but YA fiction is more popular than ever. When we were kids, you didn't see an 8 year old read a giant 1000 page Harry Potter book. No one would have thought to write a book that size for a kid. No one would dare try to market it. Sure, there were kids who read at a higher reading level who were encouraged to read adult fiction, but there was less literature written for them. Now that's changed.

This trend with picture books is a direct result of the popularity of the YA market. Parents want their kids to be "advanced readers." So the picture books are written for a younger audience because kids are encouraged to leave behind picture books at an earlier age. The problem is that this transition point is critical. If kids are forced to jump right into chapter books before they're ready, you risk crushing their enthusiasm for books in general. If reading becomes an intimidating chore, there goes their love of reading.

So what's the difference between a 3000 word chapter book and a 3000 word Storybook? Pictures. Big, full color, sprawling beautiful pictures for the eye to explore. A few black and white illustrations in a chapter book just doesn't do the same job. That doesn't mean that illustrated chapter books are inferior to storybooks, they're just a different form. But it's not a mystery why a young child will be more attracted to a full color, beautifully illustrated book. It's not because of television or video games. It's for the same reason you and I loved them when we were kids. Kids immediately connect with images, and Images are a significant part of how they explore their world. It's part of what makes you a kid.

The bottom line is: let kids choose their own books. If the book is below the reading level you think they're supposed to be, but they love the book, let them make that choice and respect their tastes. The more they're enthusiastic about reading, the more they'll read, and the more they read, the more they'll be naturally drawn to more sophisticated material. There's no need to force this. All you need to do is encourage your child to read, period.

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