Last month, the reviewer, author, and former editor Anita Silvey delivered some sharp talk about picture books in School Library Journal, starting with the teapotted tempest about a New York Times article reporting that booksellers saw some parents hurrying their children through picture books to early novels:
I must admit, I’ve grown quite weary over the last few years of the all-too-predictable response from adults who champion children’s and teen books: attack anyone who makes critical comments about them. . . . The basic premise of the New York Times article—that new picture books are increasingly ignored in today’s marketplace—seems completely sound to me. During the 1990s and into the 21st century, picture books brought in about 33 to 35 percent of the revenue of any major publishing house’s list. As Houghton Mifflin’s publisher in the late ’90s, I observed years when picture books made up more than 40 percent of sales. But today that number has slipped to a mere 10 to 11 percent for most publishers. . . .Silvey thinks the crucial data is that new picture books aren’t selling, but older ones are, and concludes that the older titles offer features the newer ones lack.
So outside of obvious demographics (the big teen bubble and adults who now read YA books), why has this magnificent genre [of picture books] fallen on hard times? It’s certainly not because children don’t need or want picture books. In fact, kids today appear happiest when the combination of art and text extends into chapter books like Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series and even novels like Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
One of those features, however, might just be being older. If parents are buying fewer picture books overall, the books they’re most likely to pick up might be those they recognize from their own childhoods.
The article doesn’t offer data for Silvey’s next conclusion: that older picture books are appealing because they’re longer and fuller. It notes the short word counts of two older books, but not the longer word counts of several others, and it’s not clear whether any of those are on the bestseller lists cited earlier.
Nevertheless, I suspect Silvey is right in her diagnosis. As she notes, there’s tremendous pressure on picture-book writers, especially new ones, to write very short, spare manuscripts:
During the last few years, publishers began to maintain that adults wanted shorter texts to read to children—because of the demands on their time and young readers’ shorter attention spans. In the 1990s, publishers believed that kids didn’t want novels longer than 200 pages—until J. K. Rowling set everyone straight.While demanding that picture books not be “slight,” editors might be hemming authors in so much on word count that it’s extraordinarily difficult not to be. Is there actually a market space for new “picture storybooks,” or is that still simply a label hopeful authors cling to when they don’t want to edit down their wordy picture-book manuscripts? Are there enough readers of picture-book age to generate sufficient demand for a longer form?