Bridging the Gap – Longer Picture Books

Sunday morning I tweeted this:

@BeachyBooks: Morning. Woke early, been writing. Slow going. New book is giving me doubts about its final form. Comes with the territory. Onwards…

This was born of my current frustration with my new children’s book project. It’s turning into a fairly long story, made significantly harder as it’s based on a true story, but I’ve been agonising over what form it will take for months. And by form I mean, will it be a picture book (mostly picture-based, not more than 750 words or so) or a chapter book (usually smaller paperback format with black and white pictures inside)?

But, I’ve been thinking the ideal form should be a longer picture book – a picture book with a longer narrative and aimed at older children (or younger children with longer attention spans or ability).

I have some ambitious plans for the visuals but I still want to get across a larger chunk of narrative. That’s fine, I can do what I want, in theory, but the business “publisher” part of my brain is saying: “Who is the book aimed at? What section of the bookshop will it sit in? How much will it retail at? Will parents buy it? Shall I give all this up and become a banker?”

I’ll come back to this later, as it got me thinking about how my 8yo – a confident reader now who does read on his own – has been losing interest in books since we left picture books behind. He loves to be read to but he hasn’t quite embraced chapter books. And I for one do not blame him. I do find many chapter books aimed at early readers somewhat of a disappointment after the visuals and writing of some picture books. I’m deliberately making a sweeping exaggeration as there are of course those that have piqued his interest but not for long. I can see why many children find TV, films and video games more appealing than books after they begin to feel picture books are too “babyish” for them. Perhaps interactive books will inspire this age, but I leave this point for a future post.

Looking at comments on this thread other parents feel similar concerns:

@sewjustinesew: I must say its an area I’m struggling with! My 7yo son is a great reader but does not read out of choice 🙁

@BeingMrsC: have heard others say similar before. Not at that stage yet ourselves though…

This all got me thinking about how I wished that longer picture books could bridge the “gap” between picture books and chapter books.

I then tweeted:

@BeachyBooks: Long picture books, as in longer stories with pictures. Great for 5+ & older but market, parents & peers can put kids off them. I love them.

And then finally this:

@BeachyBooks: From observations of my own kids the jump between picture books and early reader chapter books can lose their interest in books.

My last tweet above sparked a great conversation amongst my followers and was then helped by Kate Wilson from @nosycrow widening the debate by retweeting. I had some wonderful contributions and opinions from parents, writers and teachers throughout the day on the subject of longer picture books.

So how long is a picture book? Current advice from publishers, and through studying the market, will tell you they “should” usually be between 500-750 words long, often shorter, some with no words at all and some longer. Each publisher has its own style and preferred length depending on the type of picture books they publish and the age range they aim at. And if you publish yourself then the world is your oyster, but you may find you feel pressure to conform to the current fashion of the market, which tends towards the shorter picture book.

So, longer picture books have text greater than 750 words or so, usually with smaller print, perhaps with more pages, often hardbound and importantly the stories are more challenging in content and themes. It’s a funny category and not one that usually has its own section in the bookshops. It can be much maligned it seems as parents have increasingly steered their children towards chapter books as soon as their child can read or is learning to read.

I for one have seen parents verbally and physically discourage their older children from looking at the picture book section in bookshops. While selling our books at a stall at an event one day I had a parent openly tell their child, who had come up to look at our books, “Picture books are for babies!” It’s over a year old now, but this New York Times story on decline in picture books highlights some of the current stigma towards picture books.

The following tweets attest to this:

@Pollylwh: Just returned from fab @PopUpFestival overheard no less than 3 sets of parents in bookshop steering kids (6/7?) away from Picture books; ‘No, we don’t need any more of those. I’m only buying you CHAPTER books’. made me sad.

The push to move children away from picture books could also be affected by our current UK education system’s increasing pressure to focus on the text and teach children to read as early as pre-school age. A comment from a follower on Twitter chimes with this:

@suzimoore1: I’ve seen this in school so so day they have colourful wonderful pages and the next…werds werds werds

But then it only takes a good teacher to see the benefit in using picture books up to Key Stage 2 and beyond:

@Alibrarylady: We carry on with picture books through KS2 in our school – some lovely ones with plenty of text to challenge

@NosyCrow: @Alibrarylady @BeachyBooks I think it’s great that you use picture books in KS2 and some (eg Wolves in the Walls) really only work 7+…

@Llamagretch: love this [The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes]! Used in yr 4 when writing historical stories

@sarap4c: i use pic books with up to yr6 on regular basis plenty of stuff out there. Challenging doesn’t always mean more words

Of course every child is different, every parent, every teacher, every school. Some children will gladly ditch picture books and devour chapter books with no fuss. Some will keep an eclectic interest in all stories that interest them whether picture book or chapter book as these tweets illustrate:

@MarDixon: C is 10 and still buys picture books. It was never a ‘jump’ or change for her but somehow she got there. Exposure key.

@Elephantthai: That is sad. Even my 10 year-old still loves picture books.

There were many parents who tweeted with recommendations for longer picture books or heavily illustrated chapter books that had helped their children bridge the gap. And there are still good old fashioned comics (although current glossy versions are just vehicles for cheap plastic toys) and there are graphic novels and countless non-fiction books. There’s also resources on-line with suggestions for picture books more suitable to older readers at The Booktrust website. A current favourite longer picture book of ours is The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes. Here are more gap-bridging book ideas:

@storyseekersuk: I found Anthony Browne books v good for this.

@5pigeonspress: we love Shirley Hughes esp Alfie and Annie-Rose! Great illustrations

@Alibrarylady: The Claude series by @Alex_T_Smith is fab for newly independent readers.

@whitehorsebooks: Have just read my 3 year old Fantastic Mr Fox. It was her first chapter book and she loved it. Short chapters and very funny.

@DeannaandNeil: Our boys made leap w chapter format & high graphic content (Captain Underpants & Big Nate) “which bridge gap well?”

@JennySarahJones: My 6yr olds likes picture bks which he can “perform”, so Bella’s Big Shouting Day, lots of Mo Willems, Emily Brown

@JennySarahJones: In our school library I’m finding that often comics are filling that gap, lots of Yr 2 readers love The Beano

@suzimoore1: I agree! the mousehole cat has lots more werds that a normal picture book and it is one of my favourites

@MsTick68: Agreed. Why writers like @andystantonTM, Kaye Umanskey, Dick King-Smith and Dav Pilkey are so brilliant-can bridge the gap.

Thanks also to other comments on the topic from @carylhart1 @damyantipatel @EmmaIllustrate @pamfic @DaniSacerdoti @Polishbooks @ScrappySPJ and anybody else I may have missed out!

Somebody suggested having a hashtag for this discussion. I didn’t think of it as it was all sparked from an off the cuff comment. Continue it on #longerpicturebooks or #lpb if you wish – original hey? Or perhaps it’s time to give longer picture books a proper name of their own? In the writing world brevity is king, so you don’t want to make it sound like the books are long and tedious. How about these for some ideas? “Storyture Books” or “Boundless Books” or  “Piction Books” or “Great Picture Books” or…er? Help!

So, what have I learned? To return to my current conundrum: To publish my story as a longer picture book or chapter book? It’s still a difficult decision. As a writer I’m usually ruled by my heart. My heart says (with heavy reverb), “Follow your original vision for a longer story set with pictures and designed as a picture book!”

My head says, “Woh there Shakespeare! How the hell are you going to sell this? Can you handle it when the bookshop manager looks at it and frowns? Everybody will block you on Twitter! How much money will it retail at? Will your target audience of older children be put off? Will parents just dismiss it for a “babyish” picture book? Give up now and become a banker!”

You can be sure with the passing of time I’ll decide what to do and I’ll let you all know about it. Needless to say, Beachy Books is usually ruled by my heart, as my bank account balance will confirm.

If you have any comments on longer picture books I’d be glad to hear them…

9 Replies to “Bridging the Gap – Longer Picture Books”

  1. Longer picture books do work, I remember some of the “Harry” books by Gene Zion / Margaret Bloy Graham actually being specifically designed to bridge the gap between picture books and chapter books by doing the ‘three chapter’ thing. My 4 year old loves “Harry and the Lady Next Door” but it’s usually a book reserved to read at other times other than bedtimes (where short picture books win out).

    1. Great comments. I’ve not heard of these books so thanks. Philip Bell.

  2. Great post. I’m buying the books for my son’s Primary School Library and last year I spent half of our budget (it’s 100% funded by the PTA) on what I ended up calling “Graphic Stories” but it covered longer picture books, comics, and some manga/graphic novels that were suitable for the age group. I also organised a whole school library/book week where local illustrators came into every class and started the kids off writing and drawing their own picture book over the week which we then store in the library. There are photos from the week and of the stock that I bought here:-

    I struggle to keep the “Graphic Story” stands full to be honest as the books have been that popular. I hope that it made it “ok” for older kids to keep reading picture books, I labelled each book in this new section with a comic-syle blow-up icon so that it would be easily identified for reshelving and no longer lost among the much shorter picture books. We actually already had a lot of longer picture books but I think they were being ignored before.

    This is my Library Thing page for the library last year if you’re interested in the titles I bought- the graphic stories are towards the end of the list

  3. Hi Philip! This is a wonderful post, and I think great idea. I can see the issues from the business side of marketing such a book and also pricing the work involved to create and produce. However all that aside as an illustrator of children’s books I think it would be a fantastic genre to work in.
    Visually engaging books for older readers in a slightly smaller format than picture books, more like the classic fairytales with more detailed/sophisticated illustrations. Obviously the comic book does provide this to an extent (I love comic books) but having the text in more classic prose across the pages would probably be more appealing for people looking to improve their child’s reading skills.
    I wonder if the name itself is part of the problem ‘Picture book’ does suggest a lack of words!

    1. Yep, luckily I rarely have my business head on! 😉 Yes and agree with your format and also yes, picture books tend to suggest just pictures.

  4. Our picture book “Tigers on Hawley Street” is definitely a longer picture book. The book is based on research about a real event local to us in Sheffield which took place 100 years ago but the story is told by a fictional grandad to his grandson. However, it was my illustrations that prompted the book. It consists of 26 illustrations – each takes a full page (they are line drawings). We have short text paragraphs next to each picture accompanied by a small vignette drawing – the average number of words per page is 50. As you can see the story is not long but we have had it assessed by experts in University of Sheffield School of Education and they pointed out it was ideal for Key Stage 2 – especially boys who were reluctant readers. I can report that so far it is certainly a hit with the kids. It is a nice object visually to engage with but full of relatively complex ideas – definitely not a picture book for babies. I think we all respond to the visual and vividly remember my disappointment in the lack of illustrations when I progressed to longer reading books myself. We thought mainstream publishers would find the book as we had conceived it difficult to accept as marketable which was partly why we decided to set up our own press to publish the book. This would also be because the book is very local to Sheffield but also we felt the idea of the longer picture book would be hard to sell. I feel encouraged to see others also think there is a place for longer books with artistic and visual content.

  5. Enjoyed this! In the US, I’m used to longer “picture books,” (where the beautiful, imaginative pictures accent the story, but the text itself doesn’t require them to tell the whole story) , being referred to as storybooks. The child gets much more text/more lengthy and possibly more involved story ~ as well as the beautiful visual element. Not sure if there’s any difference in market translation… Hope I expressed that well.
    Regarding what to do with *your book*, I say, if it’s art, follow your heart. And if it’s more a book that is specifically designed to be an ez reader, then… follow the rules. 🙂 Regarding the investment/business side of it? I still think, follow your heart. (Unless a college fund or braces need urgent financing.)
    Love to see more independent publishers thriving. It’s a big world out there… filled to the brim with a whole lot of lovely little ones. <3
    Happy Weekend!

    1. Hi Laura – thanks for your insightful comment on the US market. Storybooks – I like that!

Comments are closed.