The Sweet Spot – Musings on PB Length

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I spent the last two weeks analyzing picture books in the context of Christie Wright Wild’s Top Ten Story Elements. And it was fascinating. I learned a lot about patterns, rhyme, character, and all the other things that make picture books great.

But it also got me thinking about picture books in a new way. I started thinking more about length and structure – both in what I like to read, and what I like to write, and so I thought I’d share my realizations.

When it comes to PB length, we’ve all heard it – less is more. Nowadays it seems like many agents and editors won’t even look at PBs over 500 words. The books I looked at over the last fortnight (sorry, couldn’t resist, how often do you get to use the word ‘fortnight’?) ranged from a meager 154 words to a verbose 1716. They are all books I like, books I enjoy reading to my kids. But my favorites definitely fall in the 600 – 900 word range. Longer than that, I end up paraphrasing or parsing chunks altogether (resulting in stories in the 600 – 900 word range) in order to hold my kids’ attention – especially the two-year-olds.

And the shorter books? Well, of the ones I studied, most of the shorter books were set up in more of a comic-book style, with dialogue making up 100% of the text*. They’re also (mostly) written by author-illustrators. And while they’re funny and enjoyable, they’re not my style to write.

(*Of course there are exceptions to this: the “Pete the Cat” books tell a complete story in about 250 words, while Ode to Underwear had no dialogue at all.)

What is it that draws me to longer books? Well, I think it’s the mix of narrative and dialogue. The sense I get of reading a ‘real’ story. The mid-length books offer enough repetition to amuse the kids, but have enough other words to stop me as an adult from getting bored with them.

And these are the kinds of books I like to write. The PBs I’ve written (and hope to one day get published) all fall in the 600 – 750 word range, with a mix of narrative and dialogue, but plenty of room for illustration.

What about you? What’s your sweet spot? What length PBs do you gravitate toward writing and reading, and what draws you to them? Let me know in the comments.

(Author’s note: I wrote this on Wednesday, and of course, yesterday I sat down and wrote a 185-word rhyming PB with no dialogue. So, even those of us who think we have a “sweet spot” can be inspired to write something outside our norm.)

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One comment

  1. I love it! I agree. There were a LOT of books well over 1,000 words, weren’t there? I think my sweet spot is 600-950. Yes I read/write lower and higher. I’ve also heard some agents say the real sweet spot is between 500 and 1000, not necessarily under 500. Thanks for your insight.

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