Friday, May 10, 2013

Age Level: Pay Tribute to the Past, But Write in the Present

The Classics.

We all fell in love with them as a child. We still love to read them over and over again. And perhaps we hope to emulate them.

However, as Picture Book Writers of today, we need to tread carefully.

We continue our look at 3 contrasts between the Picture Books of our childhood and today's market.
You can read the first installment on Word Count
here and the second installment on Conflict Resolution here. 

Today we discuss Age Level ~

We live in a very competitive, high-paced world. 

With the birth of the Common Core State Standards, we look to create kids who are college and/or workplace ready starting in the 3rd grade.

There is a push to have kids reading earlier and reading less for pleasure and more for analysis and information. 

Therefore, where do picture books fit in?

Is the solution to have us all start writing non-fiction books or faction? 

First, the age level of picture books has been skewing a little lower, with many targeting the 1st and 2nd grade. 

Upon researching some of the classic picture books will find the age level at upper 3rd grade and 4th grade.  (for a quick search of word count and age level, check out

Also, picture book writers are being forced to leave more and more room for the illustrator, therefore scaling back on language and beefing up the artwork which is a clear indication that books are leaning younger.  So, the emphasis with picture books is on the art...not the story. 

We are told that the illustrator must tell 50% of the story, but with word count moving closer to 300 the illustrators might own more of the story in the future.

Now, in conclusion I want to talk about exceptions.

Let's take a look at "Each Kindness" by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis.

Word count = 865
Grade Level = mid 3rd grade (3.4)
Conflict Resolution = none.  Its a realistically dark story about missed opportunities.
Pub date= October 2012

So, you might see this book on the shelf and argue that everything I have written this week is incorrect.  That there are, in fact, fiction picture books published with over 500 words and that the conflict doesn't always have to be solved by the protagonist and that it can be geared to a older audience.


Here is where some sleuthing should be done.

Who is Jacqueline Woodson?  Who is E.B. Lewis? 

Short answer, they are both highly aclaimed award winners with long careers so far.  Woodson has won the Newberry and Lewis won the Caldecott.  Therefore, these are not debut writers and illustrators.  Its harder to break into the business with this kind of a piece.

Who published "Each Kindess"?

Nancy Paulsen books, which is a fairly new imprint of Penguin, meaning that Nancy Paulsen is now able to publish the kinds of books she wants, after a very long career in publishing.  And its also worth noting that Woodson has been published by this imprint before.

Bottomline, the world of books is in an ever-changing flux. 

We must be proactive.  We must be readers of the classics, as well as the current lists.  All the while we must be saavy when looking at a book.  There is more story to be told than what is in its pages.

Happy Writing!


  1. This has been an enlightening series. Understanding these shifts in the market is crucial to our success. There have also been major changes in the art styles through the years that we'll have to discuss in future. It is worth noting that good stories, told well, will always be needed. I hope that the ubiquitous world of the digital book in all its forms brings opportunities for publication of meatier picture books. I hope it brings an era of well-written prose (and verse) that is driven by excellence, whatever the length.

  2. This has been a great series, Marcie. If you study recent picture books, there is a definite difference in books published even within the last 2-3 years from 7-8 years ago.

    Personally, I like longer picture books and my kids enjoy them as well. I have a feeling the pendulum will swing back eventually -- or at least there will be some acknowledgement that PBs of moderate length (say 700-1000 words) have a place in the market.

  3. Great research! Thanks for sharing your findings!

  4. So informative! Thanks for organizing and presenting all this material in such a practical way! Great job!

  5. Great post Marcie. You are studying picture books and the market so deeply, that you might get a pass to break some rules just like those famous authors! Thank you for sharing so much information with us.

  6. Great points to consider, Marcie. Thanks for putting this series together!