I’m sure everyone at some point in their life has participated in a limbo contest, to see how low you can contort your body below a pole until you fall on the floor. (I could never win those contests - I always had to duck under.)
When it comes to children’s books, we writers and illustrators have to play a game of "word count limbo" all the time. "How low can you make your word count go?" Many children’s books today have much lower word counts than books written during my childhood. Many publishers are now looking for books written in 500 words or less, and lately more are asking for 300 or less.
How in the world do you tell a story with only 300 words?
The trick is to figure out the “bones” of your story. What words do you REALLY need to get your story across?
Take the book “Gravity” by Jason Chin, for example. (No, it’s not a retelling of the Sandra Bullock movie.) It’s a picture book with only 7 sentences made up of 62 words.
How is that possible??
Well, the illustrations “do the rest of the talking.” The images are magnificently drawn, showing a book that falls to Earth and lands in front of a boy playing at the beach with his toys. Suddenly, as the text starts to explain that gravity is the force that holds things down on Earth, the boy’s toys and snacks float into the air and out into space. The book is filled with beautiful pleasing-to-the-eye illustrations with incredible perspectives. The size and placement of the text also changes to help emphasize the concept of gravity, with letters getting smaller or larger or floating away like the objects in the pictures. And in the back of the book, there is a reference spread of facts and additional illustrations to further explain the force of gravity. The book is a perfect example of creative non-fiction that explains scientific facts while applying those concepts to images of events children could understand while using the least amount of text possible.
On the fictional side, Jeff Mack is a genius when it comes to writing a book with very few words and cute, funny illustrations that also help to tell the story. His books like “Ah Ha!” and “Good News Bad News” are wonderful examples of how you can use barely any words while allowing readers to interpret more of the underlying story or concept through the illustrations.
In one of my previous posts, I highlighted Raul Colón's wordless picture book "DRAW!" At a conference workshop, he showed us his original book dummy that included text along with his incredible illustrations. In the end, the editors thought the pictures told the entire story so well the text wasn't even needed. Zero words - can't get any lower than that!
So if you’re a picture book writer, the next time you sit down to write a story think about this: What words do you really need to tell this story? Could a sentence or paragraph (or entire text) be shown in the illustrations instead?
If you're an illustrator, what can you show in the illustrations that can take the place of some of the text and help move the story along?
And if you’re a parent, librarian, or teacher, try to find books to read to and with children that allow them to uncover “the second story” in the illustrations. It will not only add more to the reading experience, it will teach readers to pay attention, listen, and interpret information themselves.
I may never win the limbo contest at the next wedding I attend, but for me the only limbo pole I’m concerned with today is the low word count one – and I'm ready to get down!