Picture books, like all art forms, are subject to trends and shifts in theme, style and format. I don’t necessarily recommend writing to trend, but it’s always good to be familiar with what’s working in the market and what publishers are looking for. I’ve yet to see the influence of Barbie-core—let’s see how pink the shelves are three years from now—but here are some picture book trends I’ve noticed in the past year.
Once upon a time, there was a world in which a picture book text could be as long as 1,500 words. We do not live in this world anymore. These days, picture book texts are getting shorter and shorter, averaging between 300-750 words. There are a number of reasons for this, including a rise in first and second person narration, a style that is more informal, straightforward and requires less description (please see I am a Meadow Mermaid and Dear Black Girls); a growth in the popularity of wordless (or almost wordless) titles (Canadian author Jonarno Lawson is excellent at these, see Sidewalk Flowers or Over the Shop); and many other books are taking their storytelling cues from graphic novels, including text bubbles for dialogue and simple, almost caption-like narration.
...But Longer Books
Despite shorter wordcounts, the extent (page count) of picture books seems to be getting longer. Traditional picture books are generally 32 pages, but I’ve noticed the page count has been creeping up to 40. There have also been a number of recent picture books with much higher page counts, such as the cinematic Indigenous folktale The Song That Called Them Home (52 pages), the multi-award winning sci-fi toy story The Barnabus Project (72 pages) and Jon Klassen’s atmospheric The Skull, coming in at a lengthy 112 pages. Many of these books rely heavily on visual storytelling, using double page spreads and wordless sections to heighten tension and drama. Some are a collection of short, individual stories, like the 96 page cottage core dream Little Witch Hazel. But before you send off your 88-page masterpiece, it’s worth noting that many of these longer titles are written or illustrated by established creators who likely have more clout when it comes to convincing a publisher that the story cannot be told within the 32–40-page standard, as a higher page count means a higher price point.
Halloween is the New Christmas
Christmas books often play a major role in family holiday traditions, pulled out and shared annually like ornaments or ugly Christmas sweaters. Christmas is arguably the holiday that inspires the most seasonal kids’ books—at least it used to be. Lately Halloween is making a bid for the biggest seasonal picture book market, with more titles being published and hitting the bestseller lists each year. Perhaps it’s all those Millennial parents raised on a steady diet of Goosebumps, Hocus Pocus and The Nightmare Before Christmas who are looking to share their love of thrills, chills, and spooky nostalgia with their kids. Or maybe it’s all that pumpkin spice going to our brains. Some recent standout Halloween titles include The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt and Stumpkin.
There was a time when a picture book about a grandparent meant you were in for a story about death and grief. While this is still true in some cases, it is less so these days. Recently, there have been lots of excellent picture books published that feature modern, active, and engaged grandparents who play major roles in their grandkids’ lives. This is a smart move by publishers—a lot of kids’ books are purchased and read aloud by grandparents, so why not offer them books that reflect their reality, and not someone’s outdated idea of what a grandparent looks and acts like? Some examples of contemporary grandparents in picture books include My Ittu: The Biggest, Best Grandpa, The Care and Keeping of Grandmas, and Maud and Grand-Maud.
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While working on this year’s Earth Day-themed kids’ book segment for CTV Your Morning, I found myself with an unprecedented number of fantastic titles about nature, climate change, environmental stewardship, biodiversity and more. This slice of the market is growing so much that in 2019, Greystone Books, an independent publisher of books about science, nature, and environmental stewardship, launched a dedicated kids’ imprint with a similar focus. But Greystone Kids isn’t the only publisher creating quality children’s books about the environment—nearly every publisher is greening their list. Recent faves include: Super Small, 111 Trees and Sometimes I Feel Like a River.
Move over Mice, the Snails are Here!
Tiny animal protagonists have always been abundant in children’s literature. Kids can relate to the anxiety and frustration of feeling small and not being big enough to be taken seriously or do certain things. For a long time, mice were the child proxy of choice, but lately there’s been much ado about snails. Metaphorically speaking, snails have a few things going for them in addition to the classic struggle of being small. Their shells also provide metaphorical fodder for feeling shy or introverted (see How To Party Like a Snail) and their perception for being slow also works nicely as a metaphor for taking your time or going at your own pace. Here are some other picture books featuring the most adorable of gastropods: Serge the Snail Without a Shell and the Escargot series.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Vikki VanSickle is the author of a number of acclaimed novels for children including P.S. Tell No One, Words That Start With B, Summer Days, Starry Nights, and the 2018 Red Maple award-winning The Winnowing. She has also written the picture books If I Had a Gryphon, Teddy Bear of the Year, and Anonymouse. Vikki started her career as an independent bookseller and spent 12 years working in children's publishing. A devoted member of the Canadian children's book world, she curates and presents regular book segments at CTV Your Morning and balances her writing with arts education for all ages.