I’ve just read yet another article about the new length of picture books. Some say publishers won’t even consider publishing a picture book over five hundred words anymore. Others say they should be under three hundred words. Why? Inevitably, the shorter attention spans of children are cited somewhere in the reasoning. Rubbish, I say! As a frequent storytime reader in various venues, I can tell you that children will sit (even the ones you think won’t) for quite a long time for a good story well read.
One of my favorite longer picture books is Clever Ali by Nancy Farmer, illustrated by Gail De Marcken. This book has twenty two-page spreads, not the usual sixteen. Gorgeous art fills the pages, and there are lots of words—5,153 words, a quick internet search tells me. (I’m willing to take their word for it.) I can tell you it takes a full thirty-one minutes to read aloud. I’ve done it many times. Once I did it three times in a row, hence the careful timing.
The story is about an Egyptian boy named Ali. When he turns seven, Ali begins working with his father who is The Keeper of the Pigeons for the wicked Sultan of Cairo. Being the Keeper of the Pigeons is an important and dangerous job. As Ali shadows his father learning the ins and outs of pigeon care, the palace, and the fascinating and frightening lore attached to the wicked Sultan, he learns that the most important thing to know about pigeons is this: They must never—never ever—be overfed. An overfed pigeon becomes spoiled and selfish.
Well, Ali is a soft-hearted little boy. He gives his pigeon, Othman, many special little treats and Othman does indeed become a spoiled, selfish, and lazy carrier pigeon. When Othman ruins a bowl of the wicked Sultan’s rare cherries from the snowy mountains of Syria, Ali is given three days to replace the (irreplaceable) cherries or his father will be thrown into the Sultan’s oubliette.
Something shifts in the room when I read this marvelous word, oubliette. The expression on the kids’ faces changes. They sit up straighter, lean forward even. The adults, who would have told you they weren’t really listening, look up. Everyone’s eyebrows raise in question. Oubliette is a magical word.
“What,” [asks] Ali, “is an oubliette?”
“An oubliette,” [answers his father] “O my son and light of my eyes, [an oubliette] is a deep, dark hole. The Sultan learned about oubliettes from the Frankish barbarians who live to the north and who never bathe. The Frankish king keeps them for his enemies. He throws them inside and they fall down, down, down until they go kerplop.”
I can’t in good conscience tell you more of the story—you simply must go read it yourself. Suffice to say there’s an ogre (the art is astounding—I always stop the reading so we can take in the picture), the wicked Sultan sinks to new depths of wickedness, Othman the pigeon is infuriating, and Ali—sweet Ali!—is in terrible danger…. You must go read it, I say! Preferably to the nearest child you can find!
The story is a dramatic reader’s dream. I once read it to a rapt third grade class. There was a boy in the class who thought perhaps he was a little too old for picture books. He loftily requested permission to read his own lengthy chapter book during my reading of Clever Ali. (He was very advanced, terribly gifted.) I gave him permission because I knew it wouldn’t work. Sure enough, by page three—when the history of the oubliette is revealed—that boy sat staring at me, unblinking and open-mouthed, his big ‘ole chapter book having slid off his lap and onto the floor without him realizing it.
The story in Clever Ali cannot be told in under 500 words. I’m glad nobody told Nancy Farmer that was all the words she could use (in 2006) because children couldn’t/wouldn’t sit through anything longer. I’ve yet to meet a child (age 3 and up) who did not make it to the end of this marvelous book, their eyes wide and glowing, big smiles on their faces, and requests to buy/borrow/check-out the book immediately.
The pendulum will swing again. There are stellar picture books under five hundred—even under three hundred—words, to be sure. But we need longer picture books, too.