As someone who never read picture books as a child (the only kid I know who never cared to look at the pictures) and who has yet to successfully write a salable one, my primary qualification in writing this post is as a mother to a three-year-old and five-year-old. Yes, I realize that I am hardly unique in this regard, but bear with me for a moment.
Those pesky editors we keep hearing about who want picture books to be shorter than 300 words? I have a confession. They are my heroes!
Despite the oft-heralded demise of the picture book, both of my kids are read to at school daily. My son's preschool has an aftercare program called Leaping Into Literature, in which each day's activities are tied to the picture book du jour. (They cooked Stone Soup last week - yum.) The breadth of literature read is impressive and spans Hans Christian Andersen to Weird Al. But at home, we chiefly read at bedtime. And if at bedtime I pluck from the shelf a book with enough words to place sleep another ten minutes from our reach -- back it goes in all due haste.
When my kids were very little, I took them to story time at the library. Mostly I would chase them through the stacks in our (blessedly!) tiny branch. While I started reading to them when they were infants, it took until they were about three until they learned to sit still for a good story. My son, age 3.5, can now read simple texts himself and will listen attentively to a book for at least fifteen minutes; however, I'm still not sure how much he comprehends. For my daughter, the bedtime routine might include a picture book, an easy reader, and/or a chapter of a book meant for older readers. Sometimes I read, sometimes she reads, and sometimes we read to each other. While she may practice her independent reading skills with an appropriately leveled easy reader, there are picture books that she could never read herself that have plots and vocabulary more befitting the story sense of a child her age. Each has its purpose, and indeed, the pictures serve an important function in helping children to decode the words.
Apropos of reader Bruce's recent comment about multi-layered picture books, a few weeks ago I was reading Jan Brett's Gingerbread Friends to Kate for the first time. In keeping with my typical failure to study the (gorgeous) illustrations, I got to the end of the story and was baffled as to what had happened. Where did the gingerbread friends come from? "Well," Kate said patiently, "Mattie was baking them. See the pictures inside the hearts?" She pointed to the story within a story unfolding in the margins.
Me: We got a new book. It's called Dear Tabby. A tabby is a type of cat, and I know you like to read about cats.
Kate: A pussycat is another type of cat. What does 'pussy' mean?
Ah, aren't books great conversation starters?)
For every 1,000-word book my daughter may read now, she will be just as happy to return to the board books for her infancy. Can't we all relate to the nostalgia for the simpler days of our youth? :)
I calculate that I spent roughly five years (3,000 sittings, conservatively estimated) reading the same fifty or so books (happily) and the another fifty or so more (not so happily) to my under-three set. I don't care how 'soft' the picture book market is at the moment. There is a dearth of books with very few words that are meant for the youngest readers -- the sort that our JoAnn Early Macken writes so beautifully.
This is, needless to say, a tough market to write for. Those of us who are also artists have a leg up. Those of us who were kept after school in kindergarten because we were deficient in cutting skills (*raises hand*) have considerably larger hurdles when it comes to pitching a concept-heavy book for the youngest readers in which the pictures that we can't draw will tell a large part of the story. But take heart from JoAnn (as I do). It can be done!
Whoever your audience, whatever you do -- spend time with a little kid. Get inspired. Enjoy!
Crystallize your one-sentence idea.
Write your book for a one-year-old.
Write it for a three-year-old.
Write it for a five-year-old.
If you are feeling very ambitious, write it for a seven-year-old.
Observe how it changes with each iteration.
Observe how it stays the same.
Read it to a real kid (or three or four).