Word counts in picture books are getting pushed down, down, down. Used to be, not so many years ago, picture books could be 1000 words long. Now some agents won’t even look unless they’re under 400 words. What does this do to nonfiction picture books? How do you recreate a world, provide historical context, and tell an engaging story in so few words?
Just when I start to despair, Yuyi Morales aims a karate chop at the nonfiction world. This book is 31 words long. (Or you could say it is twice as long if you read both the Spanish and the English; both are included on every page.) The second to last page has the most words on it: 4.
How does she do it? She reconceives what a nonfiction picture book is supposed to do. You don’t come out of this book being able to recite any facts at all about Frida Kahlo. You can glean information from the illustrations. That’s where the heart of the book is–the illustrations play with themes and motifs in Kahlo’s life and art. There’s even an entire subplot, involving the rescue of a fawn, in the illustrations.
If you’re hungry for more traditional nonfiction fodder, Morales has included a 400 word essay in the back (again, in both English and Spanish) that talks about how she came to love Kahlo and briefly gives biographical data and looks at Kahlo’s legacy.
We need some longer nonfiction picture books, but this book proves that we can do with some super-short ones, too.
Viva Frida, by Yuyi Morales. Roaring Brook Press: 2014.