M.I.A. – The 150-Page Novel
As the subcommittee chair for our state’s children’s literature award for grades 4-6, I get a lot of free books. It’s a great perk! I get to see a lot of newly published books for kids (and add them to my classroom library!)
Here are two stacks of books I have received this year. I’ll let you guess how I’ve sorted them.
On the left, you can see all the children’s novel targeted toward 9-12 year-olds that have 200 or more pages. On the right are the novels below 200 pages. This visual representation supports a trend I have noticed in recent years: the 150-page novel is disappearing from the world of children’s literature.
Now, your first reaction is to bring up a great children’s novel you recently read that has under 200 pages, which I’m sure you can do (remember, we’re talking novels here – not picture books or graphic novels). You’ve probably got a great one in your mind. But can you name three more? That becomes much more difficult.
Why is this happening? I’m not an industry insider, but I can make some guesses:
- Graphic novels are flying off the shelves. Maybe publishers think reluctant readers will only be reading graphic novels, so they are not publishing shorter chapter books for upper elementary.
- More early reader chapter books are being published. Keep in mind, though, that these are often targeted to 7-8 year olds and have covers a sixth-graders wouldn’t be caught dead with.
- Page sizes, font sizes, and line spacing are being altered to lengthen books. This is just a guess, but maybe a novel that would have been 180 pages is being lengthened purposely to 250 pages using these tools.
The consequences of the lack of short novels for elementary are becoming more pronounced and more serious each year. These issues have always been present and teachers have taught students strategies to deal with them for years, but I see them being magnified in recent years.
1. Poor-fit books – Students choose books they think they should be reading instead of books that are a good fit. Again, I know this has always taken places, but with more students whose comprehension is on-grade-level reading 300-page books, there is more pressure for developing readers to choose giant books from the library in order to fit in with their peers. This leads directly to problem #2…
2. Too much book abandonment – There’s a place for abandoning a book, and it’s a skill we can teach to students. However, proficient readers finish most of the books they start. Developing readers need to be taught this and see it has a goal. Unfortunately, the decline in short novels targeted toward elementary students means that these readers are trying to slug through the giant books they choose, usually not finishing, and teachers have fewer options to recommend.
3. Difficulty broadening reading experiences – Graphic novels are amazing. We’ve seen this formerly-ostracized format move into the mainstream, even picking up a Newbery Honor Award in January (El Deafo by Cece Bell). Graphic novels are also wonderful tools to help developing readers learn to love reading, while at the same time developing their literacy skills and strategies they need. However, as teachers, we want readers to have a broad range of reading experiences. We like telling students, “I noticed you been reading a lot of graphic novels in this genre. Here’s a chapter book you might enjoy, too.” With fewer short novels, there are simply fewer selections now available to readers who want to step outside their comfort zone and try something new.
4. Difficulty with certain reading strategies – Certain reading skills and strategies require a student to have read an entire text. It’s hard to summarize or determine the theme of an abandoned books. With so many extraordinarily long children’s books, students are losing opportunities to process and practice these strategies. Yes, picture books are a workaround (and often a good choice) to deal with this, but students need these experiences at the end of a book they read over multiple days as well. Book choices for this are dwindling.
None of these problems are insurmountable for a well-read, thoughtful reading teacher, but having more tools would help teachers handle their daily challenges.
I’ll end with a plea to authors and publishers: Upper elementary students need novels under 200 pages. If you publish them, we will buy them and read them!