I’m obviously a bit sensitive these days about my profession. I’m not claiming we’re above reproach. Hardly. And I think the dialogue between librarians and editors has been enhanced by the Internet and this is a great thing for books and authors. But Tough Love: And Open Letter to Kids’ Book Publishers in the latest SLJ has at least one thing absolutely wrong and backwards from my vantage point:
It's time to tighten up those stories. Unless you're publishing Madame Bovary or The Brothers Karamazov, 200 pages is plenty. And, yes, I know all about “Harry Potter” and “Redwall,” two series that successfully exceed that limit. But they're not the norm. And if a hefty book isn't super popular, its length can easily overwhelm many young readers. Plus, long novels often smack of assigned reading—even for middle school and high school students. Still not convinced that less is more? Consider these relatively thin titles: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (167 pages), Charlotte's Web (184 pages), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (155 pages), The Adventures of Captain Underpants (128 pages), Casino Royale (181 pages), Of Mice and Men (118 pages), and A Separate Peace (196 pages). I rest my case.
This is tricky. I don’t disagree that there are books out there that are too long, and I really love short novels, but I respectfully (but firmly) reject the notion that there is a meaningful general limit to length. I also disagree that the case “rests” on the precedents of previous generations, as though these earlier books are faultless archetypes of what makes good novel writing for young people (they are not, and more importantly, the eras they represent were obviously not). The case in art NEVER rests. Nothing is more damaging to the genre or its audience than to minimize expectations and opportunities for readers or writers. This is the straightest path back to second class status for the creation of children’s books. As an editor, I refuse to be a party to this. Do books get shorter in the editing process? Absolutely. But that is not the goal and it shouldn’t be. The goal is always the best book.
I suspect many novelists who write for children have heard versions of this comment: “When are you going to write a real novel?” Heartbreaking, right? Every one who works with books for children is diminished by this perception and we should all be fighting the inferiority complex, not contributing to it.
(Also, the notion that long novels smack of assigned reading seems doubtful to me. At least two of the short novels she mentioned are staples of assigned reading, along with notable short novels like The Pearl and Lord of the Flies, among others. I suspect with more energy focused on testing, the trend in assigned reading will be toward short. I’m inclined to think extracurricular entertainment (including gaming) will have to carry the torch for the long form narrative, not the other way around. But that’s for another day.)