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Which Came First: Shorter Kids’ Books or Shorter Attention Spans?

A reader named Jennifer Zahren wrote recently with an interesting question: are modern children’s books shorter than they used to be (Jennifer certainly thinks so) and if so, why? Do kids have a shorter attention span? Do adults wrongly assume that kids have a shorter attention span? Do adults have a shorter attention span? Do the parents have less time to read longer books to their kids? Here’s her letter:

I would be curious if over the past 50 or 75 years there have been any significant trends in children’s books, especially in the number of words used, number of pages, and the ratio of words to pictures. It struck me this evening as I was reading the original “Curious George” book to my two-year-old son (published in 1941 and 54 pages long). We also often read some of the newer books in the series (cuter pictures, but much fewer pages, fewer words, etc.). There are many more complaints of children’s attention spans being lower, diagnosis of ADD and ADHD, etc. So it makes me wonder, who lost their attention span first? The moms and dads (who decided they didn’t have it in them to read 54 pages of “Curious George” — no harm no foul there, perhaps the job market got tougher, they had to stay later at work and were too tired to tackle such a project?). Or was it the children whose attention spans suffered or needed the brighter graphics, fewer words and pages? But if so, why? And if the parents, why?

I have a few quick thoughts:

1. There are a lot more children’s books published now than ever (just as there are more adult books published), so there are bound to be a lot of short ones along with the longer ones.

2. With so much children’s TV programming, there are a lot of tie-in books. Sometimes the books come first; sometimes the TV show does. In either case, the episodic nature of TV is bound to cross-pollinate the world of kids’ books, which means that instead of one long chapter book about, say, the Berenstain Bears, you now have approximately four trillion Berenstain Bears books to mirror the segments of the TV show.

3. Once a kid is used to seeing the image of a character in action on TV or in a movie, whether it’s Angelina Ballerina or Curious George (who recently got his own show on PBS), it’s probably a natural temptation for publishers to use that imagery extensively. Especially because all that expensive artwork has already been produced by the TV show or the movie.

4. Different kids do have different learning styles. My daughter, who’s nearly five, takes in visual information voraciously; when she goes to a museum or the ballet, she sees things that none of the rest of us do. Meanwhile, my son, who’s six, will happily listen for hours to a story without a single image; he loves audio books and we’ve worked our way through an edition of Kipling’s The Jungle Book that has only a few woodcut illustrations. So it may be that kids like my daughter were underserved by the old guard of kids’ books that skimped on the imagery, and that the market has caught up. This is potentially true, of course, only if Jennifer is actually right about the state of kids books today.

Other thoughts?