Picture books should be as long as they need to be. That every-word-perfect standard is high.
Traditionally, the core market audience for picture books is 4 to 7. However, picture books are increasingly used with older kids, even teenagers; ie: In fact, Kelly Milner Halls' Albino Animals was both a YALSA Quick Pick and BBYA this past year.
Forces I suspect drive the shorter-picture book trend include: (1) pushing younger and younger children to read novels (AKA "growing up is a race");* (2) the decline of the school/library market, which means that there is less money for literary trade books in the classroom; (3) the emphasis on standardized testing, which means there is less time for literary trade books in the classroom; (4) the decline of local bookstores (buyers appear to favor curriculum tie-in and bedtime stories); (5) the rise of national bookstores (buyers appear to favor books more for a rousing storytime); and (6) an emphasis on mainstream American consumers (as opposed to ethnic minorities, urbans, etc.).
That said, the industry is notoriously cyclical, and change can be counted on.
My first picture book, Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) was 850 words. The picture book that my husband and I wrote together this past year and for which we just signed a contract with Dutton is 1012 words (before final edits). The latter is a quicker read aloud because of the pacing and tone.
So, believe in your stories and polish, polish, polish!
*"My seven year old can read Harry Potter!"
"Well, my four year old can read Harry Potter!"
"My baby read Harry Potter in utero!"
Madame Esmé and I spoke about this rather frightening parenting trend on a panel at a recent Texas Book Festival. Visit her at Planet Esmé.
Thanks to the following folks for their recent comments on this blog or its LJ syndication: illustrator Don Tate; author D.L. Garfinkle, author Haemi Balgassi; the Complimenting Complimenter; author Laurie Halse Anderson; author Mary E. Pearson; writer Kimberly Pauley; and author Cynthia Lord.
It was on CynthiaL's blog that I learned about another great one, Notes from the Slush Pile.
Thanks also to Debbi Michiko Florence for her recent congratulations on mine and Greg's picture book sale to Dutton!