Cherubic, bright-eyed babies are Karen Katz’s stock in trade—and in mass market as well. Though hers may not be a household name to all, seven million copies of Katz’s 40-plus board books and picture books have been sold through both the trade and mass market since her first title, Over the Moon: An Adoption Tale, was published by Henry Holt in 1997. Due this month from Little Simon with an announced 100,000-copy first printing is a 10th-anniversary oversize edition of Katz’s bestselling book, Where Is Baby’s Belly Button?
Katz’s route to her current career was circuitous. After graduating from Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and the Yale School of Art and Architecture, she worked as a costume designer for the late magician Doug Henning, a painter, and a designer of record covers. She then launched her own business designing jackets for adult books. Almost two decades ago, a life-changing event spun her in a new direction.
“In 1991, my husband and I adopted our daughter Lena from Guatemala,” she explains. “At that point I stopped to ask myself, ‘What is it I really, really want to be doing?’ The answer came to me immediately: I wanted to illustrate children’s books. Actually, I had wanted to do this years before, when I was 20, but it just hadn’t worked out.” After consulting with a career coach and spending a year building a portfolio, Katz, who creates her art using gouache paint, cut-paper collage, and colored pencil, “decided to see if I could sell myself.”
Her husband, Gary Richards, had written a poem for Lena about being adopted, which had inspired some of Katz’s paintings. She showed her portfolio to a friend who worked at Holt, who promised to pass her work on to the children’s department. Katz soon received a call from editor Laura Godwin, who said she was interested in doing a book with Katz. “I told her about my idea for a book on adoption, and she said it sounded great,” Katz recalls. “And then I asked, ‘But who is going to write it?’ and Laura said, ‘You are.’ I told her I wasn’t a writer, but she told me she knew I could do it. And that’s how Over the Moon came to be. That was the beginning.”
After Katz wrote and illustrated a second book for Holt that was also inspired by her daughter—The Colors of Us, celebrating different skin tones—Lee Wade, a longtime publishing friend who was then creative director at Simon & Schuster, suggested she create a book for very young children. This sparked the idea for Where Is Baby’s Belly Button?, a lift-the-flap board book. “I thought it would be really fun for babies to see their own body parts close-up,” says the author.
“All I had shown Lee was a drawing of a baby I made with magic marker on typing paper,” she says. “And when Lee said she loved the idea, I was so excited and went home and started painting baby after baby—but they weren’t that cute.” Knowing that the baby in her book had to be “absolutely adorable,” Katz painted every day for a month to create the perfect face. “I was getting very nervous since I had a deadline, and suddenly it hit me exactly what proportions were needed to make the baby cute. Thank goodness I finally got it right!” Apparently she did: 10 years later, the original edition of Where Is Baby’s Belly Button? has been translated into 10 languages and has more than 1.5 million copies in print in the U.S. alone.
After creating her first board book, Katz wrote more titles for Little Simon, including Where Is Baby’s Mommy? and Grandma and Me, and in quick succession published books with other imprints, including a series of holiday board books with Holt; Counting Kisses and Counting Christmas with McElderry; manners-themed board books with Grosset & Dunlap; and picture books Princess Baby and Princess Baby Night-Night with Schwartz & Wade.
Katz signing copies of Princess Baby
at the slumber party event at
Vero Beach Book Center.
Mara Anastas, v-p and deputy publisher of Little Simon, Simon Spotlight, Aladdin and Pulse, observes that sales of Katz’s Little Simon titles were strong from the start in independent and chain bookstores and on Amazon, and that the books’ placement in the mass market picked up significantly about two years ago, when Toys R Us began carrying them. “It seems that over time, everyone has found a way to sell her books,” Anastas says. “It’s clear that the mom-to-mom, word-of-mouth factor has had a big impact on sales and that Katz has struck a chord with many, many people.”
Including Cynthia Grabenbauer, director of marketing and publicity for Vero Beach Book Center and Children’s Store in Florida, who notes that Katz’s books are perennially strong sellers for her store. The bookseller hosted Katz a year ago when she was promoting Princess Baby Night-Night. Fittingly, the store staged a pajama party-themed event in its dedicated children’s building, which drew a sizable crowd of would-be princesses in bathrobes and slippers. Grabenbauer attributes the author’s success to “her beautiful illustrations, rhythmic language that is perfect for reading aloud, and her books’ tender topics. These books have staying power.”
from the Vero Beach event.
And Katz is staying her course, predicting that her future projects will include more of the same. “I may take it a little to the right and a little to the left,” she says, “but I’ll be sticking with babies.” Her most recent ventures bear that out. Babies are featured in the new editions of Margaret Wise Brown’s A Child’s Good Morning Book and Sleepy ABC that she illustrated for HarperCollins; in Baby at the Farm, a touch-and-feel board book just out from Little Simon; that imprint’s Brand New Baby series of chunky board books, launching in May; and Princess Baby on the Go, a lift-the-flap picture book with carrying handle due from Schwartz & Wade next fall.
A conversation about Katz’s publishing career ends where it starts: with her daughter. Now 19, Lena “continues to be my complete and total inspiration,” says the author. “Illustrating children’s books was something I wanted to do for so long, and suddenly this beautiful baby came into my life and it happened. I feel that every minute I’ve spent with her—every game, laugh, tickle, and hug—has in some way been an inspiration for my books. Lena wants to be a preschool teacher and has read my books to kids at camps she’s worked at. I think she’s kind of proud of me—even though she’s a teenager.”
Where Is Baby’s Belly Button? Anniversary Edition by Karen Katz. Little Simon, $9.99 ISBN 978-1-416-98733-8