The symbolism was not lost at this past Tuesday’s meeting of the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council, held at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., that Ken Geist, v-p and editorial director of Orchard Books and Scholastic Press Picture Books, and author of the picture book The Three Little Fish, should choose this setting to ask independent booksellers to get behind picture books. “I’m not finishing this year until we move the needle and sell more picture books,” said Geist, who added that he was not speaking on behalf of Scholastic. “I’m here to talk about what we can do collectively to raise the profile of picture books.”
While the picture book may not be endangered, it has been troubled for a while. As Geist pointed out, a $16.99 jacketed picture book is a hard sell, and where publishers once printed 20,000 copies, now 6,000 is a more typical run. Customers don’t want to buy unjacketed books and often the numbers don’t work for a separate paperback printing. Nor is simultaneous publication an option, since hardcovers and paperbacks are often printed in a different place.
What can booksellers and a coalition of publishing folks do? Geist is looking to create a grassroots movement. Among his own thoughts for getting kids back into bookstores: creating a mailbox that stores could put up so that kids can write to their favorite author. Then the coalition would sort the letters, get them to the right publisher, and make sure each child got a response.
NECBA members’ suggestions varied from a teacher’s guide that focuses on bullying titles with strong basic stories to an index of the names and genders of the main characters in picture books. One bookseller suggested making next year the Year of the Picture Book and getting people involved. Among the issues that booksellers already confront is that many people don’t know what a picture book is, and those who do are looking for more text. In addition, some parents are jumping their children out of picture books as early as ages four and five, and moving them into chapter books.
Joining Geist in pleading for picture books was author/illustrator Elisha Cooper, whose newest picture book, Farm (Orchard), Geist edited. “My goal or my hope,” said Cooper,” “is that good books can be elevated. Let a little book that’s good have some air.” Singling out celebrity books like Tori Spelling’s upcoming fall release, Presenting...Tallulah, he added, “My worry is that that book isn’t going to make a lifelong reader.”