The Southern California Independent Booksellers Association pulled out all the stops for children’s books at its annual trade show and Authors Feast last weekend at the Renaissance Hotel in Los Angeles.
More than one-third of the 50 authors at the Authors Luncheon and Authors Feast were authors or illustrators of children’s books, and both of the afternoon kids’ panels were packed. SCIBA’s commitment to children’s booksellers is longstanding, reinforced this year by the organization’s decision to include children’s bookstores on its annual Bookstore Tour. Based on the general buzz at the show, the market for children’s books seems to be holding steady in a challenging economic time. Kristen McLean, executive director of Association of Booksellers for Children, traveled to the trade show to participate and moderate both panels.
“The New Age of Reading: A Look at the Most Interesting Developments in Children’s Literacy and Digital Content” kicked off the afternoon of educational outreach and discussion. “Kids’ books account for 10% of the market, and are the best lens through which to view trends of reading and consumer habits,” McLean told the audience of booksellers, teachers, and librarians. “Paper books and electronic books will continue to exist side by side as time goes on.”
McLean explained what she considers to be the four key trends in children’s books, beginning with the concept of transmedia. Prior to the age of the Internet, she said, book marketing was limited to traditional avenues of print and radio advertising and author tours. Transmedia, however, allows publishers to spread both content and ideas to a variety of media platforms, including Smartphone apps, Web sites, movies, and social networking. For users of transmedia, the ability to research authors and books creates a gateway for many kinds of exploring. “From now on this is the way young readers will be in the world,” McLean said.
In the concept of the second trend, information moves from a cathedral, or single-expert viewpoint, to a marketplace model that embraces many points of view in a wide-ranging environment. As an example, McLean described the successful self-directed inquiry of a student named Griffin Black who single-handedly, using tools found on the Internet, built a replica of the electric guitar used by Mike Campbell of the rock band The Heartbreakers.
McLean introduced several collaborative Web sites while describing the third trend: the consumer as creator. The first, Fanfiction.net, allows young writers to post stories and share them with other users; at present the site has 2.2 million stories in 39 languages. On the Figment.com site a similar literary engagement for young people is in beta form but will soon expand to its full scope of collaborative writing posts. “The audience is creatively inspired to participate on these sites,” said McLean. “Kids can take full advantage of collaborative experiments and personal expression.”
The final trend focuses on the child’s inner circle, where peers and family members become the dominant influencers to determine what content is worth looking at. Citing that these trusted and valued sources are more meaningful than anything children can get from the outside world, McLean argued that advertising is “no longer effective” and publisher and author Web sites aren’t used that much anymore. “More often than not,” McLean noted, “kids find books by researching authors they’re already familiar with, or they go with books that friends recommend. Browsing in bookstores is another way that they’re finding new books.”
The second panel, “Books vs. Bullying: Fighting One of Today’s Most Insidious Problems with Great Books,” generated a lively and emotional response from audience members, many of whom were parents with kids who’d experienced the effects of bullying in one form or another. Joining McLean to discuss the issue were Andrea Vuleta, buyer for Mrs. Nelson’s Toys and Books in La Verne; author/illustrator Kathryn Otoshi (One and Zero, KO Kids Books), whose laryngitis caused her to provide written comments only; and Mary Hanlon Stone (Invisible Girl, Penguin), a district attorney for Los Angeles County who handles criminal juvenile cases, many of which involve bullying.
Otoshi explained that One was originally conceived as a book with characters that had faces, but she then decided to simply use colors to represent the feelings and emotions inherent in bullying. “This works well because there are no particular people in the book,” said Vuleta. “There are no stereotypes, and it’s very simplistic, which makes it easier for the child reading the book to absorb the information and causes adults to really ponder it, too.”
Hanlon recalled a court case of a young female student who was called a whore during an off-campus incident, resulting in her being ostracized at her school. The D.A. decided it best that she bring all the mothers of those concerned together for a meeting to discuss how best to deal with the situation, which was ultimately a very effective tool. “Bullying is a vicious cycle that has to be broken,” Hanlon said. “Parents have to set the example for relationships among kids to improve.”
With the exception of the Montessori schools, which have a “peace curriculum,” McLean said that it’s difficult to determine how many school systems, if any, have adopted anti-bullying books for classroom use. An extensive list of suggested titles compiled by McLean that range from early childhood books to middle grade novels was distributed during the panel discussion. Her favorite anti-bullying picture books include Doodle Bites and Hello, Tilly by Polly Dunbar (Candlewick); Goggles by Jack Ezra Keats (Viking); and Chester’s Way by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow). In the nonfiction YA category, Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World, by Rosaline Wiseman (Random House) received particular mention, and middle-grade novels Bystander by James Preller (Feiwel and Friends) and Dexter the Tough by Margaret Peterson Haddix (S&S) were also highlighted. “Books like these give us the opportunity to lay down the baseline of moral codes for kids,” Vuleta said. “They bring in the empathy card, which is very important and also serve as our salvation as adults.”
The panelists all agreed that it’s essential to expose kids to great books as they move through the difficult phases of adolescence and young adulthood. “Booksellers can and should take the role as leaders in the community,” McLean urged.
Later in the day Vuleta raved about several of the new books for the holiday season. She is particularly looking forward to Nathan Hale’s The 12 Bots of Christmas (Walker), Rosemary Wells’s On the Blue Comet (Candlewick), The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi (Simon & Schuster), and School of Fear by Gitty Daneshvari (Little, Brown). “Right now [our sales are] up about 8% in books,” Vuleta said, “although we’re down in toys, and I’m not sure why.”
Kris Vreeland, manager of the children’s department at Vroman’s in Pasadena, noted that customers started buying Christmas books “as soon as we put them out, and I’m hopeful that we’ll have a great season despite the unpredictable aspects we’re all facing.” She’s noticed a trend that points to “feel-good” titles and classic books that families can all read together. Among her picks for the holidays are: The Familiars by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson (HarperCollins); Marla Frazee’s The Boss Baby (S&S/Beach Lane), which won SCIBA’s best picture book award for 2010; It’s a Book by Lane Smith (Roaring Brook); The Clockwork Three by Matthew Kirby (Scholastic); and Ellen Hopkins’s Fallout (S&S/McElderry).
“I’m excited about the Christmas rush,” said Vreeland. “I think we all are. It’s the time of year when one-on-one selling is the most meaningful, and that’s what bookselling is all about.”