As children’s publishers increase the number of nonfiction books they release each year and new imprints enter the market with visually appealing titles, booksellers have begun rethinking their children’s sections and reexamining the best ways to promote nonfiction titles. Though nonfiction doesn’t account for a large share of children’s inventory at most independent bookstores yet—it’s 15% of children’s books at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, 10% at Square Books, Jr. in Oxford, Miss.—it is poised to take off.
Even before 2009 and the beginning of Common Core, some booksellers were seeing narrative nonfiction and informational books take off. Carol Moyer, manager of the children’s book department at 33-year-old Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C., says that she’s observed sales of nonfiction children’s books grow alongside the spread of digital content. “Yes, kids can use a keyboard, but they still want a book,” Moyer says. “Maybe it gives them more space to explore and more context.”
When Quail Ridge moved to a new 9,000-sq.-ft. location last July, Moyer was able to give the store’s history and biography sections more room and to maintain its commitment to an extensive science section. The Who Was series (Grosset), which Moyer credits with “exploding” the field of children’s biography, now has its own shelf. Picture book biographies are shelved together, because their physical size is so different.
Last fall when the much newer Little City Books in Hoboken, N.J., which opened its doors in 2015, added the 800-sq.-ft. space next door to create a children’s annex, owners Kate Jacobs and Donna Garban decided to devote a 10 ft. x 15 ft. room to nonfiction. “We love hard science, history, biography, and art with good writing mixed with good illustration, “Jacobs says. “We have a whole bright sunny room with loads of face outs.” She adds that one wall is reserved for face-outs of large-format books. Jacobs attributes the growth of nonfiction at Little City to “the growing aversion to the Internet and children spending endless hours on screens.” She notes: “We have an engaged, educated parent community. They are always looking for stimulating information for their kids.”
Checking the Facts
Although the total number of children’s nonfiction books in print has remained steady for the past two years at 55 million, some nonfiction categories are “popping,” according to Kristen McLean, director of new business development at Nielsen Book/Nielsen Entertainment. At a presentation at Children’s Institute in Orlando, Fla., last June, she said that children’s graphic novels, including nonfiction, saw a 62% increase in units from 2014 to 2015. In fact, graphic novels for kids have become so popular that the book industry recently added two new BISAC subject codes to separate juvenile graphic novels from YA: one each for graphic novel YA fiction and nonfiction.
After then-president-elect Donald Trump criticized author and congressman John Lewis on Twitter earlier this month, sales of Lewis’s YA graphic novel March trilogy (Top Shelf), about the civil rights movement and his role in it, moved to the top of many bestseller lists. The series, written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, will likely stay there following the third book’s performance at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards last week—it received the Coretta Scott King Award, the Michael L. Printz Award, the Robert F. Silbert Informational Book Award, and the YALSA award for YA nonfiction.
Active nonfiction that helps kids learn to make and do things, which includes books on coding, is also “popping,” McLean said at Children’s Institute, noting that the number of titles in print jumped 295% between 2014 and 2015. “What we’re really seeing here,” she added, “is kids driving interest in nonfiction that reflect their interests.” Several children’s nonfiction categories have begun to increase over the course of 2016, according to recent Nielsen BookScan data, including history, sports, people, and places; education and reference; holidays, festivals, and religion; biographies and autobiographies; and social situations, family and health.
At Parnassus Books in Nashville, Stephanie Appell, manager of books for young readers, has brought her skills as a former children’s librarian to bear on the store’s nonfiction section, which grew as part of last spring’s store expansion into a neighboring storefront. Parnassus added an additional 1,850 sq. ft. for a total of 5,000 sq. ft. “I’m a nut about making things organized and browse-able,” Appell says. She pulled out YA nonfiction to create a separate section for the first time and tripled the size of the store’s children’s nonfiction offerings. She continues to shelve nonfiction graphic novels with fictional ones, because in her experience, kids who like to read graphic novels are looking for both fiction and nonfiction books in that format.
“For us, [nonfiction] is growing healthily,” Appell says. “Some of that is because customers are coming in looking for it, and customers and staff can find things better [since the expansion].” She’s also seen an increase in schools assigning nonfiction reading, which she attributes to Common Core. A big believer that “everyone’s a reader if you just get the right book,” Appel encourages discovering role models from history, coding, and STEM for both girls and boys.
One of the Parnassus’s top sellers last fall was Melissa Sweet’s middle grade biography of E.B. White, Some Writer! (HMH). “We made a decision as a store that we wanted to champion that book for the holidays,” Appell says. “Ann [Patchett, the store’s co-owner] wrote a shelftalker.” Patchett also listed the book as one of her holiday picks in the New York Times Book Review and on the store’s blog, where she advised readers: “It’s a book for every age, including 53. I loved it.”
Kelsy April, the children’s book buyer for both Bank Square Books in Mystic, Ct., and the nearly year-old Savoy Bookshop and Café (which she also manages) in Westerly, R.I., has made it her personal mission to promote kids’ nonfiction every holiday season. Among her picks for the 2016 holidays were three books popular at many stores: Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley’s picture book biography of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I Dissent (Simon & Schuster) and Kate Schatz’s Rad American Women A-Z (City Lights) and its spin-off, Rad American Women Worldwide (Ten Speed).
Both Bank Square and Savoy have general nonfiction sections for children ages eight and under, which are organized by subject with many heavily illustrated titles. “I’m a huge fan of visual literacy,” says April, who has done well with books from Flying Eye, the children’s imprint of Nobrow Press, and from Big Picture Press, the illustrated imprint launched by Candlewick in 2013. “Publishers are responding really well to the demand for [kids’] nonfiction.” April says she is willing to test books from different types of publishers in the stores, including new illustrated imprints such as 360 Degrees from Tiger Tales, and library-oriented books that are visually stimulating. And she’s big on booking school events with nonfiction writers whose work has a nonfiction underpinning, such as Jacqueline Davies, author of the Lemonade War series (HMH) and Panda Pants (Knopf).
Nonfiction Is Beautiful
“I have always been a self-indulgent nonfiction buyer, with the nonfiction section being situated within a skip and hop from my desk,” says children’s buyer and bookseller Jilleen Moore at Square Books, Jr., the children’s bookstore of Square Books in Oxford, Miss. She credits Mary Pope Osborne’s 25-year-old Magic Tree House series, which mixes fiction and nonfiction, with paving the way for today’s nonfiction titles. Moore gets help choosing which books to stock from staff and from members of the store’s Junior Advisory Board. These middle graders read galleys and alert her to strong nonfiction and fiction titles coming up. Among Moore’s new favorites are the “funky and retro” Flying Eye books and Tundra Books’ Disgusting Critters nonfiction early chapter series, with “Mo Willems–esque” illustrations. The latter picked up momentum at her store over the holidays.
For Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y., fall 2013 was a turning point for kids’ nonfiction, with the publication of Maps (Big Picture), a children’s atlas illustrated by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinska. She says that it “set the bar” for large-format illustrated nonfiction: “Common Core may have gotten the growth started. But what’s driving sales now is a beautiful, vibrant visual presentation paired with subjects that interest kids.”
Though picture books and middle grade nonfiction do best for Hermans, she has seen YA nonfiction grow over the past year in terms of sales. In 2016, her biggest nonfiction titles included the Mizielinskas’ Under Water, Under Earth (Big Picture); Lindsay Mattick and Sophie Blackall’s Finding Winnie (Little, Brown), the story of the bear that inspired Winnie the Pooh; Nancy Castaldo’s The Story of Seeds (HMH); and Cloth Lullaby (Abrams), a picture book biography of the artist Louise Bourgeois.
From the Authors’ POV
From children’s book authors’ and illustrators’ perspective, booksellers’ willingness to stock more nonfiction is good news. “I think kids have always loved true stories; they crave them,” says Tanya Stone, whose latest book for teens, Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time (Random/Lamb, Feb.), was inspired by the girls featured in the documentary of the same name. She has three picture books about little-known women in history, which will begin appearing in 2018, as well as a longer work like Courage Has No Color (Candlewick).
“I write true stories and I call them that,” Stone says. “I use every tool that I would use in fiction, except I don’t make anything up. What I want is for a kid to be engaged in the story.” But she is not happy with the trend of shelving nonfiction picture books by subject. As a parent herself, she says that many parents follow particular authors and illustrators and would prefer to search for them in a single picture book section.
Author and illustrator Jason Chin, a former bookseller at Books of Wonder in New York City, got his start at the same time as Common Core was getting underway. Neal Porter at Roaring Brook bought the first book that Chin wrote and illustrated, Redwoods, and published it under the nonfiction Flash Point imprint in 2009. “My intent was to write picture book stories,” says Chin, whose heavily researched and beautifully constructed books usually feature a girl or boy who launch the action. He says that he was influenced by both The Magic School Bus and the Magic Tree House series. “There’s a fictional story, but you learn some history,” says Chin. He uses a similar technique for his newest title, Grand Canyon (Roaring Brook/Porter, Feb.), which he describes as a “double picture book” because of its 56-page length.
With plenty of different types of nonfiction stories to choose from and kids’ excitement about reading nonfiction, the conditions are right for kids’ nonfiction to grow. “Our nonfiction section has at times past been an albatross, as young adult fiction once was,” Moore says. “Thankfully, people are beginning to think again.”
Do Young Adult Adaptations Work?
While many works of nonfiction, particularly those with beautiful illustrations from trade houses, are resonating with children these days, the bookseller jury is still out on young readers’ adaptations of bestselling adult books, such as The Boys in the Boat (Viking), Hidden Figures (HarperCollins), and Unbroken (Delacorte).
“I’m conflicted about them,” says Kelsy April of Bank Square and Savoy. “I like the option of having them. I always make it clear that it’s not going to be as violent or intense [as the original].” On the other hand, she sells a number of copies to schools.
At Elliott Bay—which has seen its biggest burst in children’s nonfiction sales from middle grade titles such as Winifred Conkling’s Radioactive! (Algonquin) and Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda’s I Will Always Write Back (Little, Brown)—many of the people buying young readers editions are picking them up as ESL titles, notes buyer Holly Myers.
Quail Ridge, which has done particularly well with young readers titles, has also had a number of adult buyers for the book. Not that that’s a problem for Carol Moyer: “A well-written nonfiction book for children can introduce an adult to a topic.”
At Parnassus, Stephanie Appell has gotten a lot of questions from customers about how young readers books are adapted and about whether or not the author is involved. She would like to see more transparency from the publishers about how the books are written.
And some readers would like to know more about how publishers select books and why. Last fall when Delacorte published a YA edition of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, it ran into some blowback on Twitter; one young woman wrote, “I’m an adult now, but I read the original when I was 12 so inner-teen-me is raging.” The decision to create a more kid-friendly version appropriate for younger teens was something that the author, whose parents were teachers, had long wanted to do. He was especially interested in getting young readers interested in digging into history.
As for sales, they can be mixed as well. “[Young readers editions] did well in 2015, but there wasn’t really a big one for us last year,” says Oblong’s Suzanna Hermans. On the other hand 2017 could be better. Now that the movie is in theaters, she is starting to see Hidden Figures move.