At a panel on Common Core at BookExpo America, a number of booksellers in the audience seemed anxious about how to incorporate the new state standards into their stores. Even so, that put them one step ahead of many of their customers, who know little about the new standards altogether, although they have already begun rolling out in some of the 45 states that have signed on, including New York. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia opted out, while Minnesota is only adopting the standards for English language arts. According to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released in late August, 52% of parents had heard “only a little” or “nothing at all” about Common Core.
Fortunately for booksellers, publishers have been meeting with educators for the past year and a half to get a clearer understanding of what Common Core, with its emphasis on critical thinking, means for their publishing programs. During that time, many have begun aligning their books to the Common Core, creating Web sites, reading guides, and Pinterest boards that emphasize the standards (Penguin has even developed a Common Core–specific book series), all with teachers, parents, and booksellers in mind.
Trade Books in the Classroom
As former educator Victoria Stapleton, director of the school and library market at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, remarked at the BEA panel, “This is not about reinventing the wheel.” She views Common Core as another way for publishers to reach out to educators with trade titles. “I think it’s a welcome change to get away from bubble testing,” she says, adding, “I think we can all agree that having kids engage in the world around them in a fluent, sophisticated fashion is to be applauded.” For Stapleton, helping booksellers and librarians understand how a book can be used to fit Common Core standards can be as simple as an editor noting in the tip sheet that a novel is historical or has multiple points of view.
At Little, Brown, being Common Core–ready also means working with educators at Bank Street College in New York City to develop two-page teachers’ guides that focus on how a book aligns with the standards. Common Core Classroom Ready Guides are much shorter and contain fewer projects than the press’s typical guides. Stapleton plans to release between five and 10 per season to give teachers a starting point, or trigger, for books like Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee or Jenny Han’s Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream, illustrated by Julia Kuo. “It’s really about giving a variety of things to educators, so they can pick what they need for the classroom. Teachers know what they’re doing is my philosophy,” Stapleton says.
Educator guides and Common Core correlations on tip sheets are two strategies that many publishers are employing, from smaller presses like Peachtree Publishers in Atlanta, which has long straddled the line between the trade and educational markets, to much larger ones like Random House and Scholastic. At Boyds Mills, the trade division of Highlights for Children, these strategies are also key. “Since much of the Common Core is in fact ‘common sense’–based and is, at its heart, about bringing trade books into the classroom as teaching tools, we are figuring out ways to help teachers do what they always do: select great books for their students,” says Kerry McManus, marketing and permissions manager for Boyds Mills and Highlights. She anticipates the press benefiting from the new standards’ emphasis on nonfiction and information texts, which are among its strengths. Boyds Mills is also the only children’s publisher with a dedicated poetry imprint—WordSong.
“We’re all Common Core, all the time,” says Donna Spurlock, director of marketing at Charlesbridge Publishing in Watertown, Mass. “We like to joke that our books were Common Core before there was a Common Core.” The Charlesbridge list is 50% nonfiction and includes books like Melissa Stewart’s newly released No Monkeys, No Chocolate, which is Common Core–ready, with its descriptions of the life cycle of the cocoa bean tree.
“Our long-held editorial philosophy already has the hallmarks of good Common Core books,” says Charlesbridge editorial director Yolanda Scott. “We look for innovative and knowledgeable authors and illustrators with a passion for information, language, and storytelling.” The press is currently in the midst of updating all the books on its Web site to reflect the standards associated with them. It’s also working with area booksellers like Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., and Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., to give presentations on Common Core–appropriate titles to staff and customers.
Last spring, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group created a promotional piece that focused on a group of Common Core titles, in addition to several standalone guides for books like Jack Gantos’s 2012 Newbery Medal winner, Dead End in Norvelt. Macmillan’s “Common Core Central” brochure is used at conferences, and reps distribute copies to booksellers such as Barnes & Noble and Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville, Ill., to hand out at fall educator nights. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt created a similar group flyer for Educator Week events, with its exemplar titles included in Appendix B of the standards, which points out some past Common Core–appropriate titles.
Although editorial plays a key role in Common Core titles, as Justin Chanda, publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Atheneum, and McElderry sees it, the burden of getting the message out about how a book fits the standards falls heaviest on the marketing department. “The best we can do,” he says, “is point out the nutritional value of books.” Although he’s pleased that a school in upstate New York adopted Jeanette Winters’s Nasreen’s Secret School, he cautioned that this fact alone doesn’t make it a Common Core title. “It’s more about what works in a curriculum,” he notes.
Common Core on the Cover?
“Clarity of messaging is obviously important in letting customers know that our titles are strong tools for Common Core,” says Lindsay Matvick, senior publicist at Lerner Publishing Group. The press has its books evaluated by Academic Benchmarks to determine which are best to support specific standards. While Lerner, like other publishers, has resisted stickering its books with the words “Common Core,” it tries to use the cover to send the message in other ways. “We indicate whether we offer eSource materials for a title,” she says, referring to the Web site where Lerner places free digital discussion and teaching guides and games for teachers and librarians. It also lists Common Core connections in its catalogues and ads, and has begun offering Common Core Library collections of print and e-books.
“Since almost any trade book can be used or linked to Common Core anchors, we are not singling out any specific titles via their cover or jacket copy,” says Lucy Del Priore, director of school and library marketing for Macmillan. The press is one of several preparing or just completing digital catalogues with Common Core search fields. Its guide went live last month.
Scholastic began a similar initiative, starting with 300 titles. Among those selected were nonfiction series like the Magic School Bus and Scholastic Science Readers, as well as classic fiction like Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising and Christopher Paul Curtis’s Elijah of Buxton. “These titles already experience a healthy life in classrooms, but will now have specific relevance to the Common Core,” says John Mason, director of library and education marketing for trade books. Working with a team of independent educational consultants, Scholastic tagged each title to three standards across three grade levels. The company also created an Edelweiss catalogue and made the list available to its reps, who can customize it for their accounts.
Last week, Scholastic upgraded its corporate Common Core site for teachers and parents. It includes a “Get Answers” section on technology, writing, math, and early literacy; booklists for grades K–12; and basics on Common Core, as well as info on how parents should choose texts to read at home with their children. And Scholastic has added text-based questions and activities to the back of its Branches line of chapter books for young readers to encourage conversations around the stories. The Scholastic Reading Club and Book Fairs also allow the publisher to provide information to families about the standards and reinforce the importance of reading aloud to children.
Changes in Publishing?
The new standards haven’t changed Scholastic’s publishing program in a “fundamental” way. “It has certainly influenced us,” says Mason. “While we don’t tailor our books to meet the Common Core, we are aware of how certain books and series are particularly suited to the standards,” he notes, adding, “With these works, we let teachers and parents know how they can best enhance children’s reading experiences, while helping them build knowledge and vocabulary.”
Similarly, says Jen Loja, v-p, associate publisher of Penguin Young Readers Group, “Common Core hasn’t necessarily changed our publishing program, instead [it has] given us a platform to discuss nonfiction in a more proactive way with not just teachers and librarians, but also parents.” Although the press isn’t changing cover or flap copy, it is taking advantage of other opportunities—for instance, it has developed a line of 8 x 8 books specifically geared to state standards. The Penguin Core Concepts series from the house’s Grosset & Dunlap imprint will cover key themes, as the series name suggests, and are geared toward parents, teachers, and libraries. The series will launch with four nonfiction titles in January and covers 20 concepts taught in early grades, from animals to problem solving. In addition to the new series, Penguin has accelerated some of its other programs, like its Who Was? biography series.
Some other publishers are also upping their nonfiction offerings. Earlier this summer, Phoebe Yeh joined Random House Children’s Books in the newly created post of v-p, publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, which will have a nonfiction focus. “There is room for tremendous growth there with what is happening in schools with the Common Core curriculum,” Yeh told PW when the appointment was announced. Random, like other publishers, has already seen sales grow for its books on the Common Core Appendix B list. RHCB president and publisher Barbara Marcus sees this as an indication that educators want guidance on which titles to focus on. “We are looking closely at backlist and frontlist publishing, and at different ways to share it with educators,” she says, adding, “This is really just the beginning of examining this area of publishing and marketing to teachers.”
For Peachtree president and publisher Margaret M. Quinlin, Common Core has had a greater impact on what her company publishes. “It has definitely influenced our thinking about our acquisitions program,” she says. “In an important sense, it has freed us to pursue subjects for acquisitions with more confidence that there is a stronger potential audience for them.” As an example, she cites Peachtree’s interest in combining fiction and nonfiction within picture books and middle-grade books. “We see increased demand for some of these titles with the Common Core connect,” Quinlin notes. At Charlesbridge, “a selling point for picking up a new author is certainly that he or she has Common Core knowledge and/or experience,” says Megan Quinn, manager of school and library sales. “It wouldn’t necessarily have tipped the scales previously,” she adds.
But Common Core hasn’t significantly affected the publishing program at HMH Books for Young Readers. “We are gratified that so many teachers are choosing to fill their classrooms with HMH books, which we are making available in as many formats as possible,” says senior v-p and publisher Betsy Groban. She notes, “In many ways, the Common Core validates what we have been doing for nearly 150 years—seeking out, developing, and publishing the very best books of fiction and nonfiction by the very best authors, and marketing them wholeheartedly to all constituencies.”
Although Simon & Schuster’s Chanda has added a little more nonfiction to his list, “at the end of the day,” he says, “our job is to continue to bring fiction that can be used on multiple levels. Look at Laure Halse Anderson’s Chains or Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk. It’s perfect for Common Core, and it was perfect before Common Core. The goal for a trade publisher is to publish great books.”