Two children’s book editors and a librarian gathered for a panel discussion on books in the school and library markets. The panel, part of a discussion series held by the American Book Producers Association, took place at Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village on February 14. The speakers were Rebecca Schosha, children’s librarian, Jefferson Market Library; Grace Maccarone, executive editor, Holiday House; and Joana Costa Knufinke, group editor, Scholastic Library Publishing. The panel was moderated by Stephanie Fitzgerald, founder of the packaging firm Spooky Cheetah and member of the ABPA board of directors.
Topics of discussion included the panelists’ own professional roles, the current state of the school and library markets, creating and marketing educational content, and the kinds of books that kids are most excited to be reading today.
Maccarone spoke first about the changing face of Holiday House. While the long-time publisher has been creating books for the school, library, and trade markets for 80 years, former Holiday House president John Briggs retired this summer and sold the company. Under the new ownership, Maccarone explained, the publisher is planning to expand its catalogue and to publish more books, authors, and illustrators. Going forward with new ideas and projects may include working more with book packagers, which the publisher has rarely done in the past. The publisher will also continue to focus on its tried-and-true series with strong institutional appeal. One example is the I Like to Read series of leveled readers. These books, Maccarone said, are geared toward new readers who might not be ready for a more complex series like Frog and Toad. With titles like Big Cat by Ethan Long, Maccarone believes that the books fill a niche role in the library and school markets. The books feature very simple language and an 8x10 trim size that is larger than early readers for older children. But, despite being geared toward very young readers, they feature quality stories written by “beloved authors,” she said.
Knufinke shared her observations from the frontlines of publishing books with educational content. As an editor at Scholastic Library Publishing, she has observed that some topics are perennial: books about animals are almost always in demand, as are titles that integrate Spanish content. Currently of strong interest are nonfiction books “with a voice,” and “educational books that push the margins” between the trade and education markets. For example, she shared the publisher’s Rookie Poetry—Animal Homes series, which blends nonfiction material about animals with poetry written by J. Patrick Lewis. Scholastic Library also publishes the character-driven series If You Were a Kid, which is set at different pivotal moments throughout American history.
Increasingly, many of Scholastic Library Publishing’s books feature back-matter that Knufinke believes can “give a book a second life,” urging readers to look again and delve more deeply into a book’s content. It’s also a way to give a book increased appeal for schools. For many of the publisher’s titles, readers are meant to finish the book with an understanding of key concepts that often align with the type of overarching curriculum content that readers would be seeing in their schools.
Touching on the topic of book packaging, Knufinke noted that Scholastic Library Publishing actually has a very beneficial relationship with Fitzgerald and her book packaging company Spooky Cheetah. “There’s a learning curve that needs to happen” in order for a book packager and publisher to work effectively together, she said. But after that relationship is formed, “a packager can do a lot of things for a publishing house,” from writing text to creating teacher’s guides to go along with books.
Flying Off the Shelves: Nonfiction and Niche Titles
Schosha shared her firsthand knowledge of the kinds of books readers most often gravitate toward, first explaining how those books get to the library to begin with. She credits Christopher Lassen, youth material selector for the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library, with singlehandedly managing to keep all of the branches stocked with books and doing so very effectively. Beyond the bulk of titles that are ordered centrally, Schosha can and will order specific titles to be purchased for the library. However, recent budget cuts and procedural changes impacting librarians’ abilities to order books through distributors Baker & Taylor have made the whole process of hand-selecting “more arduous,” she said.
Among the types of books that Schosha observes readers clamoring for are nonfiction titles focused on American history; this is a trend that she sees resulting from the election and the success of the musical Hamilton. American history-focused books that are flying off the shelves include the Who Was series from Grosset & Dunlap, which focuses on individuals of historical, cultural, and social importance. Comparing their popularity among kids to the Magic Tree House series, Schosha commented that the series is “written really well,” with an overall design and presentation that is “very appealing to kids.” Readers aren’t just seeking out stories about well-known individuals, but rather appear to be especially intrigued by biographies of “obscure figures,” she added. In other cases, the interests of young library patrons have stayed steady. Readers continue to gravitate toward books about animals and trucks, though interests can often be “very, very specific.” For example, she sees a lot of kids who love to learn about sanitation vehicles, like street sweepers. Overall, she commented that “kids love information,” and sometimes the subject matters of interest can be surprising.
Schosha continues to see interests divided along gender lines, with many girls having an undeniable attraction to pink books and boys being more drawn toward truck books. Yet she also sees girls loving astronomy and dinosaurs. From her perspective, parents and librarians need not deny readers certain books they feel drawn to, but said they are also “responsible for exposing kids to other types of books” that might broaden their interests.
Just as it can be a challenge for librarians to acquire specific titles in a timely fashion, publishers can struggle with getting their books on the radar screens of librarians. “Getting starred reviews is really important,” Maccarone said, noting how books that don’t get starred reviews can be skipped over by librarians and material selectors, even if they are great books with positive reviews. Throughout her career, Maccarone has learned that, regardless of the critical reception a book may or may not get, every title being published is “challenging and expensive. Every book is reinventing the wheel.” Yet it can seem to publishers that sometimes “the whole world is buying I Want My Hat Back and not anything else,” she said.
When it comes to selecting projects to publish, though, Maccarone’s criteria might be similar to any parent entering a library: “I look for something I’d like to take home to read to my daughter,” she said, admitting that her daughter is fully grown now. She added that in her professional role, “I have to justify that choice to others.” For Knufinke, deciding on new material to publish works at the gut level, too: regardless of how educational content is presented, she looks to find “the next beautiful thing.”
The panelists elaborated on the topic of aligning book content with school curriculum. Maccarone shared that Holiday House has been “cautious” when it comes to associating books directly with the controversial Common Core. Though the publisher does not acquire titles specifically because they would meet the standards of the Common Core, they will sometimes market titles in such a way. Regardless of the content of the Common Core and how it is being administered, “how children learn and when they learn it probably hasn’t changed much since I was in school,” said Maccarone, adding that “informational content has always been there.” Schosha believes that one positive aspect of Common Core is that it has encouraged the mindset of “bundling books on custom topics” and has resulted in some very eclectic book lists. “I don’t think Common Core has killed reading,” she added.
On a final note, the panelists addressed the topic of digital vs. print, overwhelmingly agreeing that print is here to stay and that kids strongly prefer reading physical books over reading on devices. Schoscha shared how it is still a common sight at the library to see kids with towering stacks of books ready for check-out. In fact, just the other day at the library, she spoke to a father who was surprised to see how many physical books his daughter was pulling off the shelves to take home. “I just got her a Kindle!” he told Schoscha.