Sometimes clichés play out in impressively creative ways. In the case of Barbara Esham, necessity certainly spawned invention. More than a decade ago, her frustration by the lack of resources to help her and her elementary school-age daughter navigate the latter’s learning struggles drove Esham to create her own series of storybooks. Illustrated by Mike Gordon and self-published in 2008, The Adventures of Everyday Geniuses will have a new look and life when Sourcebooks Jabberwocky’s Little Pickle Press imprint releases repackaged editions of the books on May 1.
The revamped series’s six debut titles, which now feature a uniform cover design, an easy-to-read type font, and newly created back matter addressing the specific issue spotlighted in each story, are Mrs. Gorski, I Think I Have the Wiggle Fidgets; If You’re So Smart, How Come You Can’t Spell Mississippi; Last to Finish: A Story About the Smartest Boy in Math Class; Free Association: Where My Mind Goes During Science Class; Stacey Coolidge’s Fancy-Smancy Cursive Handwriting; and Keep Your Eye on the Prize.
“In 2006, the youngest of my three daughters was struggling academically due to her dyslexia,” said Esham of the books’ genesis. “I found it so difficult to find a bridge between me as a parent and her as a child, and to find the words to help that wouldn’t make her say, ‘Yeah, right. You’re only saying that because you love me.’ ”
The author did extensive research, she explained, “to find information to include in stories that would offer relief to my daughter and other kids, including the fact that many great thinkers throughout history struggled with learning and triumphed over their difficulties. So I wove some of their stories into my fictional stories.”
Esham added that, though her experience as a mother “kickstarted” The Adventures of Everyday Geniuses, her own childhood partially inspired the series. “In second grade, I couldn’t spell ‘Mississippi,’ and a neighborhood kid who could win any spelling bee sensed my insecurity, and would taunt me about it,” she recalled. “So If You’re So Smart, How Come You Can’t Spell Mississippi was pulled from my own past. I’m thankful that experiences like that prepared me to be a compassionate and understanding parent. I feel as though I kind of had a head start.”
Esham’s path to publication entailed significant gumption and savvy on her part. After creating mock-ups of stories tackling such issues as attention, distraction, creativity, perfection, dyslexia, and independence, the author submitted her project to a number of publishers, but received no nibbles. “I’m assuming they all just added my proposal to the stack of 2,000 others they had received!” she noted.
Perseverance Pays Off
Undeterred, Esham resolved to publish the books herself, and lined up Gordon (whose numerous picture book credits include Carmela LaVigna Coyle’s Do Princesses…? series) as illustrator, and successfully solicited endorsements from a handful of renowned psychologists and educators, among them Carol S. Dweck, author of the bestselling Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House). Those accolades, Esham noted, “gave me the confidence to move forward and give self-publishing a try.”
And she did. Then, on what the author called “a very low—actually a nonexistent—marketing budget,” Esham reached out to, and placed her books in, a healthy number of libraries, including those of Harvard, Stanford, and other universities that offer teaching degrees. Esham added that word-of-mouth enthusiasm helped sell an estimated 10,000 copies of each of her six books, and expressed gratitude that “the series seemed to find its way and grow organically.”
Always on the lookout for books fostering “growth mindset,” Kelly Barrales-Saylor, editorial director of nonfiction at Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, was immediately drawn to The Adventures of Everyday Geniuses when she first noticed online praise for the series. “I learned about Barbara’s books from teachers who had tagged them online—on lesson-plan sites and social media sites like Pinterest—as great for teaching growth mindset in the classroom,” she explained. “When I’d search for our own books, The Adventures of Everyday Geniuses kept popping up as well.”
“I knew that this was a perfect fit for our list, alongside such mainstays as Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak and The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein,” she observed. “Barbara’s books are not at all didactic or prescriptive, but instead address emotional concepts and learning issues through realistic stories with lots of humor. The stories help parents see various situations through a child’s eye, and let children who are struggling know that they are not alone—in a positive and uplifting way.”
Sourcebooks is targeting schools and libraries in its sales and marketing efforts for Esham’s books, reported Barrales-Saylor “We are very pleased to add Barbara’s books to the list, and to give them greater exposure to children who need them,” she said. In 2017, Little Pickle’s sales topped 2016 sales by 33%.
The author is similarly enthusiastic about giving a broader base of parents and educators the chance to share her series with struggling children. “I’ve heard many parents say that my books have opened a window into what their child is experiencing during the school day,” she said. “I know that many times, when kids think they’re not succeeding, they feel a sense of shame and feel very alone. This series allows children to identify with characters at a time when they feel there is no one they can identify with, and I’m very excited that the new Little Pickle editions will reach many more readers than I have been able to reach on my own.”