Children's book publishers are still reeling from the New York Times front-page story back in October called "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children." Was the venerable newspaper right? Or do publishers consider the article and its alarming title the kid-lit equivalent of "Dewey Defeats Truman"?
The evidence: BookScan figures show that last year, picture books represented 10.8% of the overall children's market—virtually the same as in 2005, when they represented 10.7%. "For us right now, picture books are still vibrant and thriving," said HarperCollins Children's Books president Susan Katz.
Several publishers PW spoke with disagreed with the Times reporter who wrote about the declining importance and popularity of picture books. "I don't really see this phenomenon she's talking about," said Karen Lotz, publisher of Candlewick Press. "I definitely don't think it's so bleak," said Mary Ann Sabia, v-p and associate publisher of Charlesbridge Publishing.
Some reported surprise that the Times placed the story on its front page. "It really felt like filler to me," said Chip Gibson, president and publisher of Random House Children's Books. His division's hardcover picture-book sales have grown and remain among the house's most profitable lines. Sales of jacketed picture books (not even including backlist staple Dr. Seuss) are strong and based on a broad list, "not just three or four superstar things," he said. "It's a very pleasurable business culturally, aesthetically, and economically."
"[The article] made the team here at Harper first sad and then mad, because we don't see it that way," said Katz. The market is hardest for midlist books that sell 10,000 to 15,000 copies, she said, but titles such as Knuffle Bunny Free, My Mommy Hung the Moon, Scaredy-Cat, Splat, Pinkalicious, and Fancy Nancy are selling "like hotcakes. Go to any retail outlet or library, sit in the area where the picture books are, watch the kids come in with their parents and caregivers, and see what you think."
Booksellers, too, disagree with the Times piece. "I was very surprised by it, and disappointed, too," said Diane Capriola, co-owner of Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga. For her, picture book sales are up about 20% over last year. They're also slightly higher this year at Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine. Owner Kenny Brechner, who sighs over "ill-advised" celebrity books and too many sequels, said, "The picture books that do the best are a real marriage of writing and illustration."
The article upset agents as well. "I remember having my coffee early that morning, and I let out a shriek," said George Nicholson, senior agent at Sterling Lord and a former publisher. He noted the "eight pages of letters, all quite indignant," in the online letters section. "A number of people who had been interviewed for the article felt they spent a lot of time with her and had been much more nuanced in what they said," Nicholson said. His biggest worry about the piece? "A lot of the damage is the reckless headline. It gives the suits at the top a chance to say it's a dying business."
The story also overlooked Ben Franklin's brainchild: libraries. "They were looking at it from the perspective of booksellers as opposed to libraries," said Karen MacPherson, the children and youth services coordinator at Takoma Park Library in Maryland and a writer for Scripps. In her children's section, picture books are "very popular"—a close second to graphic novels when it comes to circulation.
Just what is going on with children's picture books? The true story is more complicated, involving the cyclical nature of the economy, the strong interest in picture books in public libraries, and the changing retail market.
Even if they're being conservative with their cash, parents say they value books above TV, Web sites, board games, and magazines, according to an Association of Booksellers for Children/Bowker PubTrack study that will be released in January. Still, ABC executive director Kristen McLean acknowledged challenges for bookstores and libraries. For example, picture books "require a tremendous amount of shelf space" and are difficult to display because they're large-sized and have thin spines.
No one is disputing that times are tough. "It's true that the picture book business at Barnes & Noble has been on a slow and steady decline for about a year," said Mary Amicucci, v-p of children's books for Barnes & Noble. "[But] I, for one, really believe in picture books." Barnes & Noble is ordering just as many picture books as ever, she maintains, but has reduced its "inventory depth" on titles with softer sales.
Sales are down at some smaller stores, too. At the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt., picture book sales have been decreasing slowly since peaking in 2007. "The [decline] keeps widening, which is distressing," said the store's co-owner, Elizabeth Bluemle, who is also president of the ABC. Parents are using the library more often and buying paperbacks—both picture books and chapter books—instead of hardcover picture books, she said, adding, "If you can get a paperback book with 175 pages for $6.99, or if you can get a 32-page paperback picture book for $6.99, you might lean toward a chapter book."
Many in the industry pointed out that kids read picture books over and over. "If you think of it in business terms, when you amortize your investment, they turn out to be inexpensive," said children's book historian Leonard Marcus.
That's one reason some booksellers say they're still able to move picture books, just fewer of them, even in a bad economy. "Instead of somebody buying six, they're buying three," said Sally Oddi, owner and manager of Cover to Cover Book Store in Columbus, Ohio. But she is still selling a lot of picture books. "You get these blockbusters in fiction, like Twilight and Wimpy Kid, and they give a skewed view of what the sales actually are," she said. "Picture books are still the strongest selection of our sales." A new fall picture book, There's Going to Be a Baby by Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham, for example, is selling well for her; "we love it and we reorder it weekly."
When times are tight, consumers—and publishers—have less money to spend on everything, including picture books. After all, jacketed hardcover picture books are costly to produce and to buy. Simon Boughton, publisher of Roaring Book Press, said, "The overall kids' book category has grown, but picture books have stayed flat." Parents often feel they can't afford them. "There's no question that the economy has a lot to do with people not buying books for $20," said Nicholson.
What Goes Around Comes Around
"Publishing is cyclical, and I think it's correct to say that publishers overpublished in the picture book genre several times in the past," says historian Marcus. "That happens pretty much every time there has been a spurt in the birth rate, which usually corresponds to a time of prosperity." (These boom eras brought gems: the 1920s had Wanda Gág, the 1950s had The Cat in the Hat and Little Bear, and the 1980s had William Steig.) But it's easy to overdo it with lesser quality titles, too. "There's no centralized decision maker in publishing," Marcus pointed out. "There's no way of knowing what the right number is. It's natural in a time of economic expansion and population growth to do more in children's books."
In the 1920s, publishers first created dedicated departments for children's books. "They were seeing a new market open up that they were very eager to capitalize on," said Marcus. At the time, libraries were the big customers. During the Depression, publishers shut down some children's departments. "In the 1930s, when people looked back, they saw there had been too many books," said Marcus. The silver lining: they started making better choices. The postwar baby boom brought Little Golden Books and Dr. Seuss, and Congress approved money for libraries and schools to purchase science books in response to Sputnik. In the 1980s, highly educated baby boomers wanted to get their kids into Harvard, "and books were seen as one of the keys to doing that," said Marcus. "The '80s were a time of prosperity, and books were more accessible." Then came the boom in big-box stores, and overexpansion by publishers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The current downturn in the market, Marcus said, "isn't the first one, and it probably won't be the last one. There's no reason to think picture books are a dying genre."
In a bad economy, families are still reading picture books—but many families are getting them at the library, and previewing them before deciding to purchase them. "Library use is up," said Julie Corsaro, president of the American Library Association's Association for Library Service to Children division. "And in many public libraries, picture books have the highest circulation." At the Brooklyn Public Library, picture book circulation is at an all-time high—1.5 million at the end of the most recent fiscal year. For the next fiscal year, BPL is projecting circulation of more than two million, said youth selection team leader Alison Hendon. She is buying new ones, too—both replacement copies and new titles.
With the growth of the market over the last decade, companies published more titles to fill children's book shelves. That led to some dips in quality, some believe, as publishers turned not only to celebrities but also to extensions of classic brands and to more titles, produced faster, by popular authors.
And now, in a tougher economic climate, publishers feel pressure to sell blockbusters, to the detriment of lesser-known authors and titles. "You get a lot of celebrities thinking that because they're celebrities, they can write books," said Sylvia Marantz, coauthor (with her husband, Ken Marantz) of reviews for Children's Literature Comprehensive Database and of such books as The Art of Children's Picture Books: A Selective Reference Guide. "They can sell books, but they can't write decent stories." There are exceptions: retailers often cite Jamie Lee Curtis and John Lithgow as celebrities whose books for children work well and sell well, and reviewers have been appreciative of President Barack Obama's recent picture book, Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters.
Celebrity books are an example of marketing gaining the upper hand, Marcus said. The star culture even extends to dead big-name authors, such as Curious George creators Margret and H.A. Rey, or Dr. Seuss, whose postmortem, team-written titles sell because parents are familiar with the brands. Marcus noted, however, "There were certainly a lot of books that weren't worth publishing that did get published for reasons other than their editorial quality."
It's understandable. "The more choices you have, the more you return to what you know," said McLean. Not surprisingly, parents tend to go for the tried-and-true stories that they remember from their childhoods—which makes it difficult for new titles to get shelf space. Nothing against Dr. Seuss, but sales of his stories mean a new picture book faces a tougher hurdle.
Sometimes it takes a grassroots effort. HarperCollins is now publishing Pete the Cat—originally self-published by an Atlanta artist. Little Shop of Stories championed the book and helped it get HarperCollins's attention, particularly when people posted positive consumer reviews to Amazon. "This is a book that's finding its audience because people are passing it along," said McLean.
At Penguin Young Readers Group, picture book sales are up. Still, president Don Weisberg says he is publishing fewer titles overall. "It has no relationship to the economy whatsoever," he said. "If the economy was booming, we would have done the same thing." With a smaller list, he said, "I'm able to provide focus and energy and momentum." In March, Penguin is launching an initiative called the Penguin Dozen, which will focus on a different picture book character each month. "We wouldn't be doing that if we thought the marketplace was bad," said Weisberg.
Some authors report that publishers want less text these days. "They keep wanting younger books and shorter text," said author-illustrator Dominic Catalano, who wrote Santa and the Three Bears, a takeoff on Goldilocks that has sold about 40,000 copies. And they want characters that could become the next Clifford, Arthur, or Corduroy. "The bottom line has changed so dramatically for picture books," said Catalano, who also teaches art education and illustration at Bowling Green State University. "Publishers are looking for big sellers right away." But some books take time to build up readership.
The "Pushy Parents" Issue
The second-most contested point of the Times article was the claim that parents were bypassing picture books for their little ones. According to Oddi at Cover to Cover, the Times "overstated" the point about parents prematurely pushing chapter books on their kids: "I thought the article really misrepresented a lot of parents. It made it sound like everyone was on this steamroller to achievement to the point where four-year-olds were in serious jeopardy." In her store, when parents ask, "Now that she's four, do you think she's ready for a longer story?" Oddi suggests The Cricket in Times Square or The Mouse and the Motorcycle. "Then—I guess it's the teacher in me—I always ask, ‘You're still going to read picture books, right?' "
Overall, Oddi finds most parents in this generation grew up in an age of "amazing" picture books by such authors as William Steig, David Wiesner, and Chris Van Allsburg, and they want to share them with their children.
Though no one is denying that pushy parents exist, people in the industry took exception to the weight the Times article gave to those parents in terms of their effect on picture book sales. "Concerned parents will always push their children, whether it's to [move] into chapter books or what they do on the weekend or summer vacation," said Katz at HarperCollins. "It's a natural part of being a parent and wanting the best for them. It's kind of like taking the training wheels off too soon."
"I'm not entirely sure that hasn't been happening for the past 50 years," said Penguin's Weisberg in agreement. "I'm sure there are some parents who would like to see their kids move faster. There are some parents who would like to see their kids go to college when they're 10!"
Part of the problem: some parents dismiss picture books too quickly in their effort to accelerate their children's path to War and Peace. "They don't realize the concepts are sophisticated and timeless," said Flying Pig bookseller Bluemle. "They think of picture books as baby books and want their kids to be reading more words.But the pressure from the ‘pushy parents' isn't nearly as a big a factor as the pressures of the economy."
MacPherson sees more parents asking for chapter books for their three- and four-year-olds, "but I wouldn't call it a major trend. I just find the parents need more education about it because of all this pressure to push their children ahead. We live in such a visual world. Visual literature is increasingly important, not less important. Picture books are one important way to develop that."
In fact, many picture books are better when kids are older. That's true for fractured fairy tales, such as Jon Scieszka's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which work best if kids know the originals, according to MacPherson, as well as David Wiesner's The Three Pigs. "Those definitely require higher-level thinking skills."
The pressure to get kids to read at a young age is unfortunate, said Ken Marantz, an emeritus professor of art education at Ohio State. "It's skipping a whole evolutionary chapter in the child's life."
In fact, picture books exercise kids' brains in a different way than text-only books. "There's no other art form where pictures and words are completely interdependent on one another," Bluemle said. "An illustrated storybook can stand on its own when read aloud, but a true picture book needs both."
Kids may start with a simple title, such as Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, the now classic introduction to the alphabet. As they get older, they may tackle more topics through picture books. "There's been a movement for years to extend picture books into junior high and even high school," said Oddi. She points to Karen Hesse's Spuds, about the Depression; Walter Dean Myers's Patrol, about soldiers in Vietnam; Eve Bunting's Walking to School, about the conflict in Ireland; and Bunting's Smoky Night, about the Los Angeles riots—all published in recent years.
Roaring Brook Press has had major crossover success this season with Lane Smith's It's a Book, which is selling to adults as well as kids. Barnes & Noble even places the title in its humor/adult section, noted Roaring Brook publisher Simon Boughton. Roaring Brook's Ballet for Martha, about the creation of Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring ballet, also appeals to many adult readers. And graphic novels are also breaking down barriers about who can and cannot read certain books.
Many kids reread their favorites even after they're grown up. Oddi's daughter kept 35 picture books on her shelf when she left for college. When she came home from finals, Oddi recalled, she liked to sit and read them.
The Electronic Factor
The big question looming over the industry is whether parents will abandon print books in favor of electronic ones—or whether they will buy both. Lotz thinks parents will buy both picture books and electronic books. Weisberg, too, thinks electronic books will "complement the current marketplace." So does McLean. "Kids are omnivorous," she said. "We've lived with this idea of television is bad, books are good. What we're finding is that it's all reinforcing literacy. The kids who are reading a lot are also the kids who are participating online, are blogging, are involved in lots of different media."
Electronic books may be uncharted territory, but no one seems to be panicking. "I just don't see that you're going to be roadkill if you don't convert everything," said Gibson at Random House. "[Kids] are going to want to move from platform to platform. The most important platform is going to remain the book." Sabia at Charlesbridge agreed, saying she viewed electronic books as additional sales, with those sales "enhancing" and not cannibalizing picture book sales.
Not everyone is sure that print picture books will translate well onto the e-screen. Marcus raises the issue that picture books are often in many trim sizes. (Libraries have run into this problem with their same-size shelves.)
Authors Ken and Sylvia Marantz worry about how e-books will handle double-page pictures and covers. "As an art object, it makes a big difference," said Ken. "These are art objects, and we treat them the same as we treat other art objects." And these special paintings and drawings may not appear as beautiful on a flat screen, Sylvia added.
Spreading the Word
Booksellers hope publishers can do more to get out the word about the benefits of picture books. "We need to do a little education about many things," said Bluemle. One message: picture books aren't just for toddlers. "Most picture books fall in the zero to eight range, but people think of them as zero to three," she said. And parents need to be reminded that picture books can teach many lessons. Classic picture books, like Ferdinand, can teach children complicated ideas. "A lot of people learn about peace and peacefulness from that book," Bluemle said.
Lotz, too, noted that many people don't understand that picture books can be "incredible literature." "[At Candlewick] we view ourselves as on a cultural mission to promote picture books," she said. "The picture book is a phenomenal tool for learning to be literate in our age." The brain fills in and makes predictions from one page to the next, she said. "It's the opposite of so much of the one-way media that children now receive, [which] doesn't really stretch their brains in the same way that a picture book does."
Last year Candlewick started its Candlewick Handseller Independent Recognition Program to recognize independent sellers and to give them tips. "If we don't get those readers when they're one, two, three, and four, and sitting on someone's lap," Lotz said, "we're not going to have those readers 15 years from now."
But when the economy recovers, will picture books return to their heyday? It's hard to know for sure, but booksellers, publishers, and librarians maintain that traditional picture books are irreplaceable treasures. Oddi of Cover to Cover told the story of a young man who works for minimum wage at Jiffy Lube, next to her store. On break, he stopped in and, on a staffer's recommendation, bought Dog House by Jan Thomas to read to his three-year-old. He said it was $14 he didn't have and at first regretted it. Later, he returned to the store and said, "I read that book every night to my little girl. She laughs," said Oddi. "He said, ‘That's the best $14 I ever spent.' "