The mood at the 108th annual American International Toy Fair, which ran from Sunday through Wednesday of last week at New York City’s Javits Center, seemed optimistic, and the aisles were more crowded and energetic than in the past several years. The more positive vibe comes with signs of recovery in toy industry sales, which rose 2% in 2010 to $21.87 billion, according to NPD Group figures released in late January.

Individual publishers reported varied results when it came to traffic in their own booths, with reactions ranging from very pleased to slightly disappointed. Meanwhile, the number of publishing houses exhibiting at Toy Fair continued its slow decline, with long-time exhibitors such as Twin Sisters/Learning Horizons absent. Approximately 25 book purveyors showed their wares throughout the show floor.

Toy Fair always offers a microcosm of the state of the mass market children’s book business, and this year was no exception. These publishers’ customers—discounters, dollar stores, supermarket and drug chains and the like—do not typically shop Toy Fair, which is dominated by buyers from independent toy, book, and gift stores and other nontraditional outlets. Special sales staff from the trade and educational publishers write orders at the show, but much of the coloring/activity houses’ time is spent meeting with existing customers and licensors, taking the opportunity to show them their full lines and discuss various initiatives.

The last couple of years have been challenging for the latter group. “We need to find other avenues of business,” said Ben Ferguson, president of Bendon Publishing, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and is approaching the 1 billion mark in unit sales. The company is branching out into higher price points (up to $10), as well as adding its first adult titles (game and puzzle books tied to Hasbro board games) and forging longer-term, multi-property partnerships with licensors such as Disney, Nickelodeon and Hasbro. “All those specialty licenses are too risky for us,” Ferguson said. “We can’t look at just two years out any more.”

A few mass market publishers say they are doing well with licenses outside the majors, however. Andrew Steinberg, president and CEO of Modern Publishing, reports that the Lisa Frank license is “blowing out” at Wal-mart and dollar stores. “It’s a perennial property that hasn’t been maximized yet,” he said. Modern is also introducing new formats, including a placemat coloring book.

Meanwhile, even as publishers are trying to expand their businesses through new channels and formats, their costs continue to rise, further squeezing their minuscule margins. The costs of sourcing books in China have increased, as have testing costs due to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act and retailer requirements. Randy McDonald, senior v-p of sales at Vision Street Publishing, notes that some novelty formats are just not cost-effective any more. “[The cost increase] really slows things down, especially when it comes to being creative,” he said.

Despite the fact that the competitive landscape on the mass side is intensifying, toy companies are dipping their toes into book publishing. For years, toy makers have created books to co-pack with or complement some of their toys, and many entrepreneurs sell books along with their plush toys or dolls. Now, however, some toy companies are producing full lines of titles, primarily in simple formats such as board books.

Learning Curve Toys, best known for its vehicle playsets tied to licenses such as Thomas the Tank Engine, John Deere and Chuggington, premiered a line of board books, soft books and book-and-plush gift sets under the Lamaze brand, for which it has long created early learning toys. Its books are for babies from birth and up and feature content by child development expert Dorothy Singer.

Similarly, Manhattan Toy, which is recognized for its Groovy Girls dolls and holds licenses for properties such as Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Dr. Seuss, introduced a range of touch-and-feel board books under the Manhattan Toy Library brand.

As has been the norm over the last several years, children’s books were prominent at Toy Fair in the form of licensed products. Board game marketers in particular gave literary properties lots of space and signage this year. Discovery Bay introduced a board game tied to Rufus Butler Seder’s Gallop!, Twisterz showed word games tied to Scholastic’s WordGirl and Clifford, the Haywire Group offered a Guinness World Records board game, and Pressman Toy debuted its Diary of a Wimpy Kid games. Patch Products launched a Tales to Play line of board games based on Mother Goose, The Little Engine That Could, The Berenstain Bears and Where the Wild Things Are.

Other literary properties that had a high profile throughout the show included standbys such as Mr. Men, Clifford, Eric Carle, Dr. Seuss, Winnie the Pooh (with products based on the upcoming film), Curious George, Olivia, Maisy, Arthur, and The Magic School Bus. New book-based products spotted included a Stinky Cheese Man plush doll at Yottoy and a Colorforms playset based on The Gruffalo, among others.

Key non-book-based licensed properties at Toy Fair (many of which have publishing tie-ins) included lots of interactive licenses, ranging from classics (Super Mario and Tetris) to mobile and social networking content (Angry Birds and Squaredy Cats). Movie licenses included The Green Lantern, The Smurfs and Cars 2, as well as lots of Star Wars, while a plethora of comic book properties from DC and Marvel, as well as independent publishers, were widespread. Disney and Marvel characters also were plentiful.

Up-and-coming licenses included preschool properties Chuggington and Dinosaur Train, while Hello Kitty continued to be ubiquitous. There were zombies, vampires and other monsters everywhere, with a notable example being Monster High, a Mattel multimedia brand with a bestselling book by Lisi Harrison (the first in a series) published by Little, Brown. Monster High was being touted at a number of booths.

Several toy industry trends had connections to children’s books. As always, there were a wide variety of cooking-related playsets being shown. But, in addition to being particularly prominently featured, the difference this year was that they encouraged children to emulate chefs, rather than Mom, presumably because of the popularity of chef-driven television shows. There were even boys portrayed on the packaging in some cases. Numerous examples were seen at the booths of established educational and activity toy companies and of entrepreneurs, with one of the latter, Playful Chef, exhibiting a spin-off cookbook with 33 10-step recipes and tips on planning, shopping, tools, safety and nutrition.

Another trend that has picked up over the last couple of years, thanks in large part to the recession, consists of toys and games meant to teach business skills and financial management and literacy. They include the likes of Zillionz, from Backyard Safari, and Wise Money, from Destina Games. One brand, The Little Green Money Machine, includes an apprentice kit with a business stand and custom banners, as well as a book, Little Green Money Machine: Kids in Business Around the World.

Tween toys and crafts have become more and more a factor at Toy Fair, which this year launched a small section for exhibitors specifically targeting tweens. Klutz is one of the publishers exhibiting at Toy Fair that has seen success with tween-focused and arts-and-crafts titles, said publicist Lauren Felsenstein. It introduced 12 new activity books at the show, including The Marvelous Book of Magical Horses (a follow-up to The Fabulous Book of Paper Dolls) and Safety Pin Bracelets.

Among the first-time exhibitors at Toy Fair was AZBookVarik, a Russian publisher that was looking both to sell subsidiary rights to publishers as well as books to independent stores. Its display of illustrated sound and pop-up books, some in English and some in Russian, was attracting attention from attendees, according to Valentina Legchekova, foreign rights manager.