Discovering a great children’s book is a little like “falling in love,” says Edward Nawotka, editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives. But aside from the subjective and often mysterious spell that a book casts over the reader, are there certain definable qualities that contribute toward making a children’s book unforgettable? Fifteen industry professionals addressed this topic and others during a wide-ranging, half-day conference called What Makes a Children’s Book Great? The May 31 event was sponsored by Publishing Perspectives and the Frankfurt Academy and was held at Scholastic headquarters in New York City.
Richard Robinson, president, chairman, and CEO of Scholastic Inc., inaugurated the four-panel event with a brief history of children’s books, which he explained had minimal visibility before the 1950s. Scholastic’s first school book clubs, he said, contributed to the popularization and availability of children’s books, leading to a market more cognizant of children’s interests. Before welcoming the first group to the stage, Robinson offered a list of characteristics that he believes are shared by great children’s books, including original ideas presented with visual simplicity and power, seamless world-building, and a quality of making the world appear larger and more interesting to readers. Here are some highlights from the day’s discussions, which touched on the current industry climate, author promotions online and in person, and hooking readers through rich storytelling.
Trends vs. Tradition: The Present and Future of YA and Children’s Books
David Levithan, author and Scholastic v-p and editorial director; Pamela Paul, children’s book editor at the New York Times Book Review; and Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of the Horn Book, discussed new and abiding currents in children’s books. Jennifer Brown, children’s editor at Shelf Awareness, moderated.
Vampires linger, but new paranormal incarnations are popping up in YA – bloodthirsty mermaids, for example. Sutton observed that series books have become a mainstay and are “such a huge part of every publisher’s list.” He also pointed out that “big, hook-heavy books aimed at young women and girls” are especially popular. Levithan suggested that “great books create trends,” adding that books attempting to catch the tailwinds of a trend-setting title rarely achieve its level of distinction.
Paul spoke to the uncertainty of predicting the books that will resonate with readers, pointing to the recent success of character-driven titles like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, both of which address serious issues (cancer and physical deformity, respectively) and break form from dominant trends like dystopia and the paranormal.
The discussion then turned to the topic of reading habits, digital media, and the future of physical books. Paul said that while kids do use e-readers, print is still very popular for picture books and YA. Sutton also speculated that many of the individuals downloading YA books may, in fact, be adults.
Levithan asserted that technology does not fundamentally change a narrative, and that the distinctions between print and e-books “will blur,” notably for novels. Sutton, on the other hand, maintained that “people treasure the physical experience” of reading a printed book with a child.
The panelists agreed that while e-readers afford readers more confidentiality than a physical book, a factor that might especially appeal to teens, the “collecting instinct” among kids is still very strong. Having Rainbow Magic or Harry Potter volumes lined up on a shelf can gratify in a way that e-books cannot.
Speaking of the titular wizard, Brown turned the discussion to how Harry Potter – whether in book format or on Pottermore – has influenced the way people think about classics today.
While Levithan expressed that only time will determine whether a book is a classic, he added that some stories, like Charlotte’s Web and the Harry Potter books, do possess a “timeless” quality. The Twilight series, he said, may be more “of its moment,” and not likely to carry great resonance years into the future. Paul noted that for a book to become a classic, it has to touch a child “where they are” before leading them somewhere else. And it doesn’t necessarily mean transporting the reader across space and time. Her example: a character who’s scared of the potty at the beginning of a book, and out of diapers by book’s end.
The panel wrapped up with questions from the audience, including one about why adults are consuming YA so voraciously. Paul suggested that YA is often more story-driven, has a hook, and contains forward momentum, while Levithan noted the influence of YA on adult books and the often cloudy differentiation between the two categories. He used the example of 50 Shades of Gray, which he noted was actually written as Twilight “fan fiction” for adults. Distinctions aside, Levithan suggested that readers simply celebrate the “triumph of good stories.”
Another audience question raised the topic of author self-promotion. The speakers agreed that an honest and well-placed presence online and in person can help an author forge a deeper connection with some readers, though Levithan also mentioned that he has observed “no direct correlation between [an author’s] Twitter followers and sales.” Also, while an author’s online presence can certainly enhance a teen’s experience of a book, Sutton argued that younger kids might prefer to see the book as a world in and of itself, discrete from the author.
Blockbusters, Bestsellers, and Everything In Between: Agenting Children’s Books
Peggy Intrator of Intrator Associates moderated the next discussion, which focused on author representation and children’s book marketing. The participants were Erica Rand Silverman of Sterling Lord Literistic, Rosemary Stimola, president of Stimola Literary Studio, and Ken Wright of Writers House.
Intrator began by asking the panel about how The Hunger Games has changed the industry climate, and whether the agents are geared more toward “shepherding an author” or ushering in a blockbuster.
Stimola, who represents Suzanne Collins, described how she first focuses on building a relationship with an author before promoting a property. The Hunger Games franchise was slowly developed from page to screen through a community of editors, and marketing and publicity teams, all of whom were open to the books’ controversial topic. “It does take a village,” Stimola said. She also emphasized how technology can distance collaborating parties, and the importance of meeting face-to-face.
Another potential complication: books like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games have sparked an era in which YA authors can become celebrities – and, as Wright joked, agents aren’t necessarily trained to be bodyguards.
On the topic of the increasing respectability of self-publishing, the agents voiced the opinion that self-publishing is its own, distinct entity that should not be compared to traditional publishing. Stimola expressed reservations about the open range of unfiltered material, saying, “Not every word written deserves to be published.” Silverman pointed out that self-publishing lacks the valuable collaboration between authors, editors, agents, and book marketers that is inherent to traditional publishing. Another issue raised by the panel: changing expectations in traditional publishing as a result of the self-publishing boom. Wright reported growing impatience among writers to have their books released sooner. Stimola sees publishers becoming antsy as well, expecting their authors to produce their work quicker, and lamented that the “line between good writing and entertainment is blurring… Some authors need to ruminate longer. We need to get a handle on impatience.”
Would the agents recommend self-publishing to a client? Only in very rare circumstances; for example, if the author already has a robust platform and readership in place.
The group discussed the impact of social media on the process of finding new clients. Wright generally finds writers through networking within the industry, so social media has not significantly altered his process. He did discover John Corey Whaley’s Printz Award-winning Where Things Come Back through the online writing community WEbook, though, he added, Whaley’s novel is the only unsolicited work he’s represented that has been successful.
Stimola shared that Thanhha Lai’s National Book Award and Newbery-winning Inside Out and Back Again came to her the old-fashioned way – from the slush pile.
Born Digital, Buy Digital: Sales, Publishing, and Community Building for the New Generation
Kevin O’Connor of Barnes & Noble NOOK Kids; Jacob Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Figment; and Paula K. Allen, senior v-p, Nickelodeon Global Publishing, joined Nawotka, who served as moderator, for the next panel, on digital trends. Each speaker provided a brief, multimedia presentation about how digital spaces build community, filter content, and can enhance the overall reading experience for kids, tweens, and teens. O’Connor shared some top selling categories for children’s books on NOOK, including content types that speak to the mom demographic, books with licensed characters, classics, holiday books, mash-ups, and books with gender-specific appeal (such as Fancy Nancy). Then author-illustrator Peter Brown demonstrated some of the ways in which an e-book can engage a young reader, with a big-screen e-book presentation – complete with sound effects and animation – of his picture book You Will Be My Friend.
Author, Author!: Building a Career, Connecting with Kids, and Standing out from the Crowd
Who better to conclude a discussion of memorable children’s books than authors themselves? The final panelists sat down for a discussion about writing and promoting children’s books. Joining Peter Brown were Beth Kephart (Small Damages), John Rocco (Blackout), and Raina Telgemeier (Drama), with Dennis Abrams, from Publishing Perspectives, moderating.
Before a book has the potential to become a classic, of course, kids have to read it. Abrams opened the panel by asking the group about the strategies they use to get books into kids’ hands. Telgemeier said that she reaches children through a great deal of self-promotion at conferences, schools, and other locations. You have to “give them a piece of yourself,” she said. Kephart, who is a teacher as well as a writer, elaborated on the importance of connecting with kids. She works to form “intimate, personal, authentic” relationships with fans both in person and on her blog.
The authors also spoke about creative strategies for garnering interest among readers. Rocco reported that while doing a presentation at his daughter’s school, students expressed interest in viewing his sketchbook. After that, the possibility of honing their own artwork and continuing to create art as adults “became real for them.” Brown likes to show kids his very first drawings from childhood so that they understand how an artist’s skills evolve with time and practice.
Other topics of discussion included the audiences that authors keep in mind when writing. Brown said that he incorporates “silly, imaginative” elements into his books as well as deeper content that can be appreciated both by kids and adults. Kephart writes specifically for teens, but also believes that her audience deserves and desires books that address complex issues and have meaning: “I have huge respect for the intelligence of young readers,” she said.
And finally, Abrams brought the conversation back around to the guiding question of the day: What makes a children’s book great? “It’s like asking what makes air great,” Rocco said in response, remarking on the necessity of a parent and child connecting through stories. According to Brown, a book has the potential for greatness “if it lingers in my imagination.” For Telgemeier, a book’s emotional hook is invaluable.
Kephart, who admitted that she had written down her response, described a great children’s book as “risk-taking, intelligent, and form-breaking.” Great children’s books, she said, use “new kinds of language” and show evidence of “not just a brilliant mind, but of a brilliant heart.”