With numerous small presses, the Bay Area is an innovative playground for adults who devote their lives to publishing the best in children’s literature. Ginee Seo, children’s publishing director of Chronicle Books, describes her company as “the indie Wild West Coast innovators—the ones who publish the kinds of projects that make everyone sit up and say, ‘How did they do that?’ I do think our independence and left coast background works to our advantage. I think we see things differently, and our commitment to the book as object, and to beautiful gifts, has meant that we’ve published children’s books with a distinctly different point of view for over 25 years. It’s in the company DNA to be creative and look ahead and be trendsetters rather than followers.”

Chronicle puts out around 100 new children’s titles each year, 50 each season, in a combination of hardcover, paperback, and novelty/gift books. Seo says that picture books make up 35%–40% of the list, novelty and gift books make up 20%–30%, and board books, chapter books, middle-grade, and YA fiction and nonfiction make up the rest. Board books are a growing category for Chronicle, and on upcoming list they account for about 20%–30% of the total.

Seo says the Bay Area is “startup central,” adding, “There’s an energy and drive in the air, every day, and it’s catching. That atmosphere combined with the fact that there isn’t a huge publishing presence here the way there is in New York makes for a way of thinking that is definitely not tradition-bound. There’s also the fact that we’re in a proudly progressive part of the country. I think because of that we’re all more willing to tackle potentially controversial subjects that other publishers might shy away from.”

While Chronicle Books is a large, established publisher, the San Francisco Bay Area is populated by a plethora of small presses, many of them new. Marissa Moss, editor and publisher at Creston Books, says she’s excited about the resurgence of small presses in the Bay Area: “These unique small presses give diversity to the publishing landscape, which is really important.” Moss is also an author and illustrator. When she was shopping her book Amelia’s Notebook back in 1995, publishers deemed it “too weird” until Berkeley-based Tricycle Press, the children’s division of Ten Speed Press, said yes. “Tricycle took a chance, and it has been by far my most successful book and series, with five million sold and translated into six languages,” Moss says.

Ten Speed was acquired by Random House in 2009. When Tricycle subsequently stopped publishing new work, Moss says, it had a big effect on local writers of books for kids. “They were a quirky small press and when they closed it was hard on this vibrant children’s book community here,” she notes.

That closure prompted Moss to start Creston in 2012. “I can’t replace Tricycle,” she says, “but I am hoping to do a little bit of what they did—give debut people a chance and publish the quirky books that no one else will do.”

Shirin Yim Bridges, the author of Ruby’s Wish and The Umbrella Queen, founded Goosebottom Books in 2010 for similar reasons. She was having difficulty finding a publisher who would take on an entire series of feminist-oriented books for girls. “I realized how important it was to bring these stories out in series,” Bridges says. “One assertive princess is only an aberration. A series says that you’re looking at a pattern: that across time and across cultures, women have found a way, despite great odds, to assert themselves and to achieve.”

In October 2010, Bridges, who serves as publisher and executive editor, launched Goosebottom with the Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses, a series that now has seven titles and a silver medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Since then, Goosebottom has introduced additional series, and Bridges says that there is a “strong feminist bent to the press.”

For Tuttle debut author Allison Branscombe, whose first book, All About China: Stories, Songs, Crafts and More for Kids, aims to foster appreciation for Chinese culture, the diversity of the Bay Area is key. After adopting two infant children from China, she took an interest in learning more about the country and its culture in order to help her children learn about their heritage. Branscombe wants her children to become “global citizens, aware of their own culture, as well as other cultures,” and she says the diversity of the people and cultures in the Bay Area have helped to inform her work.

Berkeley-based KO Kids Books is best known for its award-winning trilogy of the novels Zero, One, and Two, which deals with character-building issues. Publisher Kathryn Otoshi says that the company is teaming up with schools by creating teachers’ guides and other collateral to support KO titles within schools. She started the company as KO Kids Books and Design, with graphic design work making up nearly 95% of the company’s product. Now, 12 years later, Otoshi says the company is “completely the opposite,” adding, “It’s all about the books; we’ve evolved the company to where KO Kids is now pushing out 20,000–25,000 first print runs instead of 2,000.”

Challenges and Benefits

Just as the Bay Area has its unique advantages, the region also has many specific challenges. “Being based in the Bay Area always keeps you outside the New York power hub,” Bridges says. “This expresses in small ways. I’m an associate member of the Children’s Book Council, for example, but I can never attend any of their meetings or educational programs. I may meet some New York editors and publishers, but I can’t keep up those relationships with a casual coffee or lunch.”

Rana DiOrio, founder of Little Pickle Press in S.F., shares that concern but mentions the benefit of having access to the wealth of human resources, capital, and services that the Bay Area offers. “When the Big Six, now the Big Five, started making cuts during the recession, some of the most talented people in the industry became available to consult for or be hired by Bay Area indies,” DiOrio says.

Bridges left the region in 2004, only to return in 2010. “I returned to the Bay Area specifically because I think it’s a much better place to publish children’s books,” she says. “There’s a wealth of talent in this area. I like the Bay Area children’s book industry vibe, where my competitors feel more like my co-conspirators.”

A Sense of Community

Chaired by Summer Laurie, the children’s bookseller at the regional chain Books Inc., the Northern California Children’s Booksellers Alliance (NCCBA) helps reinforce a reinvigorated sense of community. Several years back, when the group was called the Northern California Children’s Book Association, membership and energy had started to dwindle.

The group took a break and relaunched after joining forces with the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA). Though it still operates under the NCCBA acronym, this time around the A stands for alliance. “I love that word, alliance,” Laurie says, “because we are independent booksellers who are allied.” She adds, “Last January 2014 was our first meeting and it has been growing since then. The meetings are more like get-togethers; they are educational and we discuss best practice and what we’re excited about.”

Laurie attributes some of the revitalization to changes in the industry: “The children’s book market has really grown in the last two years. There’s a huge influx of new members, and I’ve been so energized, humbled, and thrilled by attendance. We have a lot of young people coming at bookselling from different industries that are socially connected. This is the most collegial environment I’ve seen.”

Collaboration is a distinguishing characteristic of the Bay Area publishing scene. DiOrio of Little Pickle Press worked in the technology industry before becoming a publisher in 2009. “I am continually amazed at the amount of collaboration that occurs in publishing,” DiOrio says. “For the same reasons why technology thrives in the Bay Area, so does publishing. The Bay Area is innovative, creative, dynamic, collaborative, and entrepreneurial.”

DiOrio says Little Pickle has created brand partnerships, teaming up with like-minded for-profit companies to raise awareness of issues that affect children and offer financial support for nonprofits that address these issues. An example of this is March’s #BCorps4One campaign, in which Little Pickle partnered with the Cabot Creamery Cooperative to raise awareness about food insecurity and donated 15% of the net sales of the book The Cow in Patrick O’Shanahan’s Kitchen to the One Campaign, which focuses on issues surrounding poverty.

“As a small publisher that lacks the resources of our larger competitors, it’s clear we need to go outside the traditional norms to reach new audiences and sell our products,” says Laura Mancuso, v-p of sales and marketing at Little Pickle Press (and daughter of longtime children’s bookseller Valerie Lewis, co-owner of Hicklebee’s in San Jose).

DiOrio also says new digital distribution channels such as Humble Bundle, Reading Rainbow, and Epic! have helped small presses.

The Digital Impact

Based in Palo Alto, the children’s e-book subscription startup Epic! was founded in 2013 and offers thousands of children’s books personalized for each reader. Epic! cofounder Kevin Donahue says digital is an area of rapid growth, especially as kids spend more time on mobile devices and on the Web. The founders of Epic! combined their years of experience in Silicon Valley with the culture of children’s publishing by bringing on an advisory board that includes several children’s publishing experts. “We care about quality children’s literature and have developed a unique app that puts kids in control of the books they choose to read in a fun, refreshing way,” Donahue says. “As parents ourselves, our goal is to bring the best possible book discovery and reading experience to mobile devices and the Web for kids.”

Donahue reports that Epic! has been growing rapidly in both the consumer and school channels and is working with more than 60 children’s book publishers, including HarperCollins, Macmillan, National Geographic, and Andrews McMeel. (A deal with the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group was signed in late May.) “In just one year, we’re a top-10 app in Kids and Education in the App Store and a top-grossing app in these categories,” he notes.

Emily Scheinman, content curator for Epic!, is also the founder and CEO of Bananaseed Book Fairs, the largest independent school book fair company in the Bay Area. After graduating from Stanford with a master’s degree in education and after teaching in the classroom, Scheinman decided to start a children’s book fair company dedicated to providing quality books to local schools.

“I created the company to provide schools with a book fair experience that emphasizes quality children’s books, customized to meet each school’s specific needs,” Scheinman says. “The company has successfully helped thousands of children get access to quality books and to encourage a love of reading, as well as help schools raise significant funds. The book fairs are a collaborative partnership and this leads to greater sales and a more successful fund-raiser for the schools as well as getting relevant books into the hands of young people and their families. We also work with independent bookstores on special school events and on finding ways to highlight the books of local authors.”

Scheinman says that she is consistently inspired by the interest that young people show in books: “When I visit school book fairs and I hear the spirited conversations that young people are having over books, I feel immensely hopeful for our future. Mac Barnett recently said that we are living in a ‘second golden age of children’s literature,’ and I agree.”

Bay Area Spotlight 2015: All Our Coverage