Kids have always been curious about the world around them and the way things work. That curiosity coupled with guidebooks for popular games like Minecraft and Pokémon, young readers’ editions of adult bestsellers like Lauren Hillenbrand’s Unbroken (Delacorte) and Bill O’Reilly’s Hitler’s Last Days (Holt), as well as strong narrative nonfiction and historical fiction that align with the Common Core State Standards has given children’s nonfiction a significant uptick.
“We are seeing a huge lift in nonfiction sales,” says Shanta Newlin, executive director of publicity at Penguin Young Readers Group. Sales of the division’s top 200 nonfiction titles were up 38% last year, and nonfiction represents an increasing amount of PYRG’s overall sales. Those numbers have gotten a boost from popular series like Brad Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change the World, illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos, which has more than 600,000 copies in print, and the Who Was? biography series, which has more than 20 million copies in print. In the past five years point-of-sale for the latter has risen more than 1,000%, according to Newlin.
At Scholastic, in-print figures for its four Minecraft handbooks and the Blockopedia compendium are over 17.5 million. The company’s nonfiction annuals like Scholastic Year in Sports and Ripley’s Believe It or Not have done so well that Scholastic is partnering with the video-game publisher Image this fall to introduce its first gaming annual, Game On! 2016 (Oct.). And some of its most popular series, like Lauren Tarshis’s historical fiction series I Survived, have spawned spinoffs; the second volume in I Survived True Stories, Nature Attacks!, is due out in October.
Lerner Publishing Group, where nonfiction for schools and libraries has long been a sweet spot, has also seen recent growth in trade. “Biographies, poetry, environmental topics, holidays, and sports titles, as well as books celebrating diversity have all done well for us,” says interim marketing director Lois Wallentine, who notes that Lerner had a 15% increase in nonfiction sales to bookstores over the past couple years, mostly in picture books.
This fall Lerner is launching what it terms a “high-interest” nonfiction imprint for middle-grade, called Hungry Tomato, with seven series of four titles each. Future seasons will feature three or four series at a time. Wallentine estimates that the imprint will add an additional 24–30 titles a year to Lerner’s 250 titles published annually into the trade.
The growth in children’s nonfiction has inspired others to publish children’s books for the first time. Last October, Ohio University Press launched a Biographies for Young Readers series, beginning with Michelle Houts’s Kammie on First about Dottie Kamenshek, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League player who helped inspire the lead character in A League of Their Own. In September it will publish Missing Millie Benson, about the ghostwriter who wrote the first 23 Nancy Drew mysteries, and will follow up next year with its first nonfiction picture book.
“We saw the possibility of a niche in publishing biographies for children. There was a sense that women were underrepresented, though we’re not only publishing about women,” says Ohio sales manager Jeff Kallet. “We know grade schools often assign reports on biographies, and it was this knowledge as well as the Common Core requirements that gave us confidence that the series could be successful.”
Although the Common Core State Standards have become mired in controversy in many states, their introduction served as an inspiration for publishers to bulk up their nonfiction lists and focus on fact-based fiction. To find out how nonfiction is faring and just how dependent sales have been on the Common Core, PW spoke with both publishers and booksellers of varying sizes.
Some, like Angus Killick, v-p, associate publisher at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, have long been drawn to the category. “We are super passionate about nonfiction,” says Killick. “The thing about nonfiction, it backlists so well; it’s a really solid investment.”
Killick acknowledges that “the Common Core sent us all into a frenzy, and now, of course, there’s been a backlash. It’s sort of fallen away. But it made us publishers scrutinize our nonfiction list a little bit more.” That has meant reviewing price points and repackaging middle-grade nonfiction in 6×9 rather than a larger format, similar to picture books. Among the reformatted titles are Phillip Hoose’s 2009 National Book Award winner, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.
Where Killick sees the most traction for middle-grade nonfiction is topical books like Karen Blumenthal’s Steve Jobs (Square Fish), which he expects to gain new readers when Steve Jobs, a movie directed by Danny Boyle, comes out this fall. Blumenthal’s new book, Hillary Rodham Clinton (Feiwel and Friends, Jan. 2016), is also well poised.
“Buzz is big” for two upcoming memoirs at Scholastic, says Debra Dorfman, v-p and publisher of Scholastic nonfiction and licensing. She terms presales for Really Professional Internet Person by Jenn McAllister, known as JennXPenn to her YouTube fans, as “amazing.” And she anticipates a strong response to Becoming Maria (Sept.) by Sonia Manzano, who created the character of Maria on Sesame Street.
Donna Spurlock, director of marketing at Charlesbridge Publishing, a smaller house with a list that’s heavily weighted to nonfiction, attributes renewed interest in nonfiction across retail markets to Common Core. “I’m not sure if [it] is the deciding factor that has increased sales, but it certainly has increased awareness,” she says. “I know Common Core has been a topic of conversation with booksellers at Winter Institute and Children’s Institute in recent years. I think that as they strive to understand Common Core, they have let it influence their buying.”
But what sells where for Charlesbridge is often influenced by region. “Our books about sea creatures sell very well on the coasts,” says Spurlock, who points to two spring titles: Lisa Kahn Schnell’s High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs, illustrated by Alan Marks, and Robert Burleigh’s Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue, illustrated by Wendell Minor. Spurlock notes that bird books, like last year’s Feathers by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Sarah S. Brennan, seem to have more universal appeal, as do STEM titles that capture kids’ curiosity.
“Certainly the Common Core put a spotlight on the need for students to spend more time reading high-quality nonfiction,” says Lerner’s Wallentine. “Bookstores are important partners for educators, helping them identify the best nonfiction titles for classroom and library collections and collaborating on author events.”
“All our nonfiction has grown,” says Robert McDonald, who heads the children’s department at the Book Stall of Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Ill. He attributes many of the store’s nonfiction sales to school librarians. “Librarians are looking to expand and update their collections with different, more inclusive, takes on history and [changes like] Pluto going in and out of being a planet,” McDonald says. He also credits good nonfiction sales to publishers like Boyds Mills Press’s Calkins Creek imprint and others, which have “upped their game.”
The store’s top series is currently on the nonfiction side. “I was reluctant to add a display for the Who Was? series (Grosset & Dunlap), because we have limited space,” he says. But he has no regrets. “It’s really our bestselling series right now,” says McDonald, who restocks them every week. In addition to straight nonfiction, the Book Stall is one of a number of bookstores to do well with fact-based fiction series like Ann Hood’s Treasure Chest (Grosset & Dunlap) and I Survived from Scholastic. “We sell more and more of them each year,” McDonald says.
Last year, when Kelly Estep, buyer for Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Ky., was planning the opening of a third store, a separate standalone Carmichael’s Kids (which opened in August 2014), she didn’t anticipate having a large nonfiction section. At the neighboring Bardstown Road store, which she also manages, children’s nonfiction took up only a shelf or two. By contrast, the kids’ store’s nonfiction area is large enough to break out into categories like biography, history, religion, animals, and “weird but true.”
Although Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards, Estep says that she has never heard a parent come in and specifically mention Common Core when they’re looking for a book. Carmichael’s Kids does best with Minecraft titles and the Who Was? series and its spinoffs, What Was? and Where Is? “We carry so many of these. Kids come in and eat them up,” says Estep, whose own 10-year-old son is a fan. She thinks their short length makes them less intimidating for some children than two-inch-thick novels.
When Hooray for Books, in Alexandria, Va., doubled its 1,500-sq.-ft. floor space at the end of April, manager/buyer Erin Barker swapped the fiction and nonfiction sections. With the change, nonfiction now runs along the walls of the store, and there’s more room for faceouts. The bookstore also changed the way it organizes nonfiction and is now one of the few stores to do it by age rather than category. As a result of the shift, Barker says that the nonfiction for six- to eight-year-olds is doing well. Those titles had been hard to find amid the older nonfiction.
Barker is not worried about young readers’ editions, which are often on the borderline between middle grade and YA, like Unbroken or Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat (Viking, Sept.), finding their audience. But she does wonder about price affecting sales of titles like the young readers’ edition of Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala (Little, Brown). “[High schoolers] are reading the adult version. There’s only $1 difference in price,” Barker points out.
At Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., children’s bookseller Linda Goodman says, “Nonfiction is [doing] pretty well. I’m not going to say it’s sharply risen. We hold steady, and we do well.” Two nonfiction favorites at her stores are Marilyn Nelson’s memoir in verse, How I Discovered Poetry (Dial), and Paige Rawl’s Positive (HarperCollins), written with Ali Benjamin. “You’d think it was fiction, but it’s not,” she says of Positive, an account of the bullying Rawls endured when other students found out that she was HIV-positive.
Similarly, at Secret Garden Books in Seattle, nonfiction is “perking a bit,” according to owner Christy McDanold. “We’ve always given it a lot of space, the same amount as hardcover picture books. We’ve made a big commitment,” she notes.
Although McDanold didn’t do well with the young adult edition of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which was published for kids in 2007 as Chew on This, in the intervening years she’s sold a lot of the young readers’ edition of Unbroken as gifts. She anticipates similarly strong sales for the junior version of The Boys in the Boat.
McDanold has been pleased with National Geographic’s publishing program for kids. “It’s fabulous,” she says. “They’ve taken that yellow [used on the magazine] and bordered all the books with it.” One of her favorite National Geographic series is the fact-based Just Joking riddle books.
The one area that’s just not working for her is sports biographies. “Publishing into the ‘right now’ is hard to do,” McDanold acknowledges. “What kids want in sports is what’s happening. As soon as that sports person falls off, that book is done.”
Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., expanded its kids’ nonfiction sections a few years ago. When the buzz around Common Core started building, the store nearly doubled the size of its biography and history sections and brought in more nature, cooking, science, and math titles. Although children’s book buyer Susan Kunhardt has yet to have a customer ask for a book because it aligns with the Common Core, she says she increased the size of the categories because publishers dramatically increased their nonfiction lists in response to the standards.
“I have to say,” Kunhardt notes, “that while sales of nonfiction have gone up somewhat, the increase has been modest. A good chunk is thanks to the Who Was? series and to Minecraft.” At school book fairs last fall, Kunhardt says, “It seemed riots might break out over some of the Minecraft titles.” A few recent stand-alone nonfiction titles that have sold well for Book Passage include Steve Sheinkin’s Newbery Honor–winning Bomb (Roaring Brook) and Kate Schatz’s Rad American Women A–Z (City Lights), illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl.
Like McDanold, Ellen Mager, owner of Booktenders’ Secret Garden Children’s Bookstore & Gallery in Doylestown, Pa., has long had a large nonfiction section. She explains that it’s because she “loves” nonfiction and wants to provide an alternative to the way that many textbooks present information. Like many of her colleagues, Mager interprets nonfiction broadly and includes the Thea Stilton series (Scholastic), because the books contain lots of specific information about different cities and countries. She also counts in historical fiction based on truth like Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Echo (Scholastic Press). In science, the Curious George Discovers series (HMH), based on the PBS series, is working well at her store.
While some parents are challenging the Common Core, one thing they haven’t questioned is the value of having a broader selection of narrative nonfiction for their children to read. The strength of certain series, along with publishers’ repackaging efforts, could keep the interest in kids’ nonfiction strong even if Common Core goes away.
Note: In an earlier version of this story, Jennifer Abbots at Scholastic was credited for a quote from Debra Dorfman.
Children’s Nonfiction Bestsellers, January–June 2015
|1||Minecraft: Construction Handbook (Scholastic)||186,142|
|2||Minecraft: Combat Handbook (Scholastic)||157,315|
|3||Minecraft: Essential Handbook (Scholastic)||132,299|
|4||Smile by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic/Graphix)||130,262|
|5||Sisters by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic/Graphix)||122,179|
|6||Minecraft: Redstone Handbook (Scholastic)||118,946|
|7||Laugh-Out-Loud Jokes for Kids by Rob Elliott (Revell)||103,333|
|8||The Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself Book by Jeff Kinney (Abrams/Amulet)||96,933|
|9||The Care and Keeping of You, 1 by Valorie Schaefer (American Girl)||92,521|
|10||There’s No Place Like Space! by Tish Rabe and Aristides Ruiz (Random)||84,323|
|11||Unbroken (YA edition) by Laura Hillenbrand (Delacorte)||79,186|
|12||Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins)||78,281|
|13||Minecraft: The Complete Handbook (Scholastic)||76,660|
|14||Oh, Say Can You Say Di-No-Saur? by Bonnie Worth (Random)||71,906|
|15||Pokémon: Essential Handbook (Scholastic)||64,961|
|16||Hitler’s Last Days by Bill O’Reilly (Holt)||62,072|
|17||I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (Little, Brown)||58,929|
|18||The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey (S&S/Touchstone)||57,688|
|19||Brain Quest Grade 1 Workbook by Lisa Trumbauer (Workman)||55,901|
|20||National Geographic Kids Almanac 2016 (National Geographic)||55,564|
|21||The Care and Keeping of You, 2 by Cara Natterson (American Girl)||53,303|
|22||Brain Quest Grade 2 Workbook by Liane Onish (Workman)||52,196|
|23||Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Penguin/Paulsen)||50,097|
|24||Minecraft Hacks by Megan Miller (Sky Pony)||49,774|
|25||Brain Quest Kindergarten Workbook by Lisa Trumbauer (Workman)||47,172|
Source: Nielsen BookScan
Unit sales through July 5, 2015