Gathering in the elegant Willa Cather room of the Jefferson Market Library in Manhattan on March 2, members of the American Book Producers Association and other industry professionals met to discuss trends in children’s book publishing. The speakers were Celia Lee, editor at Scholastic; John Rahm, product director for Global Trade at Capstone; and Hannah Lambert, author and editor, Little Simon. Susan Knopf, president, Scout Books and Media, moderated the discussion.
The panelists kicked off the talk by sharing some of their recent books that have resonated with readers and represent the kind of innovative projects that they are championing. At Little Simon, Lambert focuses on “board books and novelty elements incorporated into books in unique ways.” She has observed that nonfiction books for kids tend to work best when they are story-based: “It’s not just a fact but something that relates to their world... or a character the leads them through.” Lee, who believes that “reading begins on day one,” creates books for readers up to age eight, with focus on early learning concepts, as well as narrative-driven activity books.
Capstone’s You Choose series of interactive titles has been very popular, said Rahm. The books focus on real-life events in time and, in a Choose Your Own Adventure style, allows readers make decisions that drive the narrative. “Nonfiction has the opportunity to be creative in content and format, and that is really inspiring,” Rahm said. STEM titles are also a big focus for Capstone. Rahm also noted that there’s a new variation on the acronym – STEAM – that has been championed by the Rhode Island School of Design. The “A” stands for art. It’s an adjustment that emphasizes how art and design can work in tandem with science, technology, engineering, and math.
Taking familiar fictional characters and recasting them into nonfiction formats can provide a level of accessibility that there might not otherwise be, according to Lee. One example of a series that does this is Ted Arnold’s Fly Guy Presents series of nonfiction readers, which explore a variety of topics of interest to kids, from firefighters to bats.
Lee also noted that nonfiction books that offer a “mashup of photography and illustrations” are selling well. And the speakers have also seen nonfiction more and more frequently entering the world of picture books, including biographies. Lambert observed that another trend are “simple novelty” books that are rather minimalistic, sometimes “almost having no novelty at all.” One enduring example: Herve Tullet’s Press Here. This turn toward simplicity of style and form, Lambert believes, may have to do with the overwhelming prevalence of technology: “Parents and kids stare at screens all day, so they want simple books,” the fewer special effects, the better. However, Lambert has also seen that “digital has started to influence print,” with some novelty being made to replicate the experience of using a digital device.
The panelists are seeing more craft and how-to books for the age ranges of 4-12, and suggested that one area for potential growth could be children’s cookbooks with recipes that require minimal assistance from parents. Lambert noted that at Little Simon, they have been “talking around the idea of cookbooks for kids,” but have not yet established a formula. Interactive books that offer hands-on, self-contained features are also selling; Rahm mentioned Capstone’s Wearable Books series of board books featuring masks that readers can try on. There’s also the recent renaissance of the coloring book, and not just as an adult fad. Rahm has observed the “sophistication of the art” in many of the coloring books coming out for kids these days, too. Lambert herself works on the Dream, Doodle, Draw series for young readers. Though, she joked that there isn’t a whole lot of demanding text: “Color in the horse!” might be a typical line she pens.
Finally, the panelists discussed the importance of being cognizant of the way readers consume books and other media today. It doesn’t mean constantly trolling through social media sites or looking for the next YouTube star-turned-author or “celebrity animals,” which Lambert observed are “often not very attractive animals and they have agents and publishing lines.” The trouble with fads, said Rahm, is that they pass so quickly. But Lee commented that “we always pay attention to see what’s resounding with millennial parents,” and as a publisher, she is always thinking in terms of: “What are kids doing now that we weren’t when we were their age?”