Founded in 2014 as a children’s imprint of Bonnier Publishing USA, Manhattan-based Little Bee Books is dedicated to publishing “creative and fun books for busy little bees.” Its parent company is a division of Bonnier Publishing, which is in turn the English-language book publishing division of Sweden’s enormous Bonnier Group. Little Bee releases books in an array of genres, including board and novelty books, picture books, activity books, and nonfiction. The publisher hit the ground running: its top-selling title, Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, won a 2017 Caldecott Honor, and has close to 50,000 copies in print. Little Bee is now adding fiction to its lineup with the debut of Little Bee Chapter Books, aimed at newly independent readers ages 6–8.
Though Little Bee’s 2015 list was primarily comprised of children’s books that were originated by Bonnier’s U.K. divisions, including Templar, Studio Press, and Autumn Publishing, in 2016 the American editorial team began to develop its own titles. “It takes time to build a list, but from the start we knew we wanted to create originals and do something different in the board book, picture book, and nonfiction categories,” explained Sonali Fry, publisher of Little Bee as well as its sister imprint, Sizzle Books, which is devoted to licensed properties, media tie-in books, and pop-culture titles. The books of both imprints are distributed by Simon & Schuster in the U.S. and Canada.
Little Bee’s original publishing program has expanded quickly. In spring 2016, Little Bee’s first list of books originating in this country contained 10 titles. Just one year later, Little Bee’s spring 2017 list offers 28 new releases, and the publisher expects to issue some 50 books in spring 2018. “Our list of originals has been growing by leaps and bounds, and we decided that moving into chapter books was a natural progression for us,” Fry said.
Little Bee Chapter Books launches this season with two very different series. Tales of Sasha, which debuted in January with The Big Secret and Journey Beyond the Trees, relays the story of a horse that sprouts wings and discovers a land of similarly magical flying horses. The series is written by Alexa Pearl and illustrated by Paco Sordo. Ella and Owen, which introduces two mischievous dragon twins, starts up on March 7 with The Cave of Aaaaah! Doom! and Attack of the Stinky Fish Monster! by Jaden Kent, illustrated by Iryna Bodnaruk. The novels will be published simultaneously in jacketed hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions, and each series will add two additional titles in summer and fall 2017.
Two more chapter book series will debut in spring 2018: The Major Eights by Melody Reed, starring four eight-year-old girls who form their own band; and The Alien Next Door by A.I. Newton, which centers on a boy who realizes that there is something a bit different about the new kid at school. The publisher will further expand its fiction offerings next year with a new, yet-to-be named imprint focusing on middle-grade and YA novels.
In the picture book arena, the editorial mission is to continue building a list that “is varied and offers something for everyone,” Fry said. “We want to publish some biographies, and some commercial titles as well. We are committed to releasing picture books featuring stories that haven’t been told yet.”
To that end, in January Little Bee issued Deborah Blumenthal’s Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe, illustrated by Laura Freeman, which chronicles the life of the African-American designer, who succeeded despite racial prejudice. A spring 2018 release that also heralds an unsung heroine is Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson by Leda Schubert. Featuring art by Theodore Taylor III, this picture book spotlights the first African-American woman to dance for a major classical ballet company.
Nonfiction for slightly older readers is also high on Little Bee’s editorial agenda. Blast Back!, a series introducing kids to historical milestones, debuted last April with Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt by Nancy Ohlin, illustrated by Adam Larkum. The books, said Fry, “offer snapshots of moments in history, told in a conversational tone.” Future additions to the series will focus on Pearl Harbor, the Civil War, the Titanic, and the Vikings. Due out this summer are the first two installments of another nonfiction series, Behind the Legend: Bigfoot and The Loch Ness Monster, written by Erin Peabody and illustrated by Victor Rivas. “This is a kind of myth-busting series,” Fry explained. “The books present facts and claims of sightings, and leave it up to the reader to decide if they believe the creatures exist—or not.”
Little Bee’s marketing efforts hinge on personal outreach to booksellers, librarians, and teachers, said sales and marketing director Sarah Rucker. “From the very beginning, we’ve focused on deliberately building relationships through personal connections. We make an effort to have our authors visit local stores so that booksellers get to know them—and we then build on those relationships.”
Rucker also emphasized the importance of reaching out to other major “gatekeepers” in the children’s book world. “We like to hand ARCs personally to people at trade shows and talk with them about the book,” she said. “I think handselling is the most important thing in this job—and then following up with as many people as you can. We also connect with buyers and readers through bloggers, social media, and email blasts. We make sure that our S&S sales reps know exactly what we’re doing, and what feedback we’ve heard. And they also give us advice, which is very key. In the end, keeping all communication channels open is what it is all about.”