As schools, libraries, and bookstores closed around the country this spring, California children’s publishers responded with a bevy of new books and virtual experiences to help families cope. Each press had to find ways to connect with kids digitally, and some of these digital experiments have yielded long-term opportunities.

San Diego Zoo Global Press, the book publishing division of San Diego Zoo Global, carried on after lockdowns forced the zoo to close from March 17 until June 20. “We learned how important it is to take an active role in online engagement,” says Georgeanne Irvine, a children’s author and the director of corporate publishing at SDZG. The press helped develop virtual field trips, author readings, and other digital interactions with kids.

“Many people reached out to us to stay connected to wildlife when they couldn’t actually be at the zoo or safari park,” Irvine says. The stories of the zoo’s residents “have been comforting readers during this challenging time,” and she highlights grateful correspondence from parents and educators who have used the press’s online resources while homeschooling. “We were especially touched by the letters from children who loved learning while having fun,” she says.

Bringing books online

Before the pandemic, the press created bookstore experiences with guest animals from the zoo, but this year its authors explored virtual reading opportunities instead. Irvine read at several digital storytimes on Facebook Live, and author Carrie Hasler created sharable videos for her books online. San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer read the publisher’s A Letter from Tashi: A Snow Leopard Tale, written by Hasler, during his Stay-In Storytime Club video series in the spring.

Familius, a family-focused press based in Sanger hosted events on streaming platforms and worked with two tech companies to make its books available in new digital formats. “We partnered with Novel Effect to make a selection of our titles available on their platform for interactive read-alouds,” says cofounder Christopher Robbins. “And we worked with Vooks to make our books into streaming videos.”

Robbins’s company was already accustomed to remote work before 2020. “Many of our employees are working in different locations and states,” he says. “So working remotely was already part of our culture. We found no work disruption in working together.”

San Francisco’s Chronicle Books has brought many of its children’s authors to virtual conferences, festivals, and events this year. These events helped authors “reach an even broader audience than even an in-person tour might have allowed,” says Andie Krawczyk, director of children’s marketing. When connecting in these virtual arenas, Chronicle has created video presentations of the children’s books “to ensure the quality of the design and production is captured online,” she adds.

Beyond print

Podcasting and video series became a powerful tool for children’s publishers during quarantine. Rebel Girls saw its long-running podcast, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: The Podcast, grow this year. Each episode explores the life of one inspiring woman from a Rebel Girls book.

“As soon as schools closed, we saw an uptick in listeners,” says Lauren Zuhl, chief of staff at Rebel Girls. “We’re still hearing from parents and educators who are using our podcast to supplement learning from home. It really toes the line of being both educational and entertaining. Not to mention that it’s screen free.”

With many bricks-and-mortar retailers still unable to host author events for children and many schools still closed, the San Diego Zoo has continued to offer free digital content, including the popular livestreaming wildlife cams arranged around the zoo and safari park, virtual field trips, and San Diego Zoo Kids Corner, a series of half-hour video episodes that include stories, jokes, recipes, science experiments, poems, songs, and wildlife facts.

Familius started the lockdown-focused podcast Helping Families Be Happy. Robbins highlighted an episode that includes Karen Kleiman, author of Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts, who discusses “how new moms can find resources to help themselves feel better when dealing with postpartum scary thoughts during a pandemic,” Robbins says.

Offline opportunities

Beyond digital outreach, California children’s publishers are helping young readers navigate difficult times. Zuhl stresses that indie presses like Rebel Girls play a key role in modeling the kind of grit and flexibility that kids will need in coming years. The press just released Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Immigrant Women Who Changed the World, about great women who experienced tumultuous changes in their lives.

“Seeing that impressive women like Rihanna, Madeleine Albright, Josephine Baker, or Carmen Miranda have also experienced uncertainty provides solace to young readers,” Zuhl says. “Every one of the women featured in this book has experienced the transition of settling into a new country, not without an adjustment period. The stories in this book have the power to console because they normalize uncertainty.”

Next spring, Chronicle will turn a hopeful movement into a lasting reminder of these pandemic days. There Is a Rainbow is a picture book inspired by pictures of rainbows that families have been creating and displaying in their windows throughout the Covid crisis. “It reminds the reader of the hope on the other side of difficult times and all the ways in which we are connected to one another,” Krawczyk says.

Chronicle’s list also includes several journals and notebooks for young readers, interactive offerings that have found more readers during quarantine. “Just Between Us: Mother & Daughter has been performing really well the last few months,” Krawczyk says. Mothers and tween daughters can work on the book together, responding to different writing prompts. It tackles fun topics alongside worries and fears. “It has provided families a place to work through their difficult emotions together during this time,” she notes.

Rebel Girls is also sharing interactive resources with parents and kids, including downloadable activities from the publisher’s chapter book series and a free journal for young readers called I Am a Rebel Girl: A Journal to Start Revolutions.

At Familius, Robbins highlights three backlist books, all released in 2018, that have proven particularly timely this year. First was Courageous People Who Changed the World by Heidi Poelman, given a bump by what Robbins calls “an increased interest in civil rights issues and parents’ interest in teaching their children about the history of these movements.” There was also increased attention to 437 Edible Wild Plants of the Rocky Mountain West by Caleb Warnock. Finally, readers turned to But First, We Nap: A Little Book About Nap Time by David Miles, which Robbins says is “a very funny lifeline for parents who are trying to get their kids to take a break while working remotely.”

Heading into 2021, California children’s publishers will continue to engage with readers in these new formats. On International Day of the Girl in October, Rebel Girls hosted its first virtual event, the Rebel Girls United Rally. Guests included Kristin Chenoweth, Ashley Everett, and Joan Jett.

“Readers are turning to our books as a source of comfort,” Zuhl says, reflecting on Rebel Girls’ eventful year. “Many of the stories we tell are about women who have endured and persisted, no matter the difficulties they face. Their stories are a reminder that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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