If any one company embodies what it means to be a Heartland children’s publisher—doing things its own way to help children better understand a rapidly changing world—it might be Free Spirit Publishing in Minneapolis. “We’ve been forward-thinking from the beginning,” says founder Judy Galbraith.

Galbraith launched the company in 1983 to publish books addressing children’s social and emotional needs. “We’re often even ahead of the curve with the topics we address,” she says, “from the once-ground-breaking LGBTQ survival guide for teens by Kelly Huegel Madrone, originally published in 2003, to a new series by Lydia Bowers, illustrated by Isabel Muñoz, of picture books on foundational consent skills,” including We Check In with Each Other (out now) and We Ask Permission (Feb. 2022).

While sales dipped “a bit” during the early stages of the pandemic, Galbraith says they have “more than recovered” this past year. “Some books were in higher demand than ever,” she says. “Topics like dealing with stress, loss, and anxiety were increasingly sought.”

Free Spirit continues to expand upon its list of books aimed at helping children cope with fear, stress, and grief with such recent releases as Name and Tame Your Anxiety by Summer Batte and Sometimes When I’m Sad by Deborah Serani, illustrated by Kyra Teis.

A few blocks away from Free Spirit’s offices, Lerner Publishing Group CEO Adam Lerner points out that the 62-year-old company founded by his father is known for its “timely, immediate publishing to address what’s going on.” For instance, this past year, LPG launched a series of Covid-related books for the school and library market and is partnering with Sesame Street to publish health-related titles that span the trade and school and library markets.

“Like many publishers, we’ve doubled down on our commitment to diversity as well,” Lerner says, pointing out that a February release, Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, has just gone back for another 50,000-copy print run.

“Given what we saw with our own eyes here, and what we experienced during the protests following George Floyd’s death,” Lerner adds, “we’ve started creating more teaching guides to accompany our books, and we started a program called Read Woke Books with librarian Cicely Lewis.” The program launched with Issues in Action, a series examining such topics as income inequality, the opioid epidemic, and gun violence.

This fall, LPG also launched Read for a Better World, a series addressing inclusivity, diversity, and social-emotional learning for the school and library market.

Capstone Publishing Group, too, prides itself on its nimbleness. After the final entry in Julie Gassman’s series of picture books featuring dragons imparting life lessons was published shortly before the pandemic hit the U.S., Capstone requested that Gassman extend the series by writing Do Not Let Your Dragon Spread Germs. “We wanted to help kids understand things like the importance of hand washing and mask wearing,” says public relations manager Jennifer Glidden. “And that’s it okay to feel nervous about getting sick.” Capstone, she reports, has seen a growing demand for books “celebrating diverse perspectives and authentic creators,” though such books were already strong categories for the suburban Minneapolis publisher.

Even before George Floyd’s death, says Anna Erickson, v-p of sales at the Creative Company in Mankato, Minn., the 89-year-old press had observed “a real hunger” for high-quality books spotlighting the contributions of notable African Americans. It responded by publishing books on the Harlem Hellfighters, Robert Johnson, and Langston Hughes. More recently, with concerns growing about the environment among young adults, next spring Creative is launching a series for high school students called Odysseys in the Environment. It will debut with a book on climate change, followed by volumes on water scarcity, population challenges, and the impact of humans upon wildlife.

Mackin Educational Resources has distributed books and educational materials to classrooms and school libraries since 1983. Housed in a 110,000-square-foot facility in Burnsville, Minn. Mackin distributes opening-day collections to more than 50% of school districts in the U.S., as well as military bases abroad. About 3.5 million titles are available in print to its 50,000-plus customers, and three million in digital formats that are accessed through its MackinVia digital content management system.

Troy Mickell, Mackin director of marketing and communications, recalls that when the pandemic lockdowns began in spring 2020, sales of print books and materials briefly dropped, which “threw everybody for a loop.” However, thanks to the “extreme generosity” of a number of publishers, that spring and into the early fall Mackin was provided with free access to more than 10,000 digital titles that were then made available to MackinVia account holders.

The company saw a four-fold increase in the number of MackinVia accounts last year as more schools switched to remote learning. “People who had never heard of MackinVia before quickly became very well acquainted with us,” Mickell says. “The rest is, as they say, digital history.”

Sweet home Chicago

While children’s publishers are clustered in Minnesota, there’s another community in Chicago and its environs, including Albert Whitman & Co., founded in 1919, and Cottage Door Press and Phoenix International Publications, both launched in 2014.

“As is typical of Midwesterners,” says Albert Whitman marketing director Tom MacDonald, “we want to help others; in our case, that means publishing books that educate, entertain, and empower children.”

MacDonald says the company has been releasing titles that “celebrate the wonder and beauty of the natural world while showing how climate change can negatively affect it.” Recent releases include A Garden to Save the Birds by Wendy McClure, illustrated by Beatriz Mayumi, and The Second Life of Trees by Aimée Bissonette, illustrated by Nic Jones. Endangered Animals, a new spin-off series inspired by the bestselling Boxcar Children books, about four orphaned children living in a forest, will launch in spring 2022.

As for Cottage Door, its location far away from New York City has resulted in its feeling “very little pressure to do things like everyone else,” says marketing Melissa Tigges, pointing out that while the press publishes primarily board and picture books for infants and toddlers, it also publishes activity books and cookbooks for adults.

Tigges emphasizes the company’s “flexibility and adaptability,” especially when responding to the pandemic. Cottage Door made its translation of You Have the Power!, a Polish book about Covid, available via free download, and in spring 2022 it will publish two picture books on the subject. Brown Sugar Baby by Kevin Lewis, illustrated by Jestenia Sutherland, emphasizes, Tigges says, “the powerful love and protective instincts of a mother for her child.” And When We All Stopped, by Tom Rivett-Carnac, illustrated by Bee Rivet-Carnac, was written “in the hope that our forced shutdown during Covid would give the earth a chance at rebirth and people a choice to do things differently.” Jane Goodall will narrate a TED-Ed original animation of When We All Stopped, which Cottage Door intends to make accessible to readers through a QR code on the book.

Phoenix International associate publisher Susan Brooke describes its list as both “timely and timeless.” Titles “have a relevance to our young readers right now but also incorporate broader themes that are evergreen,” she says, citing as examples two spring 2022 releases: Bloom by Julia Seal examines climate change while emphasizing the power of using one’s voice to make a difference, and Home Is Where the Hive Is by Claire Winslow, illustrated by Vivian Mineker, explores themes of inclusivity against the backdrop of urban development. Both stories are told, Brooke adds, from the perspective of animals affected by human actions, as “this fosters empathy.”

Sometimes, a release is unintentionally timely and time-less. Stuck Inside by Sally Garland, a January picture book release that Phoenix acquired shortly before the pandemic, is a story about a girl who must stay home during a storm and uses her imagination to deal with disappointment and boredom. Brooke notes that Covid made Stuck Inside “take on a new significance.”

Adult publishers, children’s books

Two Chicagoland publishers best known for their adult offerings—Sourcebooks and Chicago Review Press—have also built strong children’s lists. “The pandemic has had a huge impact on how we publish for kids,” says Nicky Benson, Sourcebooks’ customized and proprietary publishing manager. “We want to reach them where they are right now.” With this goal in mind, Sourcebooks partnered with Sesame Workshop in 2020 to publish Heroes Wear Masks and fast-tracked the e-book release of Pandemics for Babies by Chris Ferrie, Neal Goldstein, and Joanna Suder.

While six of CRP’s seven imprints focus on adult nonfiction, the press’s eponymous flagship imprint also publishes nonfiction for children, primarily history and biography. “We saw a big uptick in sales of our children’s books during the Black Lives Matter protests because we publish a lot of books about diversity,” says publisher Cynthia Sherry. “All of our diverse books did well, especially Native American History for Kids by Karen Gibson and A Kid’s Guide to African American History by Nancy Sanders.”

In Minnesota, Mayo Clinic Press, the two-year-old imprint affiliated with Rochester’s Mayo Clinic, has just launched a line of graphic novels for children ages eight to 11 based on the true stories of clinic patients that seeks to illuminate how children perceive illness and recovery. The series debuted in October with the release of My Life Beyond Leukemia by Rae Burremo, illustrated by Hey Gee, and My Life Beyond Bullying, as told by Ralph M., also illustrated by Gee.

Michigan and Ohio outliers

“If you could do a DNA test on companies, Cherry Lake Publishing Group would be 100% from the Heartland,” says CEO Ben Mondloch. “From our first children’s book in 1998, The Legend of Sleeping Bear—the official children’s book of the state of Michigan—to this season’s Summer’s Call: A Michigan Day, we’ve remained true to our Heartland roots.”

Like other children’s publishers PW spoke to, the Ann Arbor company saw a temporary dip in revenues during the early stages of the pandemic, though sales have since rebounded. But, editor Sarah Rockett says,the cultural upheaval caused by Covid and the Black Lives Matter movement also “gave us the space and the kick in the pants needed to put into motion a lot of the ideas we had been talking about for a long time.” While the company already was publishing books on race and diversity, it stepped up its efforts with the launch earlier this year of the Own Voices Own Stories Award, given to unpublished writers who identify as BIPOC and/or LGBTQ. There were two recipients this year, and their debut works will be released in 2023.

Maria Dismondy says she founded Cardinal Rule Press, a Detroit-area children’s picture book publisher that launched in 2015, to produce “books that reinforce the Golden Rule.” She adds, “We also practice what we preach and focus on diversity and character development.”

In the past 20 months, Cardinal Rule has seen a significant increase in sales, propelled by a backlist title from 2015 that Dismondy authored, Chocolate Milk, Por Favor. It is the story of a Latinx immigrant who does not speak English but is embraced by his classmates. It experienced such a bounce in sales during the BLM protests that it went back to press three times; there are now approximately 12,000 copies sold, more than half of them in 2020.

“We were not expecting that,” Dismondy says. “Even though the main character isn’t African American, that the other characters celebrated his differences really hit home for people.”

In response to continuing demand for titles with multicultural content, in 2022 Cardinal Rule is publishing Three Pockets Full: A Story of Love, Family and Tradition by Cindy L. Rodriguez, illustrated by Begoña Fernández Corbalán, and What the Bread Says: Baking with Love, History and Papan by Vanessa Garcia, illustrated by Tim Palin. Its 2023 list will address economic disparities and physical disabilities.

Pediatrician John Hutton, the publisher of Blue Manatee Press, says that running a publishing house in Cincinnati “forces us to stick to what we do well and be as original, authentic, and purposeful as we can be.”

Blue Manatee publishes picture and board books for infants through early readers designed to mentally stimulate children while educating parents about children’s health. Though its list does not directly address recent events, its books, Hutton says, have always tackled topical issues. The importance of outdoor play in the digital age is spotlighted in its Baby Unplugged series, and a series about pollinators—with titles like Sleepy Bee and Mama Monarch—implicitly addresses climate change.

According to editorial and marketing director Amy Dean, the past 20 months have both jump-started sales of topical picture books—books including Sherm the Germ by Hutton, illustrated by Maria Montag—and spurred the press to become even more mindful in its resistance to popular trends.

Upcoming releases exemplifying Blue Manatee’s renewed commitment to independent publishing with a distinctly Midwestern flavor include its debut cookbook, The Cooking Book for Growing Chefs, by Cincinnati chef Frances Kroner and illustrated by Astrid Gross-Hutton; Billy the Brain, an exploration of the brain and how it works by Ryan Moore and Hutton, illustrated by Gabriella Vagnoli; and Bing, Bang, Pling by Deb Adamson, illustrated by Candice Hartsough, about a girl helping her parents build a swing set.

“The pandemic gave us the push to focus more narrowly on titles that have a clear impact on early literacy development, encourage imaginative play, and offer STEAM components,” Dean says. “If we’re going to survive, let’s not compare ourselves to other houses elsewhere.”

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