Children’s booksellers often need to satisfy more than one customer when making a book recommendation. There’s the young reader herself, but there’s likely also a parent, grandparent, or other adult with an opinion about what belongs on her shelf. With multiple people to please, children’s booksellers say they tend to reach for beloved older titles, and consequently, children end up reading deeply into an author or genre’s backlist.
In short, backlist is integral to starting kids on the path to becoming lifelong readers, says Cathy Berner, children’s and YA specialist and events coordinator at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston. “You want to hook them; you want them to love reading. When they do, they gobble up books. When you’ve got a voracious reader, you need to know backlist—it’s so important for the bottom line. Every bookseller in the store has favorite backlist titles that we always keep in stock.”
Backlist at front of mind
One way Blue Willow is able to boost sales is by pairing board and picture books with sidelines. Two of the store’s booksellers will pore over catalogs looking for new plush animals, and then hit up Berner: “I’ll get a text that says, ‘Do we have any cute panda books?’ ” Right away, she knows her colleagues are looking at a catalog with a new plush toy. More often than not, she turns to backlist, not new releases.
For pandas, Berner recommends 2016’s Panda Pants by Jacqueline Davies, illustrated by Sydney Hanson. For elephants, her go-to is 2015’s Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo. With board and picture books, she says, parents and grandparents are the main shoppers. When it comes to middle grade, kids begin making choices for themselves. Those readers move so swiftly through new books, they quickly run out. Here, too, deep backlist knowledge is critical. Berner and her fellow Blue Willow booksellers rely on long-running series including Junie B. Jones, Geronimo Stilton, and the Magic Tree House books.
As middle grade readers get a little older, Berner says, “you want them to keep plowing through books.” The same approach applies: for every new frontlist book, she is thinking of a backlist title to guide the reader to next. YA favorites include Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Ally Carter, and Jason Reynolds.
Old books, new life
When a shopper comes into Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga., looking for a board book for a baby shower, the booksellers ask two questions: What did you love, and what do you feel nostalgic for?
“Most of those books are still around,” store manager Justin Colussy-Estes says. The deep backlist board books continue to sell, though some of the most venerable, such as Pat the Bunny, are on the wane. At the same time, there’s growing customer interest in more recent backlist titles, especially thematic series such as Gibbs-Smith’s Baby Lit books. “They just absolutely dominate the board book section for us,” Colussy-Estes notes.
One of the store’s strongest backlist categories, books by local authors, has taken a bit of a hit in the past year. Prior to the pandemic, Little Shop of Stories was a hub for a thriving children’s and YA literary scene whose authors command national attention, including Becky Albertalli, Roshani Chokshi, and Nic Stone. Those writers came in frequently to sign backlist, and readers enjoyed the local connection. The store continues to host (virtual) events, but Colussy-Estes has seen an overall decline in customer awareness of many local backlist books.
In their place, there’s more interest in media tie-in editions of older titles. “It used to be that there would be a Netflix movie based on a book and I would order it in, but the impact was never as good as I thought it was going to be,” Colussy-Estes says. “That’s changed. For example, there’s a lot more interest in Enola Holmes because it’s a Netflix show than there would have been a year ago.”
That shift in reader tastes is indicative of the new ways that readers are finding books at a time when their access to booksellers for advice is more limited. Though Colussy-Estes is pleased with the sales, the lack of customer interaction is another matter entirely. Until in-store shopping resumes, booksellers have been urging authors who used to show up regularly for events and sign stock to boost their backlist online, using their social media networks to point readers their way.
Brein Lopez, manager of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, says no single season’s frontlist alone will be diverse enough for him to do what he considers most important: help prepare young readers for a challenging world. Of particular interest to him is sharing books that help boys see different, and nonstereotypical, representations of masculinity.
“This overriding machismo exists that makes men feel like they have to act a certain way or be a certain way,” Lopez says. “One of the ways to fight that is through books. It’s important to have stories that boys can read now, that show them another way to be.” Many of the books he turns to are backlist titles, including Jason Reynolds’s As Brave as You and Dan Gemeinhart’s The Honest Truth, Some Kind of Courage, and Scar Island, all published between 2014 and 2017.
Though conventional wisdom assumes parents and grandparents drive interest in the backlist, Lopez says, children don’t care if a book was published last week or last year. When in-person shopping returns, he’ll make sure children have space for discovery, which means having a strong backlist to greet them when they walk in.
“The best books are always going to be there,” Lopez says. “Occasionally something will fall through the cracks, but if it’s really meant to stick around, it will stick around. And that’s why so many classics are still in print. Backlist is where we’re going to find some of our most interesting titles, and those books speak to subjects that are still important.”