In her senior year at Harvard College, Yolanda Scott received a letter informing her that her application to the CIA had been rejected. “I’ll never forget,” she says. “It was signed by someone named Crystal, in pink pen.”
Desperate for a job and infatuated with literature, Scott started going through Publishers Marketplace alphabetically and sending out applications. When she got to Charlesbridge, she was offered a job as an assistant to publisher Brent Farmer. Twenty-four years later, Scott is associate publisher, and she’s not the only one to have stuck around for so long. Six members of the company’s management team have spent more than half their lives at the children’s-focused publishing house west of Boston.
As she’s risen through the ranks, Scott has become a nationally recognized leader in children’s publishing, teaching at Simmons College and cofounding Children’s Books Boston. Much the same can be said of Charlesbridge as a company, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Fellow children’s publishers in the region are no longer upstarts either. Candlewick Publishers and Barefoot Books are both 27, and Star Bright is 25. As these companies have matured, other area stalwarts have moved away or downsized. Little, Brown moved its children’s division from Boston to New York City in 2002, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt still has a trade presence in Boston but now has a large New York staff.
Each of the remaining children’s publishers has become an institution in and of itself, pursuing a different path to becoming a leader in the industry, but all bear the hallmarks of New England publishers. “New Englanders have a lot of loyalty,” Scott says. “Loyalty to our authors. Loyalty to our companies. Loyalty to our communities.” There’s also a work ethic. “It’s New England. Sometimes, it’s just put your nose down and get the work done.”
Charlesbridge at 30
For Charlesbridge, getting the work done at the turn into the company’s third decade is a prospect that excites Scott. Alongside the company’s longtime staff are new employees who are introducing fresh ideas. Bolstered by streamlined sales and distribution, and steadied by a handful of deep backlist bestsellers, the company has expanded its core list of nonfiction picture books (often focused on social justice) in recent years, while also pursuing new categories, such as YA through Charlesbridge Teen, and adult titles through the Imagine imprint.
Building on the success of the company’s Baby Loves Science board book series, Charlesbridge launched a Baby Loves the Five Senses series this fall and will publish Baby Loves Political Science: Democracy, a board book, in fall 2020, just prior to the presidential elections. Though the science titles were the first STEM-oriented board book series when they debuted in 2016, Scott says that, as with all successes, the market is now crowded with them.
What’s different is Charlesbridge’s ability to respond quickly and adapt, which Scott credits to the company’s sales and distribution agreement with Penguin Random House. “Being able to get those books out quickly wasn’t our way before, and now we’re able to proactively think ahead and devote the resources to it,” she says. “We’re still making decisions as a small independent house, but we have the benefit of all of their sales and marketing expertise.”
Charlesbridge is also increasingly strengthening partnerships through a marketing team that includes marketing assistant Jordan Standridge. A veteran bookseller, Standridge moved cross-country to join the company earlier this year after most recently working as the children’s lead bookseller at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore.
When debut author Gloria Respress-Churchwell published Follow Chester! earlier this year, Standridge worked to create a one-of-a-kind partnership and event for the book, which tells the story of football player Chester Pierce. Pierce played for Harvard University and was the first African-American collegiate player to play in a game in the segregated South. Standridge worked with Respress-Churchwell to bring two of Pierce’s grandchildren out on the field at the first Harvard football game of the season, and he also worked with the university to create a short film that was screened for the thousands of attendees during the game.
While Standridge looks to create large-scale partnerships for events, he also turns to local bookstores that are known for their children’s books collections as a way to help build the profile of new authors. After Scott acquired Rhode Island School of Design student Sam Streed’s Alfred’s Book of Monsters at a senior-year project show, Standridge devised a tour that began with local bookstores Belmont Books, the Brookline Booksmith, the Blue Bunny, and Hooray for Books.
Scott says she sees continued potential in building and strengthening the relationships Charlesbridge wants to cultivate by balancing veteran staff with new employees like Standridge. “You have to build those individual relationships,” she adds, “especially if you’re going to survive and grow.”
Barefoot Books Steps into the Mainstream
Barefoot Books’ cofounder Nancy Traversy is absolutely certain that the publisher still stands for what it did when it opened 27 years ago, but she’s pleased to see that readers have come around, and more than just a little bit. “Everything we stood for—diversity; opening children’s hearts, minds, and worlds through stories and beautiful art; nurturing compassion and empathy; and making sure that every child sees themselves in books—is something that we started in 1992,” she says. “But I would say our time has come.”
Sales are up 35% this year for the publisher (based in Cambridge, Mass.), and they were up 50% last year. It wasn’t always that way, and many of Barefoot’s early challenges resulted from the same things that today bring the company success. Throughout its history, the publishing house has partnered with individual local resellers (called ambassadors), placed a location in the New York City flagship of FAO Schwarz, and operated its own bookstores.
“At first it felt very fringe,” Traversy says. “And then, at a number of points, I thought, This is our time.” Yet the company continued to struggle, with title output dropping to eight to 10 per year. Traversy attributes the company’s stabilization and success to new, more refined partnerships at a larger scale.
Today, the reseller program has been redesigned by Traversy to limit the number of ambassadors to a core group dedicated to forging relationships largely with schools and libraries; the FAO Schwarz location is gone, and the bookstores have closed. In their place, Traversy has business agreements with partners that range from one of the nation’s leading subscription box companies, Little Passports, to a program with Books for Africa and USAID that created and delivered books to Africa.
Many of the agreements have come through relationships, including the Books for Africa program, which started with a call from one of Traversy’s longtime acquaintances. The conversation led to an arrangement in which Barefoot created books in Mozambican Portuguese and delivered 300,000 copies to teachers, parents, and aid workers who work with orphans who have HIV/AIDS.
In the past, Traversy was concerned about “channel conflict,” in which the company was competing with its own representatives for markets, but with the growth of the market for the types of books Barefoot produces, she’s less concerned today. Barefoot recently reestablished ties with Chesapeake & Hudson for sales representation in the northeast and is looking for similar arrangements elsewhere.
With greater reach, title output has increased to meet demand, and so has staffing. Barefoot has 20 employees and is adding more in marketing, and its title output for next year is currently at 30 books.
As Candlewick Press approaches 30 years of being in business, the publisher (based in Somerville, Mass.) can boast dozens of award-winning authors and a globally recognized profile, but the thought of relocating has never gone beyond a few zip codes, and even then has only been to expand the size of the press offices. As assistant director of marketing and publicity Phoebe Kosman sees it, New England’s bookish tendencies provide a foundation for the press that comes through in the books it publishes.
Forthcoming publications by the press include an array of New England–based titles. Marcella Pixley’s Trowbridge Road (May 2020) is set in the author’s hometown of Newton, Mass., and explores life in suburban Boston, while Michael Rosen and Matt Tavares’s Ben of Trades (Mar. 2020) goes back in time, offering a glimpse of Benjamin Franklin’s New England childhood. Nor does the press shy away from difficult subjects that have hit the region. Rescue and Jessica from 2018 told a fictionalized account of a young woman who loses a leg and forges a relationship with her service dog. The book was based on authors Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes’s own experiences as victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, and it was illustrated by New England native Scott Magoon.
Though Candlewick recently opened a New York office, Kosman says the publisher’s main location is a key to being at the forefront of publishing. “It protects us from following trends and helps us maintain the innovative sensibility that has long characterized Candlewick titles,” she adds. “Our attention to design detail, high-quality production values, and focus on curating a list of books intended for a broad range of readers reflect this independence.”
With proximity to students studying publishing at nearby Simmons, Lesley, Emerson, and Northeastern, and to artists at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Rhode Island School of Design, and the Monserrat College of Art, the press also has access to a continuous stream of budding publishing professionals.
All of it helps fuel a press that has a global focus but a fierce dedication to its home offices, which look out on a little free library curated by the publisher on the running path right outside. “We are proud of our global perspective,” Kosman says, “but we also enjoy celebrating our hometown’s unique character and supporting New England’s broad spectrum of book creators.”
New Book Creators
Twenty-five years after founding Star Bright Books, Deborah Shine is growing her catalogue of dual-language books by the year. In 2020, the Cambridge, Mass.–based publisher will add titles in Swahili and Punjabi to its current list of 27 different languages. Along with its multilingual titles, Star Bright will publish books in 2020 for young readers with disabilities and for readers interested in mathematics and science.
Star Bright partners with nonprofits such as Reach Out and Read and Raising a Reader to fulfill a literacy mission that Shine likens to a building block for a child’s life. In one partnership, doctors give books to expecting mothers. “What the doctors tell the mothers,” she says, “is that reading is as important as feeding.”
Similarly, editor Skyler Lambert says Cambridge is fertile ground for a press dedicated to the ideals that Star Bright is committed to. “We’re here in Cambridge, and in a lot of ways Cambridge is a reflection of the global community,” she notes. “It’s such a diverse and ethnically rich area. A lot of what we do is easily translatable in a really localized way.”
Today, a crop of new New England children’s publishers are realizing the same thing, following many of the same practices as their predecessors. They are establishing houses intended to thrive for years to come, embracing small-scale operations, and combining nimble publishing of individual titles with a careful growth of their lists over the long-term.
Among them is Nomad Press, a White River Junction, Vt.–based publisher nearing its 20th anniversary. With a dedicated focus on STEM and social science titles, Nomad’s books include experiments and activities for readers in nearly every chapter, balancing technological resources like QR codes with tactile projects that kids can do with basic objects in any house.
“We’re really committed to making our content as accessible to as many different people as possible,” marketing director Rachel K. Benoit says. “It’s just as good for a magnet school in a city with lots of resources as it is for somebody in the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont, where they might not have reliable internet access and their library is only open two and a half days a week.”
For senior editor Andi Diehn, the goal of Nomad’s books is to help children hone their curiosity. “We see our books as a jumping-off point,” she says. “Kids are listening. They hear things in the car. They hear adults talking about important things. We’re trying to give them the tools to keep learning for their entire lives. We want to get kids to ask questions.”
Tumblehome Books grew out of the passion of Penny Noyce, a physician and scientist who has dedicated her career to STEM education. While running her family’s foundation—the Noyce Foundation, which the family created in honor of Noyce’s father, a cofounder of Intel—Noyce was approached by Barnas Monteith, who proposed creating a publishing house that Noyce says would try “to help scientists translate their work in a way that will appeal to children.”
Tumblehome first began publishing in 2012 with a series called The Galactic Academy of Science, and as the company’s output has grown, Noyce and Monteith have taken steps to secure its future over the long term by becoming a nonprofit with its own board. The house has published titles on subjects that range from stem cells to snow leopards.
Noyce and Monteith edit all of the books, many of which have come their way through personal relationships and interactions. One author was referred to Noyce by her son, who was attending a talk by the writer. Another was one of Noyce’s medical school professors.
Working as an editor at Scholastic, Eileen Robinson was poised to see the breadth of children’s publishing as well as the gaps, so when she reached for books to help inspire a love of reading with her own son, she realized there was a need for titles that could attract boys who are reluctant readers. That led her to launch Move Books in Beacon Falls, Conn., in 2011.
“I noticed that there was a hole in the market,” Robinson says. “I started asking my colleagues in publishing, If this is such a great idea, why isn’t anyone doing it?”
An unexpected outcome of launching Move is the opportunity for Robinson to use skills she has learned in publishing that go above and beyond her editorial experience. “I had been exposed to the business, I got to see different parts of it doing P&Ls—many of the business aspects that editors never get to see,” she says. “I was presenting in front of the sales force. All of those kinds of opportunities prepared me for starting my own company.”
For fellow publishing veteran Keith Garton, a career in educational publishing led to a simple thought. “I keep going and starting publishing divisions for educational publishers, so why not do it for myself?” Garton—who previously worked at Scholastic, Prentice Hall, and Time—made Western Massachusetts the home base for Red Chair Press and One Elm, its trade imprint. From there Garton directs an editorial staff located in multiple states and a design studio in Concord, Mass.
Garton and Jeffrey Dinarto founded Red Chair in 2009 with a series of readers for kids in the range of 16–24 pages. Over the past 10 years, the press has steadily expanded, forming a distribution agreement with Lerner Publishing Group and developing inroads with libraries. Today, it produces 20 titles per year with an eye toward reaching the trade market with a growing number of middle grade fiction titles, as well as topical nonfiction such as Individual Sports of the Summer Games (Jan. 2020) and Team Sports of the Summer Games (Jan. 2020), both of which will be released in advance of the 2020 summer Olympics.
Garton keeps the company’s staffing small even as its output has grown to 20 titles per year because, he says, it allows the press to be nimble. When he attended the Frankfurt Book Fair five years ago, Garton says there was interest among foreign publishers for rights to a proposed six-book series of fairy tales called Scary Tales Retold. The problem was that the publishers wanted eight to 10 books in the series.
“Everyone we met with said, ‘We’d love to license these, but we need eight to 10 titles,’” Garton says. He quickly reached out to author Wiley Blevins and illustrator Steve Cox and proposed an incentive agreement. “If you give me 12 titles by this October, then I’ll give you a bonus,” Garton told them. They did, and he attributes the swift turnaround to the direct relationship he has with the authors.
Like his fellow publishers, Garton notes that maintaining a hands-on approach allows for a kind of creative freedom he finds in publishing at the right scale from the right place, which he’s able to do from the heart of New England. “If an idea pops into our head we say, ‘Look what’s going on here,’” Garton says. “We need to do something about that. And we can.”
*This article has been updated.