Recent growth in sales of children’s books has encouraged some publishers of religion and spirituality books to ramp up—or to create—children’s publishing programs. In 2017, publishers launched new imprints, grew through acquiring other companies, struck licensing deals, and beefed up their existing children’s imprints and lines. Now, a year later, are their efforts bearing fruit? A wide-angle lens reveals growth not only at evangelical Christian houses—which publish the bulk of children’s books in the category—but also at Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, and mainline Protestant presses, broadening choices for parents who want to teach their faith to children.
Signs of the uptick in interest in children’s religion books can be seen in Westminster John Knox’s new children’s imprint, Flyaway Books, launched in 2017. Associate publisher and editorial director David Dobson is optimistic about its future. He says that getting Christian children’s books into general trade stores has always been difficult, but “we have been very pleased by the response of independent ABA stores to Flyaway Books.” He adds, “While they are not as interested in the strictly religious titles we publish, such as our Growing in God’s Love story Bible, they are very interested in the values-based picture books we offer.”
In line with a major focus of its adult list, WJK plans to publish “picture books that celebrate diversity, compassion, and social justice,” Dobson says, such as Who Is My Neighbor? by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illus. by Denise Turu (Jan. 2019), and No One Else Like You by Siska Goeminne, illus. by Merel Eyckerman, which came out in 2017 and was named by the New York Times Book Review as one of the best new children’s titles celebrating the power of diversity.
Other publishers are weighing in on the crucial topic of immigration. Luis y Mia/Mia and Luis by L.J. Zimmerman and Monica Reyna, illus. by Marce Gómez (Abingdon, out now), is about immigration and cross-cultural friendship; Far from Home: A Story of Loss, Refuge, and Hope, by Sarah Parker Rubio (Tyndale Kids, Oct. 2019), tells the story of a child forced to flee his home; and Jesus Was a Refugee by Andrew McDonough (Malcolm Down and Sarah Grace, out now) compares the plight of the Hebrews in Exodus to that of the millions of refugees who are fleeing poverty and war today.
Evangelical Christian publisher Harvest House has long published children’s books but only recently established a dedicated imprint, Harvest House Kids, with 38 titles releasing between fall 2018 and fall 2019. According to Kyle Hatfield, acquisitions editor for children’s and family books, annual title output will remain at about 38, although there will be changes in subjects and approach. “We’re making an effort to bring in more diverse voices and to focus on specific family issues,” he says, as is the case with its picture book on adoption, We Chose You by Tony and Lauren Dungy (Apr. 2019).
Whitaker House expanded its children’s publishing by acquiring Smart Kidz in 2017 and is releasing eight titles in November under the Smart Kidz imprint, with 12–15 more due by the end of 2019 and plans to increase title output to 20 per year. November releases include books that reassure children they are loved: You’re My Little Love Bug by Heidi Warner as well as author-illustrator Ron Berry’s The ABCs of How I Love You and The 123s of How I Love You.
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers currently publishes 16 titles annually and plans an increase to 18–20 books per year. One new title, Paul Writes (a Letter) (out now), written and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka, distills the main themes of Paul’s epistles to make them accessible to children. Kathleen Merz, managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, says, “The book captures the very human side of Paul like nothing else I’ve seen before, and provides a great reminder of the impact that one man and his letters had on the course of human history.”
Sticking with What Works
Some publishers with robust children’s programs say they will hold title output steady. Tyndale Kids will stay at about 18 titles per year, publisher Linda Howard notes. “We’re still testing the market on different genres and styles. What we do know is that we have a much better chance of having success if a book is part of a brand and has a strong framework around it.” With more than one million copies in print, one of Tyndale’s foundational bestsellers has been A Child’s First Bible by Ken Taylor, and, Howard says, “we are expanding that into a full brand,” starting with A Child’s First Bible: Psalms for Little Hearts by Dandi Daley Mackall, illus. by Cee Biscoe, in March 2019.
David C. Cook publishes 15 children’s books each year and plans to continue with that number. Cook will also employ branding, says Michele Baird, senior director of marketing: “We plan to build on past successes with our Action Bible brand and ancillary products.” Among Cook’s new releases is Forensic Faith for Kids: Learn to Share the Truth from a Real Detective by J. Warner Wallace and Susie Wallace (out now).
Catherine DeVries, publisher at Kregel, says the house will continue to publish about 18 children’s books per year. Commenting on what’s needed for success in the market, she says, “No matter what age, children connect best with books when they are ‘age-appropriate’ from the inside out. Focusing on content is important. But so is finding the visual match: the artwork, the format, even the very font size and style. Crafting a genuine children’s book is difficult and delightful, all at the same time.” One example is Big God, Little Me: An Ask and Learn Storybook Bible by Anne de Graaf, illus. by José Pérez Montero (Kregel, Apr. 2019), which provides kids with interactive questions, things to think about, and ideas for prayer.
Also keeping title output steady is Christian Focus, which in recent years has published around 22 children’s titles per year under its CF4Kids imprint and will continue at that level, says editor Catherine MacKenzie. Her own book, Jesus—The Best Story, is due out in February 2019.
Classic Tales and Topics
Some kinds of children’s religion books never go out of style, such as those that explain the Christian sacraments and holy days. Episcopal press Church Publishing has a classic in Today Is Baptism Day by Anna Ostenso Moore, illus. by Peter Krueger (out now), which introduces children and families to the sacrament of baptism, with illustrations that reflect diversity. Also from Church, Candle Walk: A Bedtime Prayer to God, written and illustrated by Karen Holsinger Sherman (Feb. 2019), prepares kids for sleep by taking them on a walk through the woods and inviting them to experience the Compline, a centuries-old practice of contemplative evening prayer.
Of course, there are many children’s Christmas titles coming out now. Flyaway Books published Home by Another Way: A Christmas Story, the first children’s book by bestselling author Barbara Brown Taylor (An Altar in the World), illus. by Melanie Cataldo, in September. Paraclete’s Margaret’s Night in St. Peter’s: A Christmas Story by Jon M. Sweeney, illus. by Roy DeLeon (out now), is book two in the Pope’s Cat series. Everyone Is Invited to Christmas by Susan Jones, illus. by Lee Holland (Skyhorse, Nov.), is the tale of forest animals celebrating the holiday with decorations and treats.
IVP doesn’t publish children’s books, but it finds its way into the market by distributing titles from U.K. publisher SPCK, including The Rhyming Bible by Bob Hartman, illus. by Mark Beech (Mar. 2019), and a pair of books for Christmas: The Sleepy Shepherd: A Timeless Retelling of the Christmas Story by Stephen Cottrell, illus. by Chris Hagan, and The Shepherd Who Couldn’t Sing by Alan Barker, illus. by Thea Baker (both out now). The Gift That I Can Give by Kathie Lee Gifford, illus. by Julia Seal (Tommy Nelson, out now), encourages kids to use their unique gifts and to believe it isn’t only grown-ups who can make a difference in the world.
Several books look forward to spring and the new beginning symbolized by Easter. An Easter Egg Hunt for Christmas by Susan Jones, illus. by Lee Holland (Skyhorse, Feb. 2019) connects two favorite holidays. Holy Week, written and illustrated by Danielle Hitchen (Harvest House Kids, Jan. 2019), leads them through the final week of Jesus’s life while also teaching children about emotions. And WorthyKids’ First Easter, by Susana Gay, illus. by Owen Gay (Feb. 2019), is the sixth book in their Baby Bible Books series.
For Gutsy Girls
Jewish publisher Kar-Ben offers a wide variety of books for children, many on Jewish culture and history, but some also focused on Judaism itself. Light the Menorah by Jacqueline Jules, illus. by Kristina Swarner (out now) received a starred review from PW. Kar-Ben licenses Sesame Street’s Grover character, and coming next year are A Seder for Grover (Feb. 2019), Shanah Tover, Grover (Aug. 2019), and Grover Goes to Israel (Jan. 2019). Another publisher with licensed characters is Sourcebooks, with five titles coming that feature Precious Moments characters, among them Precious Moments Christmas (out now).
Kar-Ben has several books in a category publisher Joanna Sussman calls “gutsy girls.” In An Unlikely Ballerina (out now), nine-year-old Lily overcomes physical fragility to become a dancer, and in Pinky Bloom and the Case of the Missing Kiddush Cup by Judy Press (Nov.), fourth-grader Pinky unravels the mystery of a kiddush cup that has disappeared from a museum.
The gutsy girls theme can also be seen in a line of books from evangelical publisher Barbour, including 100 Extraordinary Stories for Courageous Girls by Jean Fischer (Nov.), How to Be a Courageous Girl of God (July 2019), and The Bible for Courageous Girls (July 2019). SPCK offers Extraordinary Women of the Bible (out now), written and illustrated by Michelle Sloan.
There are books to help children deal with their emotions, such as Nothing by Natalee Creech, illus. by Joseph Cowman (WorthyKids, Apr. 2019), which teaches children that not even rumbling volcanoes, deep oceans, and their own shortcomings can separate them from God. Harvest House Kids’ Love Made by Quina Aragon, illus. by Scotty Reifsnyder (Feb. 2019), teaches children to esteem God not themselves, and that they are precious not because of anything they do, but because they are made in God’s image.
Other books urge children—no matter how young—to define their missions in the world: Love Does for Kids by Bob Goff and Lindsey Vinduich Goff (Tommy Nelson, out now) is a children’s version of Thomas Nelson’s Love Does, which has sold more than 965,000 copies since its publication in 2012. WaterBrook Multonomah, the Christian imprint of Penguin Random House, next year releases God Gave Us the Story by Lisa Tawn Bergren, illus. by David Hohn (WaterBrook, Sept. 2019), for children who want to tell friends and family about the “good news” of the gospel.
Different Points of View
Although most religious/spiritual books for children come from evangelical or Protestant publishers, there are others from a variety of Christian points of view. Among the Catholic presses with children’s books is Ignatius, which, over its 40-year history, has consistently published eight to 10 children’s books per year; the house has nine due out this fall and into 2019. According to marketing director Anthony Ryan, “It’s been somewhat of a challenge getting titles into general-interest bookstores, since our books are strongly Christian- or Catholic-themed, but we are making inroads because of the strong reputation Ignatius Press has developed.”
New and forthcoming books from Ignatius include The Gospel Told by Animals by Benedicte Delelis, illus. by Eric Puybaret; Mary Stories from the Bible by Charlotte Grossetete, illus. by Sibylle and Dominique Mertens, focuses on the mother of Jesus (both out now). In February 2019, Ignatius will publish The Life of Jesus According to St. Luke by Sophie de Mullenheim, illus. by Chrisophe Raimbault. Another Catholic press, Twenty-Third Publications, has Heavenly Friends: An Introduction to the Beauty of Icons for Children by iconographer William Hart McNichols (spring 2019), which introduces kids to the practice of visio divina (sacred seeing) through praying with icons.
Paraclete Press is a nondenominational publisher that draws from both evangelical Christian and Catholic traditions; it recently released the first title in its San Damiano line, St. Francis and the Animals: A Mother Bird’s Story by Phil Gallery, illus. by Sibyl MacKenzie (out now). Under the San Damiano imprint, Paraclete will publish books on Franciscan themes for children as well as adults, in both fiction and nonfiction. Also from Paraclete is My Year with the Saints for Kids (out now), a devotional compiled by Peter Celano.
Hugh Bonneville (from TV’s Downton Abbey) will star this year in the annual Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert; It Is Well with My Soul: The True Story of the Writing of the Beloved Hymn by Bonneville and Robert Hunt (out now) is from Shadow Mountain. The Christian hymn “It Is Well with My Soul,” first published in 1876, is considered one of the most influential and enduring hymns of all time. The book was a Junior Library Guild selection for 2018 and is a tie-in to the television special.
Buddhist press Shambhala created its children’s imprint, Bala Kids, in 2017 and is releasing its first three titles next year. Everything Is Connected by Jason Gruhl, illus. by Ignasi Font (Feb. 2019), teaches kids the central Buddhist principle that people are all connected to everyone and everything. Telling kids they are smart, brave, kind, and creative, the book reminds them about these gifts and encourages them to use them. Another book from Bala Kids is Where’s Buddha?, written and illustrated by Marisa Aragón Ware (Feb. 2019); it shows children how to find the Buddha in all things and everywhere.
Another Buddhist press, Wisdom, encourages meditation for children in See, Hear, Feel by Emmanuelle Giumelli, illus. by Mathilde Gatinois (Nov.). So does BHC Press with Meditation for Children: A Book of Mindfulness by Shelley Wilson (Apr. 2019).
Those who identify as spiritual but not religious—a growing portion of the population—appear to have few books especially for their children. What Makes You Happy? by Marie-Agnès Gaudrat, illus. by Carme Solé Vendrell (Shelter Harbor, Nov.), encourages kids to decide what makes them happy. The book incorporates the tenets of many faiths, but avoids religion and encourages kids to find their own spirituality.
New to the category is Samhita Press, launched in 2017. Matsya, the Magic Fish by Anna Milagrits, illus. by Antonina Hordovska (Oct. 2019), is a story that opens Hindu spiritual traditions to children. “It is a challenge to invest in a spiritual children’s picture book, especially if you are a small press from the Midwest,” notes publisher Vitaliy Grytsyuk. “We plan to present the book as folklore rather than a strictly religious book. By this means, people of various cultural and religious backgrounds can enjoy it without feeling forced to read a particular spiritual philosophy or doctrine.”
These books are needed, Grytsyuk says: “I was in a bookstore recently and found several dozen children’s Bibles but almost no children’s titles recounting stories from Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, or other traditions. We need well-presented children’s spiritual literature and more diversity when it comes to religious books on store shelves.”
Correction: In the October 22, 2018 issue of PW, in the feature “Teach Your Children Well,” Shadow Mountain was referred to as a religious publisher. This is incorrect—it is a general trade publisher. This version of the story has been updated with the correction.