Traditional religion children’s book publishers, nonfaith houses that are dipping into the religious market, and publishers from across spiritual traditions are addressing issues related to faith and culture in books publishing for children from now through next summer. Diversity stands out as a key tenet for publishers in the religious children’s space, reflecting what readers need today.
“Books that tell a faith-based story but from a different ethnic heritage, or that help educate children regarding different people around the world, are building blocks for understanding,” says Annette Bourland, senior v-p and group publisher at Zonderkidz.
Zonderkidz is publishing Clap Your Hands: A Celebration of Gospel by Toyomi Igus (Dec.), a journey through African-American gospel music that features a foreword by singer CeCe Winans. And Westminster John Knox’s Flyaway Books imprint is adapting God’s Big Plan by Elizabeth F. Caldwell and Theodore Hiebert into a board book that explores and celebrates diversity around the world, publishing in February.
“Audiences seem to appreciate excellent illustration and design like never before, so we’re setting our artistic standards high and ensuring our illustrations reflect and celebrate a range of skin colors and cultures,” says Michelle Freeman, children’s books publisher at B&H. The publisher is releasing What’s So Wonderful About Webster? (Nov.). Written by filmmakers Stephen and Alex Kendrick, What’s So Wonderful is a picture book featuring an African-American elementary school student who is reminded of God’s love during field day.
Kar-Ben Publishing is using multilingual books to encourage acceptance of diversity within the Jewish community. The Key from Spain: Flory Jagoda and Her Music by Debbie Levy (out now) features the Ladino language of the Sephardic Jews. Board book You’re the Cheese in My Blintz by Leslie Kimmelman (Jan. 2020) introduces Hebrew and Yiddish words, while Buen Shabat, Shabbat Shalom by Sarah Aroeste (Mar. 2020) teaches Ladino words in the context of a Sephardic Jewish home.
Coming in June 2020 from Paulist Press are Sister Thea Bowman: Do You Hear Me, Church? by Peggy A. Skylar, the story of the gifted advocate for diversity and inclusion of African-Americans in the Catholic Church, and An African Gospel by Benedite de la Ronciere, depicting scenes of Jesus's life set in the Mafa region of northern Camaroon.
DaySpring, the Christian products subsidiary of Hallmark, is publishing This Little Light of Mine (Oct.), a pop-up and lift-the-flap version of the traditional song, which evokes the civil rights movement and the hope that all people can make a difference. Two other books encourage children to accept themselves and others, despite differences: Drawing God by Karen Kiefer (Paraclete, Oct.) uses art to help children discover their own faith imaginations—a term used by the author—and is tied to the interfaith World Drawing God Day on November 7. Mother-and-son coauthors Sally and Nathan Clarkson draw on Nathan’s childhood experiences with mental illness and learning disabilities in Only You Can Be You: What Makes You Different Makes You Great (Thomas Nelson, Oct.) in order to help children discover their strengths.
For readers ages 10-12, A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan (Clarion, May) follows two sixth graders—one Muslim, one Jewish—who meet in a cooking class and learn that they have more in common than a shared kitchen.
In addition to publishers’ efforts to include diverse authors and characters, children’s books on social justice topics such as racial justice and immigration are also on the rise. Loyola Press has partnered with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to focus on social justice and charitable works through its Two Feet of Love in Action children’s book series. The first release in the series, Everyone Belongs (Dec.), examines racism in American history through a lens of faith and encourages readers to seek friendships with those who are different from them.
Muslim Pakistani-American Hena Khan’s Like the Moon Loves the Sky (Chronicle, Mar. 2020) is a response to the Orlando mass shooting (at the hands of a Muslim man) and the fear she felt as a mother for her children amid threats of violence against Muslims over the shooter’s actions.
Compassion International partners with Tyndale for The Philippines: An Interactive Family Experience (out now), in which families learn about the lives of kids and young adults living in poverty. The goal, the publisher says, is to build a kinship with families across the globe.
Far from Home: A Story of Loss, Refuge, and Hope by Sarah Parker Rubio (Tyndale, Oct.) is a refugee story that reminds children they are not alone—told through the eyes of a boy who must leave the only home he’s known. Also in this vein is Krit Dreams of Dragon Fruit: A Story of Leaving and Find Home by Natalie Becher and Emily France (Bala Kids, Mar. 2020), a Zen-inspired picture book about moving to a new home, making friends, and finding beauty.
As the Amazon rainforest burns, Sarah jean Collins's God Made the Rain Forest (Tyndale, Jan.) is especially timely. Colorful geometric illustrations teach toddlers facts about the flora and fauna in this endangered piece of the world. One Earth by Eileen Spinelli (Worthy Kids, Mar.) is an environmental picture book that counts to 10 and back, exploring reasons to love the planet and practical ways to care for it.
Faith in Practice
Publishers small and large are finding their way in a highly competitive market by focusing on core faith practices and rites of passage.
“We are hearing from customers that they want an experience,” says Mary Wuertz von Holt, director of sales, marketing, and product development at Liguori Publications. “Children don’t just want to learn about mass. They want to know what the mass means.”Liguori’s Meet the Gentle Jesus: The Mass for Children by Barbara Yoffi (Jan. 2020) is an introduction to Jesus’s teachings, as well as the basic parts of the mass.
I Am Yours by Wynter Pitts (Harvest House, out now), the late author and founder of the bimonthly magazine For Girls Like You, who passed away last year, collects guidance for girls on when, why, and how to pray.
Young readers can learn about the history and beauty of prayer in As It Is in Heaven: A Collection of Prayers for All Ages (Eerdmans, Mar.), illustrated by Éric Puybaret. Art and text—including the Apostles’ Creed, prayers by St. Francis, and more—invite readers to find new meaning in these old words.
Crossway’s Arlo and the Great Big Coverup by Betsy Childs Howard (June 2020) depicts the freedom that can come from confessing a sin rather than trying to cover it up, while On the Day You Were Baptized by Taylor Young (Beaming Books, out now) is a reminder for children of their baptism and the love of their parents, faith community, and God. Beaming also offers This is the Church by Sarah Raymond Cunningham (Jan.), a gift book for when children are initiated into the church, such as through baptism and confirmation.
Mindfulness and meditation, which have roots in Buddhism, are increasingly popular for use across cultural and religious backgrounds. Ivan Bercholz, publisher at Shambhala's children's imprint, Bala Kids, says: "We see a rising trend for books on social-emotional learning and we are striving to meet that need with kid-friendly books on meditation, yoga, mindfulness, and more."
Bala Kids is publishing The Monkey Mind Meditation Deck: 30 Fun Ways for Kids to Chill Out, Tune In, and Open Up by Carolyn Kanjuro (Feb.) which offers 30 simple practices that blend the transformative power of mindfulness in a playful way. Another on the topic is New World Library’s first-ever children’s book Big Breath: A Guided Meditation for Kids by William Meyer (out now).
“We typically don’t publish children’s books, but when this idea came to us, we knew we had to publish it,” said Jason Gardner, executive editor at New World Library. The press relied on library advertising and outreach to independent booksellers including Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore chain to help Big Breath reach readers, according to Gardner. “So far, the enthusiastic reaction we’re getting from reviewers, librarians, and educators is validating our decision,” he said. “We’d love to do more children’s books in the future, but they will have to be as special as this one.”
The Very Best Day: The Way of Love for Children by Roger Hutchison (Church Publishing, Jan.) introduces the daily practices necessary for a Jesus-centered life, such as Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest. Prayers for Little Hearts (Cartwheel Books, Sept.) helps children up to age three say thank you for life’s daily blessings, and Cuddle Up Prayers by Michelle Medlock Adams (Worthy Kids, Jan.) shows little ones how talk to God about their concerns. Thank You Lord: My First Words in Praise of God by Augustine Gadient and Hengjing Zang (Ignatius, Oct.) teaches children to have wonderment and gratitude for God's beautiful creations.
In addition to new subject-matter trends in the category, children’s storybook Bibles, board books, and devotionals are among the most popular products in the religion market today. These formats provide religion houses with the bread and butter of their children’s programs, and as sales in the category continue to rise, publishers are acquiring titles accordingly.
“B&H Kids continues to see strong growth, partially due to our efforts to partner with [retail] buyers and create books for their specific markets,” Freeman says. “Easter and Christmas books with clear faith-based messages have found a strong footing, as well as Bible storybooks that offer new hooks built on solid content.”
Bourland of Zonderkidz says, “Faith-based kids books are making their way as bestselling products at nationally recognized retailers, outperforming some beloved brands due to parents and grandparents wanting to give their children messages and stories that transcend movies and franchised characters.”