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Publishers Weekly Children's Features

Breaking the Age Barrier
Judith Rosen -- 9/8/97
Breaking the Age Barrierby Judith RosenMany children's books also appeal to adults, and booksellers are looking for ways to get the word outBooks that blur the lines between children and adult categories have caught the attention of sophisticated readers for decades. Many grown-ups have found philosophical insights in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland or A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh. In the picture book category, Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go has become such a traditional gift for college graduates that it pops onto bestseller lists each spring. But what has changed in recent years is the depth and breadth to be found in many picture books and YA novels.
Children's books ranging from Shel Silverstein's classics Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree to Everybody Poops, and Philip Pullman's recent fantasies, The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, are being snapped up by increasing numbers of adults to read for themselves or give to other adults. Detailed drawings of how things work like Stephen Biesty's Incredible Cross-sections and illustrated fairy tales like Paul O. Zelinsky's Rumpelstiltskin, are also part of the trend.
It's often hard to tell what these crossover titles really are: children's books with adult appeal or adult books altogether. It sometimes seems that where a book is placed on the bookstore shelf has less to do with content than with the division that happened to publish it -- children's or adult. Why else, for example, is a classic coming-of-age story like J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye found with adult fiction, with a copy, perhaps, placed in YA, while Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat series, a collection of hip tales about growing up in L.A., is shelved with children's fiction? Then, too, stories that fit into the 32-page picture-book formats -- like Maira Kalman's Max tales or J.otto Seibold's stories about Mr. Lunch -- are automatically released as children's books. So are folklore collections like Virginia Hamilton's Her Stories, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.
We spoke with booksellers and publishers about the crossover phenomenon. What makes a children's book appeal to adults? And what can booksellers do to promote a book in dual markets?
Looking for Crossover Books
Regina Hayes, president and publisher of Viking Children's Books, has published a number of sophisticated picture books, a term she dislikes. Instead, she prefers to think of the works of the authors and illustrators she edits -- such as J.otto Siebold, Jon Scieszka, Maira Kalman and Istvan Banyai -- as "bridge books," since they form a bridge between traditional picture books and longer works.
Hayes sees no reason that the audience for picture books should be limited to young children. "It's just a format," she pointed out. "We're living in such a visual age, so it's logical that the picture-book format extends to an eight-year-old or a 16-year-old or a college student. I think it's not so much that sophisticated picture books cross over, but that they appeal to many levels. When you think of Sendak or Steig, adults have always liked reading them."Instead of worrying about making all children's books appeal to all children, Hayes is far more concerned with content. "I don't think every book is for every child," she said. "We should be providing a rich variety of content, more than a three-to-five picture book." As an example, she cited Banyai's wordless Zoom, which, like other bridge books, "d sn't underestimate intelligence and works on many levels."
Lisa Holton, publisher of Hyperion Books for Children and Disney Press, also considers the book, as opposed to the potential adult audience, first and foremost when she acquires a new project. When asked about photographer William Wegman, for example, whose newest book Puppies was recently previewed in the New York Times Magazine and who will appear on Oprah next month, Holton replied, "He is an artist who totally works for kids. That's what's really important. The adult audience, that comes second. When we acquire a book, we think about whether it's a great book. In children's books, there have always been blurred boundaries, from millions of adults who read Charlotte's Web to adults who seriously collect picture books."
Hyperion/Disney's Ken Geist, v-p and associate publisher, agrees. In fact, he's one of those adults who enjoys both sophisticated children's books and those with a very kidlike quality. "I buy children's books for adults all the time," he said. "I love Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Mike Mulligan and Goodnight Moon." He views acquisitions as "a book-to-book process." For some crossover titles, Geist tries to place an adult author's work in a children's book format or encourages an adult author to write a book for kids. For other "multipurposed" books, as he calls them, he seeks out recognized visual artists. Of course, there is no guarantee that adults will buy these books for themselves, or even that the formats will work. For instance, he spent a long time looking for the perfect Eudora Welty story to fit into a picture book format, to no avail. On the other hand, his two-year effort to create an affordable Keith Haring art book that children can enjoy has paid off. In spring '98, Hyperion will release two Haring board books -- Big and Ten -- with suggested list prices of $6.95 each.
Helping Books Cross Over
In addition to art-book crossovers, Hyperion is concentrating on promoting children's books written by established adult novelists. This fall, the company is not only launching new children's books by Alice Hoffman and Rudolfo Anaya, but also a bookstore campaign called "Introduce your favorite writer to your favorite reader." Bookstores can order shelf talkers, table cards and bookmarks to place in the adult fiction section to encourage customers to browse in the children's section. Geist is hoping that the promotion will encourage booksellers to shelve these books in both sections. A good example of this program is Michael Dorris's October novel The Window, which takes a character from his bestselling novel for adults, A Yellow Raft on Blue Water.
Many of these books fall into the amorphous YA category, and are often the hardest for booksellers to help cross over. "We tend to do thematic displays, and I tend to do more cross-merchandising with picture books," said Stephanie Wolfe, children's buyer at University Bookstore in Seattle. "Picture books are so immediate; people pick them up." Her store, one of the largest college stores on the West Coast, has a children's section that is set up as a store within a store, and it relies heavily on displays for all its books and merchandise. Because of her work on the Children's Book Council's selection panel to create a catalogue of crossover titles (see box, next page), Wolfe acknowledged that she has become more alert to the crossover potential of children's books other than just picture books. She now incorporates all types of children's books in both displays and Staff Recommends areas.
For Joanna Cotler, publisher of Joanna Cotler Books at HarperCollins, the crossover appeal of the Weetzie Bat books has been building for a long time. Citing reviews in publications like the Village Voice and a recent NPR interview, Cotler noted, "Block always comes to mind in discussions about crossover books." To capitalize on all the adult attention, Harper is reissuing the Weetzie books with a more adult feel. "We're putting them together into a single paperback book edition with a new title, Dangerous Angels, for the spring," she said. "We're giving it an adult trade trim with an adult look and a quote from Spin magazine. We're also giving it a reading-group brochure like our adult books." Harper will also include the book in both its adult and children's catalogues.
Explaining why certain YA titles might appeal to adults, Cotler suggests that authors like Block and Victor Martinez, whose Parrot in the Oven won a National Book Award last year, "don't sit down and say, `I'm going to write a book for kids.' It's just who they happen to land with. Block gets letters from people who are 40 and people who are 12."
Henry Holt senior editor Marc Aronson, who edits YA novels, commented, "It's easy for adults to make the leap to picture books -- to 28 or 32 beautiful pictures that cost less than an adult book. Picture books tend to have a compact emotional message, and adults tend to use them almost as a Hallmark card to send to a friend in transition. The area that drew me is the blurry borderline-YA. These books are often written as adult books, whether it's stylistic, like Francesca Lia Block, or thematic, like Roger Larson's What I Know Now. You could take the same book and shelve it in the adult section, especially in our memoir-mad age."
The Achilles heel, as he sees it, is that if a novel is published as an adult book, it will have a shorter hardcover shelf life and cost more to produce, because it will have to be supported by publicity and marketing. On the other hand, adult books get more bookstore and review attention. Ironically, as far as reviews are concerned, Aronson pointed out, "YA novels, which are marked by concision and directness, contain exactly what reviewers come down on adult books for lacking."
Despite successes like Parrot in the Oven, there are too many YAs like Jack, the first novel by adult author A.M. Homes, which never make a big splash or find their audience. "Almost your only hope is that there's something thematic that will draw them to it," Aronson said. Citing novels such as Kyoko Mori's Shizuko's Daughter and Helen Kim's The Long Season of Rain, which are being taught in Asian-American classes, he recommended doing "anything you can do to make a community know about it" to help a book cross.
The whole issue of what makes a book YA and who reads it is one that even adult book publishers are starting to grapple with. After noticing strong sales to YA readers of The House on Mango Street and Snow Falling on Cedars, which were both marketed as adult books, Carl Lennertz, director of marketing of the Knopf Group, sent out a letter to booksellers asking for suggestions about hardcover YAs that Vintage could pick up in paper.
Although, he emphasized, this is all in "preliminary stages," he recommends "the radical notion" of publishing two editions of the same book: one for the YA market and one for adults. Each would have a different cover and price points. "New and different things have to be tried," he said.
One of the more successful YA promotion campaigns in recent times was mounted by Knopf Books for Young Readers to promote Pullman's The Golden Compass, which involved both an adult-sized amount of money, marketing and publicity. "At the time the book was acquired," explained Kerry McManus, marketing manager of Knopf and Crown Books for Young Readers, "the editors involved did think that it had a significant appeal to the adult market. All subsequent marketing efforts grew out of this belief, therefore creating the entire Golden Compass 'crossover' campaign." That campaign (Marketing, April 1, 1996) got a boost with the sale of film rights to Scholastic Productions, audio rights to Random House AudioBooks and paperback rights to the entire trilogy to Del Rey. The Golden Compass was also a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.
"They were smart," Lennertz commented, referring to what was the linchpin of Knopf BFYR's marketing campaign-word-of-mouth. "They began the word-of-mouth in the building, getting different people to read it." Of course, Lennertz's own mailing of 1000 readers' copies, once he had read it and got hooked, didn't hurt with getting word-of-mouth going with independent booksellers or wholesalers. Neither did the more than quadrupling of the advance galley run from 1500 to 7000.
For McManus, all this translated into the fact that "a lot of stores sold The Golden Compass as a book, not a kids' book. Kids love it on one level; adults love it on others." With The Subtle Knife promotion this summer, she continued, "the marketing wasn't as glitzy. We did an advance manuscript mailing to 75 or 100 people with a note from Philip, and Carl gave it a plug in his newsletter. We launched a Web site on it on August 15th, and we're doing an online discount of 30 percent. We're also doing a lot of traditional marketing: an author tour in November and a reading group guide." By the end of August The Subtle Knife was already climbing regional bestseller lists, as well as PW's children's list. It followed a path already blazed by Brian Jacques's Redwall series, which also is published by an adult house -- Berkley -- in paperback.
What Booksellers Can Do
As Linda Zuckerman, editorial director of Browndeer Press, an imprint of Harcourt Brace Children's Books, noted, "The weird thing about children's books is that none of them are bought by children. They're all bought by adults. They're all reviewed by adults. There are gatekeepers every step of the way." Even so, some children's books are kept by adults for themselves or given to friends. Why?
Sally Jordan, owner of Jeremy's Books and Toys in Houston, who is in the process of moving her 19-year-old general store (originally called Jeremy's Bookshelf) and turning it into a children's-only store, has thought long and hard about that question. In her general store, she used to mix many children's and adult titles together. For example, she would place YA with literary classics, shelve children's and adult humor and science books together, and put illustrated children's p try books in the adult gift section. In addition, she gives frequent talks for adults at which she reads children's books. "I get invited to do programs for singles groups at the Methodist church or the Rotary Women, and when I do, I always read children's books."
In her new store, Jordan plans to continue to market crossover titles like The Table Where Rich People Sit by Byrd Baylor, illustrated by Peter Parnall, and Dr. Seuss's Seussisms. "We're creating a section called Mothers &Others to sell children's books to adult buyers," she said. She also plans to continue to mix children's science and adult science together. "Since we're in the space community and the Johnson Space Center is nearby, I will still carry those. We used to keep our children's and adult science sections separate. But we always had adults going over to the children's science area. Adults really like the picture books that come from EDC or Kingfisher, and kids really like the hard ones."
The other thing that Jordan has found to boost crossover sales, especially YA, is mother-daughter book groups. "We're doing a book club for 12 and up," she said, "and that has worked really well. We've marked all the books with shelf talkers so that even people who aren't in the group are buying the books."For Jordan, however, shelf talkers are no substitute for handselling. "You can put together a mass merchandise display with posters, but it can't sell those books," she stated. "If you want to sell a book, you need to put it in someone's hands and say, "This is why your husband would like this.'"
Other stores find that handselling is less important than getting the right book/merchandise mix. At Curious George G s to WordsWorth in Cambridge, Mass., for example, merchandising is key, from the window display with George on his bike to the Curious George necklaces that are worn by staffers. "We get a number of people, both adults and college students, who walk in when they see it's a Curious George store," said general manager Sanj Kharbanda. "I guess it transports them back in time."
The store, which is decorated to look like a jungle, and its related Web site (http://www.wordsworth.com) claim to stock every Curious George item available, and both destinations have strong crossover appeal. Kharbanda ventured that it's because "Curious George reminds you of a certain youth. Margret Rey put it really well when she was asked why people like Curious George: 'They want to be like him, because he can do things and get away with them,' she replied."
For Tower Records, with 95 record stores throughout the U.S., merchandising is also key. The record stores do not buy centrally, and rely heavily on displays. According to Joanna Sedlack, who handles marketing for the book division, "Books like William Wegman's or Jon Scieszka's are the easiest to sell, especially around the holidays, if they are displayed well."
Each record store's book buyer and regional manager are responsible for the buying. "We in the office," Sedlack explained, "are constantly pawing through stuff and sending out information. We like to find cool stuff they might not otherwise have seen." Among the books in their catalogue coming up this fall with crossover appeal, Sedlack singles out Wegman's Puppies and John Travolta's Propeller One-Way Night Coach. "We do well with books by celebrities, because they're more visible, which is what the record and video industry is about."
Like Jordan at Jeremy's Books and Toys, Kay Remick, owner of Edward T. Rabbit &Co. in Richmond, Va., has found that nonfiction is an important crossover area. "There's a whole other side of children's books for adults-looking for information that you missed," she said. "A lot of the art books for children are wonderful for adults. It's the way the information is presented, and if you're dealing with a subject that slipped by you, it draws you in."Remick also handsells a lot of YA. "There are some books I've always given to adults, like The Giver by Lois Lowry. I think some of the best writing going on is in that area. A lot of authors tell me that they don't write for an age, they write for a story they can tell." This fall, Remick is experimenting with starting a special area in her store just for crossover books, like Nancy Willard's Cracked Corn and Snow Ice Cream. "We're going to try putting 12 titles in a prominent place and call them Great Reads. It will be next to our parenting section."
The Shelving Dilemma
Chain-store buyers, too, have been finding that adult readers are venturing into their children's areas and, like their independent counterparts, they are doing their best to foster interest in crossover books. Ruta Drummond, who has been the children's buyer at Borders for the past 12 years, was excited by the CBC's catalogue. "Often I pick up a children's book, but there's nothing in there for a child," she said; "it's meant for an adult market. So I hope we'll see more adults reading children's books. I'm encouraging our stores to put up displays of crossover books outside the children's section. It's an acknowledgment that if you're an adult, it's OK to read children's books."
Drummond would like to see some books merchandised with music, such as Chris Raschka's Mysterious Thelonious, a small-format homage to jazz composer Thelonious Monk, but says there just isn't the space. Plus other problems arise in shelving titles in both the children's and the adult sections. "In order to double-shelve, you have to buy larger quantities," she pointed out. "Also, all the fixtures are different for different sections. The picture-book shelves are made to fit a certain size of book."
Determining what section a book belongs in is also a problem for Maureen Golden, v-p of merchandising at Barnes &Noble, who noted that her stores are "not proactively selling kids books to adults. I don't think you get anything from putting Miss Spider in the adult section, where it would have to compete with coffee-table books. We sell far more out of children's."
"Our concern," she added, "is that we get it to the right buyer and we get it in our system correctly. One thing we say to the publishers, if you think you have a crossover book, you need to position it that way. The sales reps response is, 'We listed this in both catalogues.' But I need to know where you think this should be in Barnes &Noble and B. Dalton."
Holly Myers, children's book buyer at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, also struggles with categorizations of children's books. "I don't understand why we don't just look at good fiction as good fiction," she said. She makes a point of adding children's books like Sharon Creech's Walk Two Moons to the general Staff Recommends area, and in the store's spring newsletter she highlighted not only 10 adult books for teens, but 10 kids' books for adults.
Whether crossover books can reach their full potential is anyone's guess. Yet clearly there is a market, and a growing one at that, for children's books that blur the definition of what a children's book actually is, and who should be reading it. With marketing muscle like the CBC catalogue, more directed handselling, and sales efforts on the part of the publishers, an increasing number of adults may be discovering children's books -- with themes that resonate in their own lives and artwork they find attractive and unusual -- and taking these volumes home to read all by themselves.
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