The kids are back in school and last summer's road trip is history, but this fall's selection of children's religion books evokes the reassuring familiarity of those McDonald's and Burger King signs visible from the interstate. The names of bestselling adult authors splash all over children's book covers, and the titles of bestselling children's series morph into trademarks. How can a parent say no to anything so recognizable and comforting?
General trade publishers offering children's books with author names like Kathleen Norris and Neale Donald Walsh are taking no chances. Norris, bestselling author of adult spirituality books such as The Cloister Walk, teams up with award-winning illustrator Tomie dePaola in The Holy Twins: Benedict and Scholastica, due this month from Putnam. Walsh's Conversations with God for Teens (Hampton Roads, Nov.), though a hardcover in a market that favors paper, seems guaranteed to benefit from the success of its elders.
|A Serial Success|
|Horatio Alger Jr. Nancy Drew. Goosebumps. Say "juvenile series fiction," and somebody will bring up the big names of the last two centuries: series with 50 or more titles and sales figures in the hundreds of millions. No CBA publisher has yet produced a series as popular as, say, The Bobbsey Twins--but sales are still booming for longtime series publishers Tyndale and Bethany. |
To no one's surprise, Tyndale's Left Behind: The Kids leads the pack in instant sales: "7.6 million copies since their release," according to Dan Balow, director of business development for the series. Books 17 and 18, due in September, will have initial press runs of 300,000 copies each. "The great response to the Left Behind series gives us the opportunity to address the readers they attract," says Karen Watson, director of children's acquisitions. "They read one of those books in two hours and say, 'What's next?'" Tyndale hopes kids will find their next books at Tyndale's new Web site (www.cool2read.com). It's an action-packed site featuring pounding music and links to six other Tyndale series, including the newly updated Elizabeth Gail by Hilda Stahl--one of the earliest juvenile series in the CBA, with sales topping 1.2 million--and Forbidden Doors by Bill Myers, mysteries in which faith-filled kids challenge the occult.
With over 40 juvenile series in its catalogue--many achieving sales in the hundreds of thousands--Bethany is the CBA's most experienced series developer. Its 34-title Mandie series by Lois Gladys Leppard has been continuously published since 1983, and unit sales are now over six million. This summer Bethany launched Sandra Byrd's Hidden Diary series for girls eight to 12; books three and four are due in September. Early readers, six to eight, await the October debut of Young Cousins Mysteries by Elspeth Campbell Murphy, author of the 30-book Three Cousins Detective Club. Also coming in October are books five and six of Robert Elmer's AstroKids series, showing sales of half-a-million since its launch last year.
Hearing success stories like those, no wonder other Christian publishers, even some with short children's lists, are getting into series fiction. In June, Baker published book three of Lucille Travis's Apple Valley Mysteries, whose heroine, Jeanmarie, confronts World War II spies, racism, theft and arson in the course of everyday life in her New York orphanage. In September, Kregel introduces Jeanette Windle's The Parker Twins with two tales of adventure in the Bolivian rain forest.
Inexpensive paperbacks can lead young consumers to pricier products. ZonderKidz's Young Women of Faith novels debuted late in 2000 with Here's Lily (now in its seventh printing) and Lily Robbins, M.D. Books five and six are scheduled for September. Each $4.99 novel has a $7.99 nonfiction companion book that discusses issues such as relationships, etiquette and rebellion. According to media relations manager Mary Meehan, "Retailers report that parents gravitate toward the nonfiction titles to use as resources when approaching topics with their kids." In addition, the series includes a $12.99 guided journal, a $9.99 devotional and the $24.99 Young Women of Faith Bible. A library for boys is coming next spring.
Tommy Nelson is capitalizing on its 12-book TodaysGirls.com series by bringing out a $14.99 guided journal in October. Director of publicity Amy Williams observes, "The tween [10-14] segment of the children's market is hungry for product geared just for them, and they have more discretionary money than ever." A growing number of Christian publishers are finding that series fiction--and its inevitable spinoffs--can be an extremely effective way of helping them spend it.
Moving bestselling adult authors into the young teen market is part of evangelical publisher Tommy Nelson's strategy, according to publicity director Amy Williams. In June TN published John C. Maxwell's Leading from the Lockers, and next February's list will include He Chose You by Max Lucado. For younger children, TN is publishing Jabez books. For anyone who has been in a coma since last November, The Prayer of Jabez (Multnomah) by Bruce Wilkinson is a 96-page hardcover inspirational book for adults that has sold more than eight million copies this year, and children's adaptations are cropping up all over. In July Multnomah released The Prayer of Jabez for Teens while Tommy Nelson published two children's adaptations coauthored with Melody Carlson, The Prayer of Jabez for Kids and The Prayer of Jabez for Little Ones. A Jabez-based book of devotions for eight- to 12-year-olds will follow in October.
Among evangelical Christians, several authors are nearly as omnipresent as the golden arches. Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, after repeatedly hitting the top spot on adult bestseller lists with their Left Behind series, continue to expand the hottest series in children's religious fiction (see sidebar), while Max Lucado is now the topselling religion picture book author (see below). These are the authors many people think of first when they hear "Christian children's books," and this makes some Christians in publishing see red.
"Christian" Does Not Equal CBA
What exactly is a "Christian" book? The term is often used as shorthand for books published by evangelical houses and sold by members of the Christian Booksellers Association, whose 2,500 member stores cater mainly to evangelical Protestants. But it just as accurately refers to books from other Christian traditions: Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, mainline Protestant. The difference goes way beyond semantics.
"There's almost no overlap between the CBA store here in Seattle and us," says Nancy Marshall, owner of the Episcopal Bookstore and president of the 84-member Episcopal Booksellers Association. Marshall describes her market as people involved in mainline and liturgical Christian denominations as well as spiritual seekers. "Our customers, in children's books especially, are asking for inclusive language for God. If it's not there, the young mothers don't want the book. They want gender and ethnic diversity in the characters. The older children are looking for open-ended stories."
Books with questions for titles abound at Skylight Paths (Jewish Lights), a favorite source of children's books for the Episcopal Bookstore. Board books published in April include Lawrence and Karen Kushner's What Does God Look Like? and How Does God Make Things Happen?, both illustrated by Dawn W. Majewski. Coming in September is a paperback with photo illustrations, Where Does God Live? by August Gold and Matthew J. Perlman. Another favorite among mainline Christians is Nancy White Carlstrom's What Does the Sky Say? (Eerdmans, Apr.), a joyous prose poem whose swirling, light-drenched illustrations by Tim Ladwig complement the text's sense of wonder.
Marshall looks forward to two fall titles based on a medieval tale in which a young acrobat dances in a monastery, incurring the abbot's wrath but an angel's blessing. In Liz Filleul's Tumbler (Augsburg, Oct.), illustrated by Susan Field, the boy learns that his calling to dance is just as important as a monk's vocation, while in The Acrobat and the Angel (Puffin paper, Oct.), written by Mark Shannon and illustrated by his brother David Shannon, the boy's dance leads to a healing miracle.
By contrast, many picture books attractive to the evangelical market feature Bible stories (to be covered in PW's October 15 Bible & Sacred Texts report) or Bible-based commentary on belief and behavior. Even books with few or no biblical references, such as the flourishing juvenile fiction series, offer what their publishers call a "biblical worldview." In the evangelical market, questions are good--but only if they lead to biblical answers.
Is it important to distinguish evangelical from mainline Christian or general spirituality titles? Sometimes not. All Christian parents want their children to learn good moral values, and Crossway's just-completed biblical board book series, Beary Patch Bears (Melody Carlson; illustrations by Ben Mahan), for example, can comfortably share shelf space with the more fanciful titles in Price Stern Sloan's newly reissued Serendipity Books series (Stephen Cosgrove; illustrations by Robin James). Things get dicier when major theological concepts come into play.
"Since we consider ourselves a Christian bookstore, we tend to carry only books that have Christian content," says Marilyn Pollitt, manager of Vine and Branches in Naperville, Ill. And by "Christian" she means evangelical. "That doesn't mean that every book needs to have a salvation message, but in some way it should glorify Christ." Pollitt, like most CBA-affiliated buyers, banks on the trust her customers place in her selection, and occasionally she has pulled titles whose teachings run counter to evangelical theology.
One theological topic figuring prominently in many of this season's most attractive picture books is death and the afterlife. It is a safe bet that titles appealing to the young mothers who shop at the Episcopal Bookstore will not find favor among those who go to Vine and Branches. Biblical answers are provided in Katherine Bohlmann's Grandpa, Is There a Heaven? (Concordia, Jan. 2001), illustrated by David Erickson, and in Larry Libby's revised Someday Heaven (Zonderkidz, Aug.), with new illustrations by Wayne McLoughlin.
Several new titles for the general market offer reassurance but no answers. Coming in paperback in December from Philomel is T.A. Barron's Where Is Grandpa?, a sensitive portrayal of love and grief from a boy's viewpoint. The illustrator, Chris K. Soentpiet, deftly portrays the family's emotions and the transcendent beauty of the Colorado Rockies. Simon Puttock's Ladder to the Stars (Holt, Oct.), whimsically illustrated by Alison Jay, takes a more philosophical approach to the life cycle. A seven-year-old girl makes a wish upon a star, and when she is an old woman, her wish comes true. For opening a discussion about death, no book is more direct than the first title from Idea University Press (Oct. 2000): This Book Is for All Kids, but Especially My Sister Libby. Libby Died. The cover goes on to say, "By Jack Simon, age 5, as told to his mom, usually at bedtime." The child's grief and hope spill onto intensely colored pages designed and illustrated by Mom, Annette Simon.
Two mystical tales coming in October readily lead to questions about life, death and what comes next. In Buddha in the Garden (Raincoast Books), David Bouchard retells an ancient Chinese legend in which a child seeking enlightenment encounters hunger, illness and death. Zhong-Yang Huang's delicate watercolors dreamily interweave the monastery garden with the child's vision. In a different mood, a playful child dances across the pages of The Little Wing Giver (Holt), illustrated by Peter Sís. This imaginative tale about the origin of angels was written in French by the late Jacques Taravant and translated by Nina Ignatowicz.
Tradition for Tots
Though multiculturalism has been the goal of many publishers over the past decade, only this spring did the Central Conference of American Rabbis publish the first trilingual children's book in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Howard I. Bogot's Shalom/Salaam/Peace features a Hebrew translation by Israeli poet Amir Or and an Arabic translation by Jordanian author Faruk Jarrar; illustrations are by Norman Gorbaty. Three editions are available: jacketed hardcover, paper and saddle-stitched.
Where many cultures coexist, parents often look to books for help in passing on their specific heritage. Several attractive new picture books affirm Jewish traditions. Cathy Goldberg Fishman's On Shabbat (Atheneum, May), imaginatively illustrated by Melanie W. Hall, follows a family through a typical Sabbath. In August, Kar-Ben, already publisher of a dozen or so Shabbat books, added a story for preschoolers about Sabbath ritual objects: The Shabbat Box by Lesley Simpson, illustrated by Nicole in den Bosch. This month, Pitspopany Press publishes Fun with My First Words: English-Hebrew Picture Dictionary, a large board book edited by Shlomo Peterseil and illustrated by Bonnie Gordon-Lucas.
Catholics will soon have an attractive, contemporary gift book for first communicants. Melissa Musick Nussbaum's My First Holy Communion (Liturgy Training Press, Oct.) is intended for use at Mass: a bright yellow bookmark keeps the place, responses are in large print and illustrator Laura Montenegro splashes colorful people and animals across every spread, lest little eyes weary of looking straight ahead.
Nostalgia may steer Christian parents and grandparents to two fall picture books based on the 19th-century hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful." Morehouse's version, illustrated by Preston McDaniels, was published in paperback in August, while in September HarperCollins publishes a hardcover version illustrated by Australian artist Bruce Whatley. The hymn is also included in The Little Big Book for God's Children (Oct.), "Welcome's first book aimed at the Christian market," according to co-editor (with Lena Tabori) Alice Wong. Welcome has sold 200,000 copies of last year's Little Big Book for Moms, and the press has ordered initial print runs totaling 40,000 for the 6.5" square book that Wong describes as "a 352-page everything for Christian families."
The word tradition evokes images of hallowed rituals of yesteryear, but one vital aspect of passing on a faith tradition is entirely contemporary. A child is not truly rooted in faith until the tradition permeates all aspects of life--especially those that do not seem religious at all. It is easy to lay aside faith that is kept separate from daily life. It is much harder to forget faith that is associated with work and play, eating and sleeping, going to the mall or doing community service.
Hachai brings belief into daily life with three fall titles. In Big Like Me, Benny learns how to be a big brother and sing Shema with his baby sister. Ruth Finkelstein's story, illustrated by Esther Touson, is available this month. Draizy Zelcer's Once Upon a Time (Nov.), illustrated by Vitaliy Romanenko, portrays children in a Jewish neighborhood learning to tell time, and Dina Rosenfeld's Get Well Soon (Oct), illustrated by Rina Lyampe, is a rhythmical tale about a child who desperately wants "to do the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim, and Bikur Cholim means visiting someone who's sick." With similar goals, Judaica Press added six more titles this year to the Children's Learning Series, chapter books originally written in Hebrew by Menucha Fuchs, with line drawings by Miri.
For evangelical Christians, The Adventures of Beatrice (Concordia), written by Pam Halter and illustrated by Kim Sponaugle, relates Bible verses to the everyday dilemmas of girls -five to eight years old. A biblical approach is also evident in popular financial guru Larry Burkett's money management guide for kids five to nine, In God We Trust (Standard, Aug), a large board-book-cum-bank with slots for nickels, dimes and quarters.
I Think I Can, I Think I Can
|The British Invasion|
|Most religion publishers feel duty-bound to transmit their faith tradition to the next generation, so somewhere, every season, some executive brightly suggests: "Let's do picture books!" Costs quickly pile up: good artwork and design; high-quality paper and binding; color printing. Publish enough copies to bring down the unit cost, and accumulate a 10-year supply in the warehouse. It doesn't take long until another executive, dismayed at rising expenses, decrees: "Picture books are on hold. Indefinitely." Rather than cycling in and out of kids' books, some religion publishers have turned to copublishing--working with a (usually British) publisher or packager so that one press run can serve two or more national markets, thereby cutting the unit cost for everyone on board. |
John Hunt Publishing, formerly Hunt & Thorpe, has produced titles for U.S. publishers for over a decade. "Sales for us are fairly constant to the U.S. at about half a million units a year," says owner and publisher John Hunt, whose current new titles are in the catalogues of Promise Press, Chariot, Tommy Nelson and Abingdon. "The Oaktree Wood series is the main thing for us this year," he says, referring to Abingdon's collection that debuted this summer with two picture books and four board books shaped like animals--and an initial order of about 100,000 books.
In evangelical publishing, copublishing may be the wave of the future. Three years ago, when the CBA convention first set up a room for international exhibitors, 19 exhibitors responded. This year nearly 50 booths did business in CBA's International Marketplace. Recently, Kregel Publications created a new imprint, Candle Books, and added 35 illustrated children's titles to its list--the result of a distribution agreement with one of the U.K.'s oldest and largest copublishing specialists for the evangelical market, Angus Hudson Ltd. Titles will be edited and Americanized as needed. "This is especially important in the area of children's books," says Hudson's publishing director Rodney Shepherd.
Tyndale has a unique copublishing arrangement with Dorling Kindersley. DK publishes its own American editions, including a dozen children's religion titles, but the two companies work together to prepare titles especially for evangelicals. "DK supplies the highly visual style it is known for and Tyndale provides [evangelical] Christian content," says Tyndale project manager Claudia Volkman. "This results in innovative products that find their way into markets neither publisher could achieve alone." Over the last three years, DK and Tyndale have copublished over 20 titles. Just released is the 10.5"×14" Bible Atlas, which the general trade will order from DK but CBA-affiliated stores will order from Tyndale.
The king of religion copublishers is undoubtedly the aptly named Lion, an Oxford-based company whose books are published in over 140 languages. Lion's American partners, some going back nearly 30 years, include CBA affiliates David C. Cook (which has a small Lion imprint) and Baker; mainline Protestant publishers Augsburg, Good Books and Eerdmans; Catholic publishers Loyola and Paulist; and general trade publishers Candlewick and Chronicle. What enables Lion to appeal to so many categories?
"We focus on enabling children to discover aspects of wonder," says Tony Wales, Lion's international rights director. "Our books combine the conventions of prayer and worship with a child's sense of awe and expressions of delight." Art is extremely important in Lion books. "Children's booksellers and reviewers are as attentive to the quality and style of illustration as to the text, and so are we," Wales notes. "What drives some Christian illustration is sentiment. What drives ours is imagination and delight and discovery."
Somewhere in the borderland between religion and psychology lie the books that make us believe in ourselves, that give us the courage to try harder, that reassure us that somebody up there is watching out for us. Two fall titles from Bear Cub Books (Inner Traditions) introduce children to Asian disciplines that foster self-confidence and character development. Stuart Alve Olson's Tai Chi for Kids (Oct.) teaches four-to-eight-year-olds basic movements of the ancient Chinese practice through animal games, while Gregory Crawford's illustrations include fabulous beasts. Mary Chloe Schoolcraft's Spread Your Wings and Fly (Sept.), illustrated by Carla McGregor Mihelich, challenges children while teaching them to fold the traditional origami crane.
The sales of Holly Bea's previous picture books with Starseed (New World Library), all illustrated by Kim Howard, are nearly as inspirational as their messages: 335,000 total of Where Does God Live? (1997), Good Night God (2000) and My Spiritual Alphabet Book (2000). Bea's Bless Your Heart (Sept.) expands her list of feel-good spirituality books to reach anyone old enough to sit up. Two self-affirming picture books are due from Illumination Arts in October. Peggy O'Neill's Little Squarehead, illustrated by Denise Freeman, celebrates inner beauty in spite of outward physical appearance. In Cassandra's Angel, a child learns about her inner worth from a good-hearted, didactic angel. Gina Otto wrote and Trudy Joost illustrated this 32-page hardcover blurbed by Marianne Williamson, Wayne Dyer and Leo Buscaglia.
Billing itself as an "urban fairy tale," Wingz (Hampton Roads, Oct.) tells the story of a ghetto boy who builds himself a set of wings out of sticks and cloth and dares to fly away. Author-illustrator Timothy Green's story effectively mixes traditional tale-telling style with contemporary terms just as his illustrations blend oil paint, Bondo auto body putty, wire mesh, cardboard and scraps of paper. This attractive book looks like it should be shelved with picture books for the very young, but its metaphorical story is better suited to children old enough not to take flying off a rooftop literally.
Self-esteem is also strong in evangelical circles, where Max Lucado's collection of picture books with reassuring titles, all from Crossway, consistently top the charts. You Are Special has sold over a million copies since its 1997 publication, and a board book of the same name (2000) is up to nearly 100,000. Pictures are by Sergio Martinez, who also illustrated Just the Way You Are (1999). Mitchell Heinze illustrated Lucado's Because I Love You (2000; board book May 2001). At the CBA convention in July, Lucado signed his and Heinze's newest picture book, You Are Mine.
Evangelical self-esteem is quite unlike its nonsectarian counterpart--and anyone who accidentally offers a book in one category to a customer in the other will quickly learn the difference. For evangelical Protestants such as Lucado, self-esteem does not come from within. A child's self-acceptance is based entirely on the belief that God loves him or her, and this belief comes from the Bible. Nonsectarian authors, by contrast, present self-worth as a self-evident truth.
Older Children: Stories and Heroes
Read-aloud religion books for kids under eight provide great opportunities to snuggle as well as to pass on spiritual beliefs and attitudes. Once a child reads well and begins choosing his or her own books, however, religion publishers have to change tactics. For most kids, Bible stories are, at best, for Sunday school or religious education classes. Given $20 and 20 minutes in a bookstore, they zoom toward series fiction (see sidebar).
With the same $20 they could buy one of this season's hardcover YA novels-- not thinly disguised morality tales, but literary fiction with religious themes. A magical world of ghoul-ridden forests is the setting for Tree Girl (Philomel, Oct.) by environmental activist and fantasy novelist T.A. Barron. Janet Tashjian spins an equally fanciful but entirely contemporary tale in The Gospel According to Larry (Holt, Nov.), in which a high school boy takes on American consumerism and is hailed as a messiah.
For the historically inclined, Celia Rees's Witch Child (Candlewick, July) pits a 14-year-old girl with healing powers against her 17th-century Puritan community. A strong plot and fascinating historical detail help redeem the novel from black-and-white characterization. Gloria D. Miklowitz sets Secrets in the House of Delgado (Eerdmans, Aug.) in 1492, the year Spain expelled thousands of Jews. A 14-year-old Christian girl must decide how to relate to the Christianized Jewish family she works for. Cathryn Clinton's first novel, The Calling (Candlewick, Sept.), has a slower plot but well-drawn characters. The year is 1962, and 12-year-old Esta Lea Riley believes God has called her to preach and to heal.
For older children and teens looking for real-life heroes, popular religious leaders may fill the bill. Saint Mary's Press offers Pope John Paul II in My Dear Young Friends (Oct.), a paperbound collection of 52 reflections culled from his addresses at World Youth Day celebrations. Amy Welborn profiles some 60 saints in Loyola Kids Book of Saints (Sept.), a 336-page hardcover for children eight to 12. Teenagers are the likely market for LTP's Patrons and Protectors: Occupations (Feb. 2001) and More Occupations (Mar. 2002). In these 64-page full-color hardcovers, Michael O'Neill McGrath profiles and illustrates saints connected with dozens of contemporary jobs.
Two spiritual heroes are getting their own picture books. Demi wrote and illustrated Gandhi, a September release from Simon & Schuster's Margaret K. McElderry imprint. Vibrant golds and reds suffuse the illustrations for this 32-page picture book, whose text is short and simple enough for children but whose story carries a moving message for adults. Another picture book for older children, Anne Rockwell's The Prince Who Ran Away (Knopf, Nov.), tells stories from the life of Gautama Buddha. Children too young to appreciate the text may still be fascinated by illustrator Fahimeh Amiri's magical illustrations.
Roxane Orgill's Mahalia: A Life in Gospel Music (Candlewick, Jan. 2002) is a handsome 144-page hardcover biography full of black-and-white photographs. Orgill, a music journalist, profiles Mahalia Jackson not only as a musician but also as a woman of faith. "Praying, singing, and going to church were the most important things in her life," according to Orgill. "Mahalia moved deeply not only her people, Baptist church folk, but other Christians, and Jews, and even people of no faith. I wanted to understand how she did that."
It isn't easy to move people--even people of just one faith, even if they are children. In attempting to move young readers and those who love them to the cash register, publishers this fall are taking no dramatic new directions. Tried-and-true authors dominate, most publishers continue to stick to their own tradition and picture books still proliferate. Perhaps this continuity indicates timidity, or perhaps it simply highlights the fact that religion publishing for children has come of age.
As little as a decade ago, most children's religion publishing was catechistic. Today, children's trade books with spiritual themes abound, and many are expertly written, illustrated and designed. General trade publishers as well as those representing specific religious traditions offer spirituality titles, and many larger religion houses have added children's imprints to publish not only books but also videos and audiotapes. This fall's pickings may be neither startling nor cutting edge, but they include a strong percentage of good books and enough comforting familiarity to sell like Quarter Pounders.
|Reaching Beyond the Choir|
|Parents, teachers and anyone else who spends time with kids can attest that the preteen and adolescent years are typically a time of introspection, self-discovery and great questioning. Many young people embark on a spiritual journey at this time, seeking answers to questions about issues of personal faith. Books, both fiction and nonfiction, often play an important role in the investigation. But if tweens and teens check out the offerings of evangelical Christian publishers, what exactly will they find? Does today's Christian fiction leave any room for spiritual doubt? |
For Karen Watson, director of acquisitions for children's and teen products at Tyndale (and mother to three teenagers), the answer is a resounding yes. "Doubt is a natural and necessary element in a spiritual journey," she says. "Our challenge is to portray that struggle in an authentic and redeeming way. Christian kids are as adept as their peers at sniffing out preachy 'swallow this it's good for you' content." Maureen Cole, children's book reviewer for the Association of Logos Bookstores, concurs. "Christian publishers are making a valiant effort to present real situations with difficult choices and I believe their intention is to reach kids--all kids," she comments. And Carol Johnson, v-p editorial at Bethany House, feels confident that "Many of our books for teens would help a reader feel that those types of spiritual doubts will not damn them forever."
A number of publishers stress that Christian fiction has become more realistic of late, in no small part inspired by intensified societal pressures and the tragedy at Columbine, the most deadly of a spate of school shootings in the past several years. "Books are more edgy in the Christian market now," says Johnson. "We have more titles dealing with drugs, teen pregnancy, peer pressure--but the foundation for these books is still a strong Christian worldview. Our books tell readers 'It's a complex and difficult world, but there is help for me. I don't have to struggle with this alone.'" In addition, Watson cites statistics that reveal "Christian kids are as likely as their non-Christian friends to experience doubt-inducing traumas like divorce, substance or sexual abuse, or difficulties within the school environment." And Cole notes that "Intensity, boldness and authenticity" are elements kids are looking for in the things they read.
Laura Minchew, senior v-p and publisher at Tommy Nelson, offers examples of the realism trend beginning with Nelson's Hangman's Curse by Frank Peretti, which deals with bullying in schools. "This is a topic you read about regularly in magazines today, but there was little published on this when the book was released in February," she says. "It also deals with Satan worship and people who espouse different beliefs than traditional Christian beliefs," she adds. Other publishers, as well, cited Hangman's Curse as the kind of book that has strong appeal for today's teens. Minchew singles out her company's The Journals of Rachel Scott, a collection of real-life journal entries by a Christian student murdered at Columbine, as another realistic publishing effort. "Rachel was, above all else, real," says Minchew. "Her journals reveal doubt, joy and concern over her faith." Tommy Nelson is also tapping into the contemporary tween/teen readership with the TodaysGirls.com series about six high school girls who chat about various topics on the Web site they have created together.
Watson lists the new Tyndale series Mars Diaries by Sigmund Brouwer as one that reaches out to a broad readership. "It's the story of the first person born in a space colony on Mars," she explains. "Because the series is set in the future, it brings to the table issues of genetic manipulation, conflicts of science and faith, the value of human life, the use of power to control the weak and other thought-provoking topics." Bethany House has just released the Real Girls nonfiction series, a co-venture with Focus on the Family, which publishes Real Girls magazine, targeting tweens and teens. Johnson relates that the new series is "off to a good start" and that the company's backlist offerings for these age groups are also doing well. The updated Christy Miller series has sold over a million copies; the middle-grade historical fiction Mandie series having sold over five million copies and the Trailblazers series with over $1 million in sales.
Other books from Christian publishers that have been popular with tweens and teens include the Left Behind and Left Behind: The Kids series (Tyndale), Jan Karon's Mitford books (Viking/Penguin) and classics by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (various publishers).
Faced with an audience that seeks books dealing with the same issues that non-Christian fiction addresses, Watson says her company strives "to provide fiction to a wide range of readers. We seek out gifted writers whose work is equally accepted in both the ABA and CBA circles." But she goes on to stress what will always set Christian fiction apart: "As Christians we believe there are questions in life with definitive answers. We take the person of Christ and the counsel of Scripture as the guiding course in our lives--not an equal option among many. That is what makes our works Christian fiction rather than the kind of "spiritual" writing that opens all doors and closes none." Johnson of Bethany House has a similar view. "Many of our newer books don't tie up neatly at the end, but they are still based on a platform of truth." Cole of Logos believes that "Christian publishers aim to equip kids with truths that will help them make healthy choices, enabling them to live fully and at peace with themselves and others. I do think that Christian writers leave room for doubt; however, the offers of forgiveness and God's unconditional love are there, too."
In summing up her thoughts on the subject, Cole refers to a quote by Judy Zylstra, editor-in-chief of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers: "We can celebrate the wonder of creation and community, but we can also face life's brokenness and sadness. And we can give children and young people stories that help them do both." Watson of Tyndale echoes those beliefs. "It is not our goal to publish stories that give rise to doubt for the sake of doubt," she says. "We want the stories to walk through some of the doors opened by spiritual questioning." And in the end, Watson adds, "I think good storytelling has always been the way to have a lasting impact."