In Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko’s picture book The Paper Bag Princess, the feisty royal of the title not only rescues the prince from the dragon, rather than the other way around, but then rejects him when he proves superficial and pursues a solo happily ever after. The story, says Katie Hearn, editorial director at Annick Press, feels as contemporary as when Annick published it in 1980.
“This truly was one of the first feminist picture books,” Hearn says, adding that she grew up with Munsch’s stories. “The message of standing up for yourself applies to everyone.”
Print unit sales for various formats top 650,000 according to BookScan, whose records date to 2004. The publisher refreshed the cover in 2018 as part of its Classic Munsch push, which highlights the author’s work from the 1980s and ’90s. Winter 2020 brings the release of a 40th-anniversary edition of The Paper Bag Princess, with new material from longtime fans Chelsea Clinton and Francesca Segal.
Princess is among a handful of backlist titles PW looked at for this article, all of which show how an evergreen theme can give a children’s book staying power.
At Candlewick, 1994’s Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram celebrates another timeless topic: the love between parent and child. The 2008 board book edition has moved 2.4 million copies per BookScan, and according to the publisher, 43 million copies across all formats have been sold in 53 languages. A 50th anniversary slipcased edition, packaged with a limited edition print, is set to release in October.
Furthering the book’s reach, Candlewick has partnered with United Through Reading, a nonprofit that connects U.S. military families through long-distance story times. In 2020, the publisher will make its largest donation of books to date for deployed servicemembers to read aloud and record for their children back home, with a focus on Guess How Much I Love You; the publisher also will donate books to expecting military parents.
Free Spirit Publishing, founded in 1983 to address a need for books aimed at social and emotional development, sees its most consistent backlist sellers as tied directly to that mission. In 2018, it released the third edition of LGBTQ, a handbook for teens by Kelly Huegel Madrone originally published in 2003 as GLBTQ. As queer culture has evolved, the book has adapted with it. The most recent iteration includes current LGBTQ terminology and updated understandings of gender identity and sexual identity, as well as advice on coming out, confronting prejudice, and getting support.
“The author felt it was a good time to expand the trans and nonbinary content,” says Alison Behnke, senior editor at Free Spirit. “She’s wonderful at recognizing that these kids have challenges, but they can also live happy lives.”
Free Spirit’s bestselling title is 2000’s Hands Are Not for Hitting, written by psychologist Martine Agassi and illustrated by Marieka Heinlen, intended to help young children learn to manage anger and strong feelings without violence. The 2002 board book edition, according to the publisher, has sold 690,000 copies.
American Psychological Association’s Magination Press is another publisher whose backlist addresses perennially timely topics. What to Do When You Worry Too Much by Dawn Huebner and Bonnie Matthews (2005), a workbook for children ages six to 12, has sold 392,000 print copies, according to BookScan. “It’s keeping the lights on,” says Kristine Enderle, Magination’s editorial director, whose internal figures put the book at 700,000 copies worldwide and 17 printings.
Another backlist staple, the 2000 picture book A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes and Cary Pillo, has sold 89,000 print copies since 2004, per BookScan, and tends to see an uptick after large traumatic events. In the book, a raccoon named Sherman sees an unspecified but upsetting incident and gets support from a counselor. Enderle credits the book’s gentle approach and the fact it doesn’t name a specific trauma. “It’s widely applicable,” she says, “so it’s a useful tool for caregivers, parents, librarians, and therapists.”