Monday, March 12, 2012

Are picture books an endangered species?

An unsettling hypothesis took root the other day as the Grape and I browsed in the children's section of my favorite independent book store. We saw Corduroy and Paddington. Peter Rabbit and Madeline. Make Way for Ducklings and Goodnight Moon. The Lorax and The Snowy Day. As I leafed through the old favorites, I wondered:

Is the picture book industry doomed?

I scanned the children's bestsellers, the new arrivals, the staff recommendations. All around me I saw the classics. Beautiful books that not only pre-date the Grape, but pre-date me. The Grape owns many such titles, with their timeless characters and beautiful illustrations.

First, let me say I see nothing wrong with a child's home library packed with classics. One of the great pleasures of reading with children is the sharing of the most beloved books. It's fun for me to rediscover the work of Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Virginia Lee Burton and H.A. Rey, among many, many others.

I went home and logged onto Amazon to check my theory.

Sure enough, most of the picture book bestsellers were around when I was a kid. Last month, USA TODAY printed a list of the "Top 100 Children's Books of All Time," and sent diligent parents from coast to coast scampering to the book stores to buy backlist titles from ten, twenty, even sixty years ago.

I applaud that. Kind of.

But where's the new stuff?

Titles like Famous Character Uses the Indoor Plumbing, Famous Character Feels [insert emotion here] and Famous Character Eats His Vegetables are everywhere. To say nothing of Famous Character's ABC and Famous Character's Numbers.

Cross marketing between the toy, book and entertainment businesses has existed as long as television advertising. Perhaps longer. These stories are cheap to produce, and they provide free, ostensibly educational brand promotion. Timeless, they're not, but I never thought of them as harmful before. I tend to subscribe to the "whatever gets kids reading is good" school of thought.

Maybe I should re-visit that opinion. Publishers still print new children's fiction every year, but many of the titles get lost on the retail end of the supply chain, where they drown under the dreck of children's pulp fiction.

The kinds of inspired, often quiet books that win critical acclaim don't just have to compete for shelf space with the true classics and the Famous Character Pees in the Toilet and Gets a Sticker! books.

Nearly as pervasive as the Famous Character du jour titles are series featuring classic characters in new predicaments. Sounds fun, right?

It's not. I challenge any parent to read any title from The Busytown Mystery series (which features Scarry's characters but NOT his prose) without contemplating self harm. Or at least book burning.

Meanwhile, authors with fresh, outside the box children's stories find themselves up against a publishing industry ever more fearful of taking chances. Less than one per cent of adult manuscripts get noticed by the big six publishers. I venture a guess that picture book authors face stiffer odds still. Color printing, even in 2012, is costly. Nobody likes taking risks. So the publishers sell the proven winners and talented new storytellers languish. Which perpetuates the problem, because if a title's first printing doesn't earn out (a very high bar where color printing is concerned), it's unlikely the publisher will grant the author a second chance with a new story.

Publishing is a business, and I understand that book sellers face increasing pressure to make money as their industry changes and adapts to the internet age. (I mean, how else does one explain Snooki the novelist?)

To stay relevant, independent book shops need to offer a shopping and browsing experience unavailable in point and click cyberspace.

Might I humbly suggest that local bookstores devote just one prominent shelf to new and noteworthy children's literature? I doubt they'd lose money with such a minor geographic adjustment.

If consumers are hell bent on buying Famous Character Says Hello to a Stranger and Is Never Heard From Again, Ever, they'll be willing to squat to the lower shelves to grab it.

I'd make sure to check the "new and noteworthy" children's offerings regularly. I'd urge my mommy friends to do the same.


  1. I post with other picture book writers on Perfect Picture Book Fridays. I tend to focus on the classic books as those are the ones my wee one has available. I'm always pleased by the number of new or recent releases on a wide range of topics. It would be nice to find some of these titles at local bookstores. Here's a link to the list of books

  2. New books definitely need a chance to be spotlighted. I only introduce books published within the last year on my kid-lit site because all the older books are already so well known. I also post on Susanna Hill's site from time to time and it's a great reference for anyone looking for books with activities.

    1. Thanks! I'll bookmark both. And sorry for big delay in responding—your comment somehow swam through the net.