- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Parents shouldn’t be worried about the educational value of their children’s recreational reading, says Michelle F. Bayuk, marketing director at the Children’s Book Council Inc. in New York City.

Teachers will make sure children are challenged in the classroom. A parent’s goal should be to make reading interesting, even if it means giving in to the latest trend.

“Why would adults want someone telling them what to read?” Ms. Bayuk says. “Children should be allowed to choose what they want to read. Some kids will want to read complicated books, others will not.”

The council (www.cbcbooks.org), which is observing Children’s Book Week, encourages young people to “discover the complexity of the world beyond their own experience through books.” The nonprofit organization works with schools, libraries and bookstores to create events and activities that highlight reading.

“Children’s Book Week is an opportunity for families to make reading a family activity,” Ms. Bayuk says. “In order for reading to be a lifelong pursuit, children can’t consider it a chore. We want to help parents make reading enjoyable for their children.”

Although sales of picture books have declined during the past few years, sales of fiction for children in the middle grades have surged, says Doug Whiteman, president of Penguin Group (USA) Books for Young Readers in New York City.

“The teen area has been growing dramatically,” Mr. Whiteman says. “We have been doing a lot more young-adult fiction. We’re seeing more and more teens picking up books. I think ‘Harry Potter’ has had something to do with that. The market is booming in mystery. It’s booming in horror and in sci-fi and fantasy.”

Children’s love for fantasy doesn’t seem to change, says Rubin Pfeffer, senior vice president and publisher of children’s trade publishing for Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing in New York City.

The genre has endured through classic titles such as “The Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, “Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle, “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien and “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis.

“It’s a turn-on for the imagination,” Mr. Pfeffer says. “You can read it at whatever level you are. That’s why it might be the trend that is long-running and has stayed with us for quite some time. It’s not something that you necessarily outgrow.”

Although fantasies tend to last generations, pensive literary fiction shouldn’t be overlooked, he says. “Inexcusable” by Chris Lynch, which addresses date rape, has been nominated for a National Book Award.

“We’re publishing meaningful and serious literary material, broaching new subject areas, as an industry,” Mr. Pfeffer says. “Kids are living in a world with a lot of tough issues. Sometimes, through a good book, a lot of lessons can be learned.”

“Chick lit,” marketed toward girls, definitely has undergone an upswing, says Kate Jackson, senior vice president, associate publisher and editor in chief of HarperCollins Children’s Books in New York City. One of the most popular of these books is “The Princess Diaries” by Meg Cabot.

Book series tend to draw in and keep readers because of an ongoing story line that becomes familiar. Children often collect books in a series like baseball cards or toys, she says.

“A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket is a good example, she says. “Warriors” by Erin Hunter, a middle-grade series about a clan of cats, also has been successful for HarperCollins.

“My daughter and her friends are obsessed with the books,” Ms. Jackson says. “For someone who is 10 years old, reading a 200-page book is a big investment in your time. You get involved and attached to the characters, and the book is over. You don’t want the book to be over.”

Novels have been transformed from a “paperback market” into a “hardcover market,” partly because of the popularity of series collections. Children have more disposable income today and often aren’t willing to wait for the paperback release, Ms. Jackson says.

Book jackets are designed like movie posters, with special effects, foils and arresting images, she says.

“Half the battle is to get someone to pick up the book,” Ms. Jackson says. “We really want to slow somebody down. The way to do that is your jacket.”

Once young readers pick up the book, they might be surprised with an inspirational theme, says Beverly Horowitz, vice president and publisher of Random House’s Bantam, Delacorte and Dell Books for Young Readers imprints in New York City.

A popular book for the company has been “Fish” by L.S. Matthews. It is a tale about the will to survive and the strength of human character. Although it is published as a young-readers title, the story can resonate with people of all ages.

“It’s good for parents and kids to talk about it together,” Ms. Horowitz says. “A child begins a journey, carrying a fish through the desert. It doesn’t specify where you are. It’s an unnamed place. It’s anywhere you might know about it.”

Regardless of trends, the basics of a high-quality book never change, says Laura Godwin, vice president and publisher of Henry Holt & Co. Books for Young Readers in New York City.

Intriguing characters, a strong plot, believable dialogue and creativity are all signs of a best-seller.

“Our standards are always the same,” Ms. Godwin says. “It’s maddeningly vague. We’re looking for good stories — good writing that catches your eye.”

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