- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2002

NEW YORK Children's books, such as the Harry Potter series and J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," have become pop icons that increasingly will be snapped up by the American public, according to a recent book conference.
Speakers at the Feb. 16-17 Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators convention in Manhattan said children's literature will remain in a golden age as long as the current baby boom lasts. Others warned of a dip in the genre because of the recession and ensuing cutbacks by schools and libraries.
"Best-selling authors have seen their sales fall since September 11," said Stephanie Owens Lurie, president and publisher of Dutton Children's Books. "We suspect their readers have become CNN junkies."
Yet the unknown and the known including celebrity authors such as TV reporter Maria Shriver, NBC "Today Show" co-host Katie Couric, vice-presidential spouse Lynne V. Cheney and Rep. Mary Bono, California Republican try their hand at the craft. The conference had 751 participants and 150 on the waiting list. About half had works published in books or magazines.
Children's book authors tend to be women, evidenced from the 6-1 female-to-male ratio at the conference. Those attending came from 43 states and 10 countries, most of them working full time as computer programmers, ad executives, actors and teachers, while writing on the side. Others were cartoonists, librarians, ministers and one "skateboard mom."
However, the children's book market is saturated, said Lori Benton, associate publisher and marketing director at Henry Holt Books.
"The amount of space in bookstores and the Internet has plateaued," she said, "and school and library sales are looking bleak. Marketing budgets, which were meager to begin with, have been cut back. All of us [in publishing] have been asked to cut back."
Other speakers said the outlook is bright, thanks to first lady Laura Bush's interest in early childhood education.
"She's been really terrific. So was her mother-in-law, Barbara, who did a lot in promoting literacy programs," said Stephen Mooser, president of the writers and illustrators society, which has 17,000 members in 35 to 40 countries. Although children's books are selling well, he added, a generous percent will be best sellers such as the Goosebumps series or the Harry Potter books.
"Recessions are not very good for books," he added. "Whenever there are cutbacks in state and federal budgets, that usually impacts libraries."
Children's books received a boost in the 1960s when Great Society programs pushed money into school libraries and public libraries, causing publishers to add children's divisions. Today, 5,000 children's book titles are published yearly in the United States.
Still, "Word of mouth still builds book sales, which is where it all begins," Miss Benton said. "Harry Potter was built on the playground."
Too often, speakers said, children are distracted by the Internet, TV and athletics to spend much time going beyond the blockbusters to other children's books.
"I worry about the time spent on reading," Mrs. Lurie said. "Reading has become passe for so many people. Too many times, reading is synonymous with homework."
Tony Stead, senior national literacy consultant for Mondo Publishing in New York, described research showing that in 1945, the average elementary school student had a vocabulary of 10,000 words. Today's child has 2,500 words.
"That is disastrous," Mr. Stead said. "So many parents are not reading to their children anymore."
A lot of problems, he added, come from children not memorizing rhymes, the bread-and-butter of traditional early children's literature.
"Listening comprehension precedes reading comprehension," Mr. Stead said. "In order for a child to understand what they are reading, they have to be able to hear the language first. A lot of the traditional rhymes, such as 'Jack and Jill' and 'Humpty Dumpty,' were repetitious and allowed us to memorize basic structures and patterns in the English language, then put it together.
"It's important that young children learn to memorize through verse. Research shows children learn more in their first eight years than they do in the rest of their lives. This is a powerful time to teach them to be readers and writers."
Instead of enhancing children's imaginations, today's media have stunted it, he says.
"Rhyme is important in developing phonemic [hearing] awareness in children," he said. "It's harder in elementary school to teach kids to read when they do not have oral support. Kids are unable to paint pictures in their heads unless they read. Now they all have pictures painted for them through TV and video.
"When kids have to create their own stories, they rely on what they saw on television last night rather than form it in their minds. Traditional cultures handed stories down through talk. They didn't have picture books back then. The power of a parent or teacher sitting down and telling a story, allowing kids to paint pictures in their heads, is a very powerful tool. Most of our problems could be solved if parents could be reading to and talking to children from birth, giving them a solid oral language basis. These days, the TV is on during dinner."
Although electronic publishing was discussed at the conference, "No one who knows what they're talking about thinks electronic publishing will make the print book disappear," said Harold Underdown, vice president and editor of www.ipicturebooks.com. "One can be too ahead of one's time."
School systems, he added, are experimenting with textbooks in electronic-book format, so that students can read text on pocket organizers instead of hauling heavy books in their backpacks.
"Young adult" books, for children 12 and older, were described as the next hot trend. An example is Knopf Delacorte Dell's line on "teen desires," which associate editor Jodi Kreitzman described as ranging from "first kisses to first times." This particular imprint publishes adult-themed teen books such as Philip Pullman's "Dark Materials" trilogy, Lois Lowry's "The Giver" and books by Jerry Spinelli.
"Kids in the fifth grade get tired of the Hardy Boys or whatever," Mr. Mooser says. "Before there was a young-adult genre, those kids went to young-adult books. There are plenty of kids who would just as soon read a challenging, well-written book that speaks to their problems and features kids their age."
Even a good children's book may sell only 10,000 to 20,000 copies, he said. The upside is they tend to stay in print longer than adult books.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of great children's books out there people don't know about," says Mr. Mooser, who has published 60 children's books over 25 years.
"They are looked down on as kiddie lit, but they are as well written as anything in the adult field."


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