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Risky Business: Trying Something New in the 21st Century Children’s Publishing Market

This past Saturday I hosted a Children’s Literary Salon at the main branch of NYPL that discussed the topic of middle grade science fiction for children, its history and future.  Consisting of a panel of editor Andrew Harwell, author Jason Fry (of the “Jupiter Pirates” series), and librarian Stephanie Whelan (who gave a fantastic encapsulation of how sci-fi for children has changed over the decades) there came a moment when I was able to ask Harwell about acquiring the Jupiter Pirates books for a large publisher like Harper Collins.  I walked in with the assumption that he would have had difficulty convincing HC’s acquisitions team that a work of space adventures would sell.  As it happens, I was off the mark.  Harwell said that in his experience it was harder to publish a science fiction work that further glutted the market (yet another dystopian YA novel, say) than something original like Fry’s series.

However, all this got me to thinking about editors who take risks.  Even if Harwell didn’t encounter resistance to the books within his workplace, you could say he took a bit of a risk publishing something that doesn’t fall within the given norms.  Over the years I’ve seen editors put their hearts and souls into children’s books that they knew would strike some as esoteric and others as downright weird.  Consider, if you will, that an editor’s very livelihood depends on producing as many successful books as possible.  Passion projects take on a very different light too when you see those editors let go from their publishing houses.  I’ve seen it happen over the years.  The threat is real.

And yet they still continue to bring out books that are of high literary quality and yet aren’t what you might call an easy sell.  Looking at 2014, it’s easy to identify the books that bypass the norm.

First and foremost amongst editors with a bent for the original and remarkable is Neal Porter.  The other day I was sitting down with an old friend who lamented to me that Neal just wasn’t taking enough risks with his books these days.  I had to raise an objection to this notion.  In 2014, Porter published a book so out there that its very author had assumed that it would never see the light of day.  I am referring, of course, to The Iridescence of Birds.  Even author Patricia MacLachlan was surprised that Neal took an interest.  Here we have a book written in a single sentence that is sortakinda a biography-ish picture book about Matisse.  It may be no surprise that it came out the same year as another sortakinda(notreally) bio, Viva, Frida by Yuyi Morales.  These books don’t slot into a catalog record neatly at all.  Where the HECK do you even put them on your shelves?  Yet they’re beautiful and well-written and everything a picture book should be.  Just a little unusual.

Of course Mr. Porter has been an editor for quite some time, so maybe he’s worked up enough cred to try something different from time to time.  At a different Children’s Literary Salon Neal was one of my guests and the moderator posed the supposition that no one makes quiet books anymore.  Yet Neal actually wins Caldecotts with his (see: A Sick Day for Amos McGee).

Another book that came out in 2014 that I’d call risky won a very different kind of award.  I couldn’t have been the only person shocked that Aviary Wonders, Inc. by Kate Samworth beat out books like El Deafo and Joey Pigza to take home a whopping $50,000 prize.  That the book was even published was amazing in and of itself.  If you see it, it’s more catalog than story.  Not quite fiction, not quite picture book.

Then there are the publishers that take risks by translating books that could be seen to be “too foreign” to American audiences.  In 2014 we saw Enchanted Lion Books present us with some remarkable titles that certainly apply.  Pomelo’s Big Adventure could never be mistaken for a work of American fiction.  Yet as a picture book it really works well.  Then there was the middle grade novel Nine Open Arms by by Benny Lindelauf which dared to be funny and strange and unlike anything else on the market.  It may have suffered for its book jacket, but the story inside was grand.

On the nonfiction side, I always feel pleased when folks go beyond the usual school report subjects and highlight individuals and tales outside the norm.  How precisely did Barbara Kerley convince Scholastic that six-year-olds would comprehend a story about Ralph Waldo Emerson?  We all love Ashley Bryan but was a book about his homemade puppets a guaranteed sale?  And then there’s the idea of doing a biography of Sun Ra.  For kids.  Seriously, Chris Raschka?  Yet it works.  They don’t all work, I should note.  That’s the nature of risks, but at least folks were taking a chance on trying something new.

What were your favorite risky children’s titles of 2014?

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Ballad, by Blexbolex was asking my favorite risky ones. It’s foreign, and the story is reps over and over, getting more complex as you progress. The text is no more than a statement of something you’ll see in one if the pictures on any given page. And yet it tells a fascinating story. It’s a weird one, but I love it!

  2. I’m sorry for how very pedantic this sounds, but I think The Iridescence of Birds is essentially one very long conditional sentence (“If you were a boy named Henri Matisse …”), followed by another shorter question (though my copy of the book isn’t here for me to double-check, because I love it so much that I gave my copy to a friend and then had to order a second copy for myself, on account of how I can’t have a life without it, now can I?). I don’t make a habit of being one of THOSE internet commenters who points out things like that, but I’m only saying that, because I’m mildly to moderately obsessed with it and consider it one of the most beautiful picture books this year, if not THE most beautiful.

    Also, thank the heavens for those who take risks, or we’d all be half-asleep. I think those pubs who bring us imports are all about risk-taking in many ways, because often those books can have narratives with rhythms SO different from U.S. titles and can make people scratch their heads. I love this about imports.

    Great post.

  3. (And even my BookPage review of Iridescence says the text is one long sentence, but that’s because someone edited my review, which is a-okay too, but just sayin’ … for the record.)

    • The Iridescence of Birds is two sentences long. The first sentence takes up most of the book. The second sentence reads:

      Would it be a surprise that you became
      A fine painter who painted
      Light
      and
      Movement
      And the iridescence of birds?

      Go team pedantic!

  4. Molly Burnham says:

    Thank you for writing about this. I, too, hold dear these artists and editors who have such vision. I’m thrilled that you mention Kate Samworth’s book Aviary Wonder’s Inc, which is an incredible example of this. I am friends with Kate and first and foremost she is an artist. All the people involved in books like this are clearly visionaries. It’s so inspiring. As an art poster we have reads: The art world is not a market. It’s a conversation.

    These books create some great conversations.

  5. What Daniel said, so much more succinctly than I did!

    If we’re going to have a Team Pedantic, let’s at least have club meetings in a treehouse with s’mores and hot cocoa.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Thoughtful post from the venerable Betsy Bird over at Fuse 8 on the importance of risk-taking in children’s […]

  2. […] Bird profiles some publishers who are publishing innovative, risky content in children’s […]