Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Guest Blogger: Jean Reynolds, Some Observations on the History and Future of Informational Books, Part 1

Jean Reynolds is a veteran children’s nonfiction editor. She founded Millbrook Press and was its publisher for 15 years. It was sold to Lerner in 2006. She has also been Chair of the Children’s Book Council and served on the Board of Governors of Higher Education in Connecticut.

Recent award winning books that she has edited include: A Boy Named Beckoning: The Story of Dr. Carlos Montezuma, Native American Hero by Gina Capaldi, a five book series called Images and Issues of Women in the Twentieth Century by Catherine Gourley, and The Secret of Priest's Grotto by Peter Lane Taylor and Christos Nicola. She was also my editor for my new Body Battles Series.

She has so much to say that this post is divided into two parts. Today is about history, and on June 19, we will have her ideas about the future.

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Once upon a time, children’s books weren’t considered very important in the publishing world. While some of our beloved classics were being produced, a children’s book department would be tucked into an out-of-the-way corner. The editor, inevitably female, was in charge of her little band – usually an assistant, a secretary, a library promotion person, and if she was very fortunate, her own designer. Marketing consisted of preparing a semi-annual catalog, a semi-annual list ad, and discussing one’s semi-annual output with interested librarians who accounted for more than three-quarters of her department’s sales.

Informational books were virtually non-existent. Picture books and fiction made up the list, with the emphasis on the former. Many of the books did, of course, convey information – ABC books and counting books primary among them. If a novel was set in the past, the reader picked up some history – or if it played out in another country, geography and cultural mores were conveyed. But essentially, the majority of the wonderful books published in the 50s and 60s were intended to entertain rather than edify.

When the US government put a lot money into school libraries in the late 1960s, it occurred to some of us that it might be an interesting experiment to gear a few of our new titles toward topics that children were studying in school. It wasn’t considered a very classy or even interesting thing to do at the time. Rabbits and How They Live paled in comparison to Pat the Bunny or the Velveteen Rabbit. Was there any basis of comparison between The Story of the Rain Forest and Where the Wild Things Are? I’m not even sure that those of us who were doing nonfiction in the very early days were terribly impressed with ourselves because, in looking back, I realize that our initial offerings were fairly pedestrian. The series books presented well-written, accurate information enhanced by carefully rendered black-and-white line drawings—functional but not exciting. The amazing thing was that these books began to sell, and sell very well. That enabled us to put a bit more money into the production of informational books – occasional color, an increased page count, even a name artist now and then. As the genre became more and more successful, it eventually occurred to editors that their best writers and artists could not only jump on the informational bandwagon, but make a major contribution by doing so. It was at that point we began to see charming non-fiction series with actual color illustrations. The genre became a legitimate part of the children’s book world and was set to evolve and develop as had its fictional forbearers.

There were several branches of the new family. The first of course was the straight informational book, a specialty on which many a publishing house was based. The formula was: offer the facts, preferably age-appropriate to the curriculum; make sure of the accuracy; top it off with a few diagrams and a readable typeface—and sales were assured.

Informational publishing did get overdone in the heyday of school library sales. The marketplace really didn’t need a dozen different 50-volume series on the states. On the other hand, there are an extraordinary number of different and creative ways to explain the physics of simple machines, or the migratory habits of the monarch butterfly. Good authors brought the level of the informational books to new heights and because the market was mainly libraries, and thus highly discriminatory, the best books rose to the top. The select group that was willing to write, illustrate, edit, publish, and purchase books other than fiction was happy. But then informational books entered their adolescent years, and started down the rocky road involved in establishing their true place in the children’s book world….

4 comments:

CC said...

So where is the rest?
As an author illustrator of non fiction picture books, I'm anxious to know where Jean Reynolds is going with this.

Linda Zajac said...

I think we have to wait until June 19th to read about the future of nonfiction, but it sounds like its worth waiting for.

brbrebecca said...

Can't wait for the rest!

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

I remember those early rules about curriculum appropriate books. I'm extremely curious about the rest of Jean's post because I'd like to hear an editor/publisher's take on something that affects me all the time; even now, some publishers love to tie books into school curriculums so much that it's almost a requirement for most of their titles. This can be very limiting for the authors. The tricks, of course, are to present those same old topics in a way that nobody else has ever tried and to make the writing as beguiling as humanly possible.