Friday, June 19, 2009

Guest Blogger: Jean Reynolds, Some Observations on the History and Future of Informational Books, Part 2

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.

On June 10, she gave us a summary of the history of children's nonfiction as she experienced it. Today is her eagerly awaited vision of its future.


As the 1980’s merged into the 90’s, a number of things that had been brewing for a decade began to come to fruition. First of all children’s books became important in the context of the publishing world. The trade bookstore had rediscovered their potential and suddenly there was big business to be had. Picture books that had been around for years suddenly had new lives and their publishers (and a number of very fortunate authors and artists) made small fortunes on book sales as well as merchandise and media deals. At the same time the library market began to change. School librarians were victims of budget cuts and we no longer had the highly knowledgeable buyer that automatically made a good book a saleable book. Purchasing decisions were centralized, and non-fiction publishers poured into the industry offering massive series of standardized books designed to appeal to the administrator more than to the child or the librarian. This situation was great for fiction, but not so great for informational books whose discovery by the trade bookstore was slower in coming.

The other happening was one that especially affected informational books. The internet became a tool for student research. It gradually became the place of choice for finding out the population of Utah or the life span of a cheetah. Librarians were capable of leading kids on a tour of cyberspace where information abounded. This was major. Pundits began predicting the demise of the informational book, indeed of all books!

When I began in this business, the filmstrip was to have been the demise of the book. The next threat was television, and then microfiche and I think there have been a few others over the years. The only thing they had in common was that they were all wrong. I don’t think the internet represents a threat to good informational books but rather offers an opportunity for the best books to once again rise to the top. The formulaic books that present the straight facts are indeed threatened, and will no doubt go the way of the print encyclopedias. A lot of factual information benefits from being up-to-date, and unfortunately the information in a book is frozen in time on the day the manufacturing department tells the editor “no more changes.” That can be several months before a book is even published. But as the straight factual books recede, there will be more room and more recognition in the marketplace for books that synthesize information in a way that the internet cannot.

Authors who present a point of view, who write with a voice, who use their skills to breathe life into their subject matter, who understand what children really want to know about a topic are about to get a clearer field. Smart publishers are seeing that the days of the formulaic book are numbered and seem more open to creative proposals. For example, I recently worked with Lerner’s young adult line, Twenty-First Century Books, on a series by Cathy Gourley called Images and Issues of Women in the 20th Century, analyzing the way media portrayed women, and how women perceived themselves in the twentieth century. Five volumes of entertaining and fascinating material brought together advertising, government agendas, women’s rights, radio/TV portrayals, social progress, and biography all blended into a decade-by decade-history. Not exactly internet fare!

And speaking of biography – a good biography is no longer “just a biography.” You have Jan Greenburg and Sandra Jordan’s Christo and Jeanne-Claude to attest to that. Or look at Bob Racaka’s picture book The Vermeer Interviews. These books are so exciting and the usual information is worked in so cleverly that we’re reading a story, not a biography.

I’m already seeing some of the things that happened in fiction just beginning to happen in informational books. I’ve talked with authors whose rights have reverted and who have been able to repackage some highly creative materials and bring them back to life. We now have prizes that recognize achievement in the field. Bookstores are actually purchasing informational books – perhaps not in the quantities of the latest picture book, but that can come. And, of course, good blogs like this one abound.

Books that delight as well as inform are becoming ever more important – and their authors and artists are going to live happily ever after.


Linda Zajac said...

Thanks for the cheery morning read!

Mark Herr said...

“…who understand what children really want to know about a topic are about to get a clearer field.” It is this kind of optimistic informed opinion that makes it easier to tackle the day.