Monday, March 10, 2014

Picture Books and Middle Grade Readers: A Perfect but Uneasy Mix?

You can’t judge a book by its cover?  Rightly or wrongly, we all do.  In the children’s book market, trim size matters too.  And, when you’re a nonfiction picture book author, these two criteria create a complicated mix.

Here’s why I’ve been thinking about this subject.  Last year, Penguin’s paperback imprint, Puffin Books, approached me and illustrator Elwood H. Smith about combining our books, The Truth About Poop and Gee Whiz, into one digest format edition for the middle grade market.   Why not?  Where Elwood’s original illustrations were vivid and lovely, they were just as funny in black-and-white and worked well in this 5 x 7 ½ trim size.  




Furthermore, this new edition was in a format that says to kids, “You’re older now, grown up enough for a big person’s paperback.  Welcome to middle grade and the road to adulthood.”

The Truth About Poop is remaining in print; in fact, it’s soon celebrating its tenth anniversary.  I’m happy to say it’s still selling, being reviewed on Amazon and hopefully offered in brick-and-mortar bookstores around the country.  But I realize that these two versions, that share the same text and drawings, are for different audiences.

There comes a day in every child’s life when it’s no longer okay to carry a teddy bear outside or hug Mom in public.  For most kids, there’s also a time when reading landscape-format or square-shaped picture books with bright illustrations becomes taboo—at least in public or outside the classroom.  The same material that can amuse, amaze and be shared in black-and-white and portrait-shaped rectangles doesn’t cut the middle grade mustard when it’s in color.

But, here’s the rub.  So many nonfiction picture books in these sizes and shapes are written for this age group and even older.  This short length is just the right sized introduction to an idea or subject that can become an abiding interest.  Beautiful pictures or photographs not only bring these subjects gloriously alive, they are a “working vacation,” providing additional information while they also give respite, letting a young reader stay involved while absorbing what was just read. And our readers may need this rest.  We often write about complex situations or questions with high level language and abstraction.  We talk about the ingenuity of Ben Franklin, the eccentricity of mathematicians and Thelonius Monk, the stuff that stardust is made of. 

The Truth About Poop and Pee just came out on March 6th and I couldn’t be happier.  It translates well into its new format, and snuggles comfortably into its new home on bookstore shelves where every book is the same dimension.  If it reaches new readers this way, I’m very delighted.  I’m glad I can nurture an interest in biology, chemistry, sociology, history while kids just think they are reading about poop and pee.

But I also hope these same readers won’t be so ready to “put away childish things” and will still be willing to explore the wonderful world of nonfiction picture books in living color.


Caroline McAlister said...

Dear Susan,
Learning to read is complicated and one size of book does not fit all. Your post is a great addition to the idea that kids read up and down, and in that transitional stage when they are becoming fluent readers they especially need lots of rich material in all kinds of formats.

Sara Latta said...

It's amazing what a different trim size can do, isn't it? I'm so glad your publisher has recognized this and is tailoring your book, so to speak, to fit a new audience.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Thanks Caroline, Sara, for your comments. It's so complicated to have to write and format to reading ability, and interest, and sense of self all at the same time, isn't it? But they are all so important.