The pleasure of publishing picture books (and children’s fiction)

In our latest guest post, Frankie Jones provides an insight into the world of children’s reading and the importance of getting the whole publishing package right.

Elaine McQuade, Children’s Publishing Consultant, had her audience as enraptured as a class of six year olds with a reading of the picture book Stick Man during this week’s publishing masterclass. Elaine, who worked in education for 12 years and children’s publishing for 20, posed the initial questions:

  • What’s the point of children’s publishing?
  • They don’t read books *for pleasure* anymore do they?

It’s easy to generalise a response: boys play violent computer games, girls spend the majority of their time online with virtual pets and virtual friends; neither want to read. The sad truth is that the generalisation is relatively true. In 2008 children spent an average of 5 hours 18 minutes watching TV, online or playing digital games each day in stark contrast to the statistics a year earlier showing that children spent, on average, 3 hours and 51 minutes *a week* reading for their own pleasure. Elaine pointed out that the unique aspect of publishing for children is the chance to change this; children’s publishers have the opportunity to increase the levels of literacy whilst increasing sales.

Despite the statistics, some children are reading a lot (yet sadly some are not). Elaine shared the encouraging news that in 2009 around 97 million children’s books were sold to a UK population of about 12 million children (that’s eight books per child). With an increasing number of adults also reading children’s and teenage books (think Twilight, Harry Potter and the His Dark Materials trilogy) the market is growing. Despite this Elaine feels there is even more room for growth.

The growth would ideally come from creating more young readers. The government is currently being pushed to support reading in schools by initiatives such as the Just Read Campaign, which seeks to encourage teachers, parents and children to promote reading for pleasure. The hope is that young readers will grow into adult readers who in turn raise children who enjoy reading. A wonderfully literate circle – who could refuse?

Stick Man by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler, published by Alison Green Books. "Stick Man lives in the family tree With his Stick Lady Love and their stick children three..."

Elaine moved on to discuss how a physical book product and its content can encourage a child to enjoy and continue reading. She commented that the making of a 32-page picture book is “like creating a film”: the writer, illustrator, editor and art director need to focus on many aspects to achieve a successful book. As an example Elaine read us a few pages from Stick Man (from the author and illustrator team behind runaway bestseller The Gruffalo), a tale of misfortune in which Elaine demonstrated not just the relationship between words and pictures but the undeniable tension created by deferring the turning of a page. Leaving the audience with the cliffhanger of Stick Man on a fireplace she dryly remarked that “toddlers love misery memoirs too”.

Fiction for older children has to be just as gripping, as demonstrated by Morris Gleitzman’s fantastically titled Bumface, a particularly good title for boys because it’s funny (bodily functions kind of funny) with issues such as family and parenthood concealed behind the humour. So the content is good, but what really makes a child want to pick up a book in the first place is the packaging.

Cathy Cassidy's Angel Cake, published by Puffin. The cover is the perfect mix of pink, girly and shiny; the strapline trails the story, and 'exclusive' content is also promoted.

Elaine explained that children’s book jackets need to be just like Ronseal, the do-it-yourself company which trademarked the marketing line, “does exactly what it says on the tin”. Children need to know what the content will be like (funny or serious) and adults need to know if it will be appropriate. From Elaine’s own research, young girls like covers with “sad animals and magic ponies” on the front and lots of glitter; young boys like “action, bling, comedy and pants”. Elaine demonstrated the perfect packaging and branding of the author Cathy Cassidy, whose girls’ books promote supportive friendships, kindness and all things girly through their design.

Elaine’s humour and enthusiasm really reflected what an exciting and fun business children’s publishing is. The added bonus of doing something morally good – getting children to read – is the icing on the very pink cake.

Frankie Jones is a student on the MA in Creative Writing and Publishing at Kingston University. Her favourite childhood books range from Winnie-the-Pooh through to Goodnight Mr. Tom and The Harry Potter series (which she has followed through into adulthood).


7 responses to “The pleasure of publishing picture books (and children’s fiction)

  1. Frankie, I’m pleased to see you included my favourite quote of the night: “toddlers like misery memoirs too”.
    One other quote that stuck in my mind was Elaine’s comment that “if you don’t have books and talk to people about books there’s not much point being a publisher” – particularly interesting in light of some of the comments on our recent ‘developing your career’ post.
    Finally I was also struck by her point that the education system has historically done a great job increasing literacy levels in terms of enabling more children to be able to read, but that there is some evidence that high attainment in reading is at the expense of children’s enjoyment. You can read the report Elaine referred to here.

  2. There is much the same grumbling about children’s books–especially picture books–on this side of the Atlantic, too. Not long ago THE NEW YORK TIMES printed a piece proclaiming the end of the picture book because young readers are leaping right to novels these days.

    The response has been invigorating, and I sense the article will end up stimulating a renewed interest in picture books. While it is true that the picture book market in the U.S. is flat at a time when vampires and Victorian lust are burning up the juvenile best seller lists, picture books continue to be published and devoured by children. The picture book section of my public library is always busy.

    Publishing for children in the U.S. has a long history of trends and cycles. The 1970s and 1980s couldn’t see enough picture books published. There was also federal money to support their purchase at schools. There was also a time when young adult novels couldn’t get a bad seat at a filthy diner. Now that genre dominates sales. Things will change. They always do. And picture books will be a part of our future. Perhaps, once the dust has settled and we’ve met the challenge, those picture books will be better than ever.

    On we go…

    George Shannon

  3. George,
    Thanks for your comment. It’s always interesting to get a perspective from ‘across the pond’. That NYT article certainly makes sobering reading. I was particularly struck by the comment that “publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools”. So, just like here, the structure of the education system is affecting children’s non-educational reading habits. But, as you say, publishing always goes through cycles and trends. Hopefully, the picture book will come back into vogue sooner rather than later!

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