Recap & Photos: Issues and Trends in Children’s Book Publishing Today

Recap & Photos: Issues and Trends in Children’s Book Publishing Today

Jackie Shepherd, Education Committee member and book designer, recounts Bookbuilders’ recent Spring Forum.

Last week’s Spring Forum was a hit, drawing a crowd of 50 to the Pearson offices for a behind-the-curtain look at Boston’s kid lit scene.

Board member Josh Garstka kicked off the panel by mentioning some exciting upcoming events (including our next Spring Forum, “Editors on the Rise,” slated for April 20, and the New England Book Show, in May), and providing a word from the evening’s sponsor, the John P. Pow Company.

Moderator Elissa Gershowitz (left) and panelists (left to right) Mary Wilcox, Kristen Nobles, and Elina Kanevskiaia

Moderator Elissa Gershowitz (left) and panelists (left to right) Mary Wilcox, Kristen Nobles, and Elina Kanevskiaia

Moderator Elissa Gershowitz (Senior Editor, the Horn Book magazine) came prepared with great questions for our experts, touching on hot topics such as diversity, social media, the print vs. digital balance, and of course, how to get a job in children’s books.

Given their varied backgrounds and roles, each panelist brought a unique perspective to the table. Elina Kanevskiaia (Global Sales Associate, Barefoot Books) noted that her vantage point as part of a small team allows her to watch each book grow from start to finish, whereas at a larger company, the first look might not occur until the sales conference.

As for the actual building of the books, it seems much of the process is similar for most. According to Mary Wilcox (Vice President / Editor in Chief, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers), illustrators are chosen based on how well their style meshes with the voice and vision of the story. Kristen Nobles (Art Director, Candlewick Press) agreed, explaining that she always begins with a deep read of the manuscript, during which she notes any relevant adjectives that represent the work. Armed with these descriptors, she gathers a list of artists whose work exhibits the same feeling (i.e., for a humorous manuscript, she would gather a list of illustrators who convey humor well). Although the author rarely has contractual right to choose their own illustrator, their input is taken into account. “We would never want to publish a book if we knew the author hated the illustrations,” Mary said.

Mary Wilcox, Vice President/Editor in Chief, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers

Mary Wilcox, Vice President/Editor in Chief, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers

Diversity in publishing (or rather, the lack thereof) was a recurring theme throughout the evening. Noting recent missteps such as A Cake for George Washington (a picture book that was recalled amid public outcry over its euphemistic portrayal of slavery), Elissa invited the panelists to share their thoughts about how the industry is reacting to the call for increased diversity in children’s books. The consensus seemed to be that although publishers acknowledge the lack of diversity, there is an uncertainty about how to address it. “It definitely gave us all pause,” said Mary.

Kristen agreed, adding that the silver lining of such a public misstep is that it made the entire industry much more sensitive to the issue. “Any discussion is a good thing,” she said.

Elina reported that Barefoot Books works with inclusivity experts to help ensure that their books offer their readers realistic, varied depictions of children. “Kids judge based on appearances; it’s just a fact,” she said. “Diverse books are helpful because they give kids a chance to raise questions like, ‘how come this kid looks different from me?’ and enable discussion about the issues.”

“Diverse books are helpful because they give kids a chance to raise questions like, ‘how come this kid looks different from me?’ and enable discussion about the issues.”

The panelists also addressed the topic of digital vs. print publishing, confessing that picture books rarely become ebooks: “There’s just less of a market for them, and the more art-heavy they are, the more of a challenge to produce,” Mary explained. Publishers have begun to explore the world of interactive apps as an alternative storytelling approach, though the stakes are even higher regarding cost to produce vs. what parents are willing to pay. Elina added that turning a board book into an ebook is an especially futile exercise, since their appeal relies so heavily on a tactile experience that is difficult to replicate in a digital platform.

As Elissa opened the floor for audience questions, many were eager for tips on how to break into a career in children’s publishing. Mary said that the most important thing is to demonstrate that children’s books are where you want to be—whether by working in a bookstore or pursuing an M.A. or M.F.A. program—and that everyone’s path into the field is different. Kristen added that certificate programs and internships can be a great way of gaining the necessary experience, and said that when vetting potential designers she looks for a strong sense of typography and a whimsical portfolio.

In closing, our panelists were invited to share upcoming trends and titles they are personally excited about:

Mary expressed relief that “teen books seem to be moving away from the ‘make it look like Twilight’” aesthetic. For new books, she’s excited for the release of Booked by Kwame Alexander, award-winning author of The Crossover.

Kristen appreciates the growing appetite for more diverse voices in kid lit. She takes pride in Candlewick’s devotion to giving diverse characters a place in “regular” books—rather than simply churning out so-called “diverse books.” For new titles, she’s looking forward to Juana and Lucas by Juana Medina, a story that is told in both Spanish and English.

Elina shared her excitement for an upcoming retelling of the Thumbelina story that stars an empowered main character who takes control of her own story instead of sitting back and letting things happen to her.

Louis Roe illustrating the panel

Louis Roe illustrating the panel

Special thanks to Amanda Weikel for photographing this event and Louis Roe for illustrating the panel!


Want to stay informed about the children’s book publishing scene? Check out Children’s Books Boston, a new organization aimed at promoting interaction and discussion among greater Boston companies, institutions, groups, and individuals who work with children’s books.

Save the date! Bookbuilders’ next education event, “Spring Forum: Editors on the Rise,” will be held on Wednesday, April 20.

If you are interested in sponsoring an education event, please contact us at office@bbboston.org.

Jackie Shepherd

About Jackie Shepherd

Jackie is a Bookbuilders of Boston board member, an associate designer at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and an occasional illustrator. She has a pet duck named Angus McFlapperson. Catch her on Instagram and Twitter.