Children’s books historically have been a somewhat hidden part of book publishing, usually carried out by a small group of dedicated children’s editors within a larger trade publishing house which deals mainly with more celebrated adult authors.
Despite their lower profile, children’s books are often steady, profitable earners which can stay in print for generations. Each year a new group of children respond eagerly to books they have not seen before, even if those books have been beloved by their parents and grandparents, whether Good Night Moon, Where The Wild Things Are, Peter Rabbit, Charlotte’s Web or Lord of the Rings. In the past ten years, amazingly gifted authors have chosen to write children’s or young adult books, such as JK Rowling of Harry Potter and Suzanne Collins of The Hunger Games—both of whose brilliant stories became mass cultural experiences for a broad audience of both children and adults, on their way to becoming classics for future generations. So there is now much more juice in children’s publishing as part of the larger business of media franchises based on our great children’s stories. And that will continue because of the genius of the authors who have chosen the field of children’s books, now reaching at the top end into the adult market. In fact in the last 12 months, children’s publishing has had a great year leading the families of young readers into bookstores to buy books for all ages.
But we are all now asking ourselves, in what form will these books be read in the future—in printed pages, or words on computer screens, or will they become largely known as the source of the films? And by whom will these stories be read as the digital revolution proceeds apace?
Looking back over the history of children’s books in the U.S. may provide some answers about where we may be headed.
In the first fifty years of the 20th century in the U.S., children’s books were primarily purchased by a small number of families in wealthy urban areas. The few children’s books published each year were mostly sold to libraries and a tiny number of upscale bookstores. In post-World War II America, with the arrival of the inexpensive paperback and the spread of mass education in the U.S., a much larger number of children’s books was published and sold at lower prices, and so could be purchased by a broad range of schools and families. The half century from 1950 to 2000 saw a vast expansion of children’s publishing and a deeper knowledge, among teachers, librarians, and parents, of the importance of children’s literature to the reading and learning of young people. This partnership with teachers, librarians and schools gave rise to mass distribution of books not only through school book clubs and book fairs and for classroom and library use but also through broader-based mass retailers. Children’s publishing attracted a whole new group of authors who could make a good living from writing and promoting their work to a broader market. This partnership among authors, publishers, schools, teachers, librarians and booksellers also worked because all these participants in the world of children’s reading believed and were committed to the mission of bringing the right stories and information to children. All knew that literature and information would help children learn about themselves and their world. And all shared a belief that reading is critical to the child’s success in school and life. At the same time, great stories from Harry Potter to Wimpy Kid and The Hunger Games, brought joy and fun—and messages of courage and perseverance to young readers, as they discovered in books a broader view of themselves.
In the digital world of the 21st century, educators have intensified their drive to improve literacy and reading, as students need even better skills to cope with the profusion of information, and need greater competence in reading and understanding to perform the more complex tasks required by the global economy.
Prompted by the pressures of reading in a digital world, in 2010 Scholastic started a global literacy campaign called Read Every Day. Lead a Better Life. to help teachers and parents understand the critical importance of reading to the success and survival of every child. I attach our statement, The Child’s Right to Read, as an afterword to this talk and background to the value of reading for children and societies of the 21st century.
In the U.S., this recent profusion of digital information in the children’s world every day has helped drive the adoption by schools of Common Core Standards to ensure that children learn how to reason, to organize, to analyze, to sort out the important from the trivial, to understand informational reading as well as to experience the great stories of literature. The standards drive a higher level of complexity in comprehension and reasoning, based on the expectations of the more demanding workplace.
While introducing new standards, at the same time schools are acquiring digital tablets, foreseeing a time when these tablets will be used, along with books, as a basic information medium for the content of learning and reading. In that context, there likely will be an explosion of new digital publishing and distribution—at first in the familiar and still timeless formats of picture books and information books, but soon in multimedia forms which combine information, stories, text and pictures in new kinds of illustrated books and will be powerfully delivered on screens with sound and music.
Like the earlier explosion of children’s literature in the paperback era, the broader access to digital reading will bring even greater global expansion of reading to a billion children worldwide. Of course much of this will happen in print formats as it is likely that many schools and families will not have the money or access to digital devices or may also still prefer print children’s books for school and home, so the rate of digital adoption may vary around the world. We continue to be delighted at the many ways the print book in its simplest form brings meaning and understanding and discovery to children everywhere. And great authors will continue to produce great content that will be distributed in print, and e-book forms for generations to come.
As Scholastic introduces STORIA, our new ereading app and digital bookshelf, we are seeing a customer preference for ebooks with audio and interactive features such as branching stories and animation. We believe that a strong children’s book market for interactive ebooks will develop in both schools and homes—bringing with it a profusion of experimentation with new forms of publishing for the tablet which may soon house the digital library for schools and home. Key authors may expand their reach through social media, or by adding features to their stories, or like JK Rowling, using the Pottermore website to promote the core reading experience.
Children’s publishing, always an important but somewhat under-recognized part of the book industry, will likely become the leader in pioneering new forms of reading because, as we all know from watching babies with I Pads, children are intuitively connected to digital pictures and images. As schools and families adopt ereaders and tablets, children’s books, with its history of graphic innovation, will quickly develop new forms of storytelling and informational publishing, led by the children themselves who will easily embrace the digital formats. The global reach of these formats will once again broaden the reading market, making information and stories for children even more easily available, leading to the further democratization of markets around the world.
While print picture books will continue their strong history and will prevail as core children’s literature, children’s trade and educational publishing will improvise new forms of book creation and distribution, so our publishing world could be quite different by 2020. In that year Scholastic will celebrate its hundredth anniversary as a publisher and distributor of children’s content in print and ebooks for schools and homes in both traditional and in new creative forms that will further extend the global reach of children’s literature and information publishing. This will require new editorial and technical skills, and continued expertise in marketing and distribution, but the results could make book publishing an even more important part of children’s reading and learning around the world.
In short, children’s books and reading will continue to innovate and expand, as new forms of distribution create new opportunities for the great creative content that is at the heart of the drive by authors and publishers to explain and expand the world of our children.