The magic of children’s books

By on January 30, 2013
Author and artist Kelly Halpin in her studio. -courtesy photo
Author and artist Kelly Halpin in her studio. -courtesy photo

Author and artist Kelly Halpin in her studio. -courtesy photo

Jackson Hole, Wyo.-The powerful impact of children’s books starts early and continues on into adulthood. Who can forget Aslan, the great lion from the fantasy world of Narnia? When my sixth-grade teacher read “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis aloud to our class in 1969, I was swept away. So much so that I decided to become a writer partly because my imagination was ignited by the enchanting series.

Children’s books bring memorable moments, quiet times shared between a parent and child, a first glint of recognition that H – O – P spells “hop” as in Dr. Seuss’s treasured “Hop on Pop,” or an aha insight arising from a compelling true-life story. Full of mystery and surprise, there is something magical about children’s stories that often reign supreme among our fondest of memories.
My 90-year-old uncle, a former Marine, wrote me last year to say, “I love children’s stories.” How much did children’s book impact his life? He’s a retired elementary school teacher. He said his favorite book is “Charlotte’s Web.”

Just last week, Family Literacy Program Director Laura West concurred. She named “Charlotte’s Web” among her favorites because it has a lot of great themes, but is written at a level that children can enjoy. “It’s a classic that’s hard to beat,” she said. Children’s book author and illustrator Kelly Halpin says “School of Names” is her favorite. She’s had it since she was a toddler and continues to be drawn to it as an adult. “It is so beautiful, because it is so simple,” she said.

Fast Growing Segment
It is a sure bet that most of us have a childhood favorite; a book that stands the test of time. But new books, and partly now new media, in the children’s book genre are contributing to fast-paced growth for publishers, ahead of other genres – some destined to become classics.

Think of what could be labeled the “Harry Potter” phenomenon contributing to the exploding children’s book market. In contemporary times, J.K. Rowling reinvigorated the kid lit category with her spell-binding stories that appealed not only to children, but also to adult readers setting a crossover trend that continues to hold strong for Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” saga and “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins. Andi Sporkin, Vice President of Communications for the Association of American Publishers, says the crossover to adult audiences is the primary reason for the surge in young adult and children’s book sales. These books are read as much by adults as they are by teens. Half of “The Hunger Games” readers are adults according to a Scholastic report.

Interactive e-readers, movie spinoffs, new educational standards and traditional printed and illustrated pages are contributing to kid lit’s exploding popularity too. It’s the fastest-growing category in publishing, according to BookStats, a collaboration of the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group. Overall publisher revenues for children’s books were up 12 percent totaling $2.78 billion in 2011. Just last week Amazon announced they were adding two new children’s book imprints, about a year after launching its children’s publishing division that publishes both print and their trademark Kindle books.

Over the past few years there has been a public awareness push that has contributed to the growth of the genre. “Teachers are encouraged to broaden the variety and complexity of texts they are teaching,” West said. Forty-five states, including Wyoming, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Common Core State Standards which are not only changing the way students learn in school, but elevating the importance of mentor texts in reading. Now the goal is to use a story to teach a skill. “Variety is huge right now,” West said. “Students are encouraged to read what they want at their level.”

West says the publishing companies anticipated the adoption of these standards and were prepared with a variety of books.

E-readers, E-books Spell Enhancement
Certainly children’s book sales are bolstered by the popularity of e-books, especially those that provide enhanced digital content. Early literacy encompasses ages zero to five, important years in motivating readers says West. “Language development begins from zero to two years old. Babies are aware of sounds, singing, vocal pitches. Then they connect it when listening to a story,” West said of early literacy skills.

Natalie Clark, local sculptor and co-author of the recently released nursery rhyme e-book, “The Rain Baby,” says enhancements that some e-books utilize aid in language development and word recognition. “We, in tandem with our publisher, decided to do an e-book in part because on iTunes we added enhancements like sound, read along and animation,” Clark explained. The book description states sound effects and animated illustrations engage a child’s emergent curiosity without overwhelming their developing senses.

The industry is in the infancy phase of defining what a digital book will be says Todd Tuell, Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Rocky Mountain Chapter. “Digital technology allows so much flexibility,” he said. “For a typical picture book, an author doesn’t have to think in terms of a standard 32-page signature. Active media can be used instead of a page turn to elicit a surprise.”

“If e-readers motivate people to read, that’s great,” West said. “E-readers are readily available and are always with [a person.] It increases the opportunities children have to read. I don’t know if it increases skill, but it increases opportunities.” It’s like they can carry a library with them anywhere they go, says Tuell.

Coliloquy, a digital publisher, encourages reimagining methods to telling stories, highlighting technology as the core to the new reading experience on its blog and citing The New York Times’ interactive piece “Snow Fall” as an example of enhanced reading.

Children’s Book Trends
Whether digital or not, there are predictable areas where kids’ interests will go next. Editors at Scholastic, who publish, curate and distribute award-winning children’s books, identified the top 10 trends for this year. A few of their predictions include stories that embrace topics like bullying, cultural diversity and wilderness adventures.

Tuell says some middle-grade novels are using branching story lines and multiple perspectives. “Many are creating a more serialized experience with reader polling or voting,” he said.

Regarding bullying, Scholastic editors say: “Children’s authors recognize this as a major concern for kids and have become more adept at weaving bullying themes into storylines, from picture books to young adult titles.”
This also ties in with the Common Core State Standards, West says. “I think it’s a national trend to increase the varieties of stories the children are reading aligning with the changes in the Common Core State Standards,” she said.

Spotlighting diversity, Scholastic editors say kids want to see themselves in the novels they read, and publishers are embracing their individuality. “Readers can learn about their families, cultures and themselves,” Scholastic editors say.

Another trend running through sci-fi and eco-thrillers is “adventure in the wild,” writes Scholastic in their forecast. A common element in these adventures is a focus on ecology and the environment.

Local Authors Write Books for Good Causes
Surrounded by natural beauty, it is no surprise that local authors are focused on the environment. Three of four new children’s books that have recently launched or will launch in the next year or so are directly associated with environmental causes and one supports animal shelters.

Kelly Halpin along with Culture Front is bringing the plight of the forests to life in the imaginative story of “Albi and the Whitebark Pines.” Halpin says the main message of the story is that anyone can go out and take action. “After the devastation of the forest, the little creatures [in the book] take it upon themselves to do something,” she said.

Though the illustrations and story are complete, the book is not yet in print. The collaborators are relying on the growing trend of crowdfunding as a means to raise cash from small, public donations for their project. More and more authors are turning to self-publishing or self-financing via the Internet, and Coliloquy’s bloggers predict the popularity of crowdfunding will continue: “In 2013, we’ll have more success stories coming out of Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and authors and creators of all stripes will take to using it.”

Halpin and company are utilizing RocketHub to raise cash for their project. As of Tuesday, with 31 hours left in their funding period, $2,165 of a $4,500 goal had been raised for the project. When this story prints, readers will have one more day to visit and search for Kelly Halpin to donate. A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to TreeFight, a nonprofit that works to protect and restore whitebark pines in the Jackson region.

The Cougar Fund is also awaiting funding and a publisher for their upcoming “Shadow: The Cougar from Flat Creek.” The story was written by the late Jean Craighead George who is known for penning the Newbery Award-winner “Julie of the Wolves” and more than 100 other children’s books. An environmental advocate and sister to prominent naturalists Frank and John Craighead, she has close ties to Jackson Hole. “Shadow” was completed a few days before her passing in May 2012 and tells the adventurous story of a young cougar searching for a safe territory free from human encroachment and the danger of hunters.

Area teachers are excited about the book, because they see it as a precursor to the Cougar Posse, an educational outreach of the Cougar Fund. “The Posse uses math, science, spelling, music and art to teach fourth graders the importance of apex species like cougars and their role in protecting the entire ecosystem,” said Lisa Rullman, Managing Director of the Cougar Fund.

The e-book, “The Rain Baby,” published in 2012 tells the story of a child born from a raindrop who descends from the heavens to restore planet Earth’s most precious resource, water. Co-authored with her two teenage sons, Otto and Digby, Natalie Clark says in a press release she hopes her story inspires future generations to become better stewards of our beautiful and irreplaceable planet.

“Rusty: The Story of One Lucky Dog,” published in 2012, is based on a true story that follows a golden retriever mix from his unhappy life in chains to an extraordinary life of adventure. Written by Sophie and Derek Craighead, a portion of the proceeds from this book benefits “Lucky’s Place” and other no-kill animal shelters.

About Teresa Griswold

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