Children’s literature encompasses a wide spectrum, with board books for toddlers on one side, adults books considered “crossover” books for teens on the other, and lots of other books in between (picture books, beginning readers, chapter books, middle-grade novels, YA novels).
Arguably, board books are the least covered stop on the spectrum, challenged only by beginning readers. For one reason or another, picture books and novels get more attention.
Abrams Books for Young Readers, however, has a relatively new imprint called Appleseed. They’ve published books for children from birth to 5 years old, primarily board books, for the past year, and I’ve been generally impressed with their offerings. I took some time away from publishing director Cecily Kaiser’s holidays to ask her about the imprint, what she thinks makes a good board book, and what’s next for them. (Hint: It involves the award-winning author-illustrator—and one of my very favorite artists—Chris Raschka.)
What do you think makes a winning board book for children?
It is one that reaches its intended audience and then delights them to no end. But beware: This answer is deceptively simple (as are the very best board books).
In order to be placed into the hands of the youngest children, a board book must first win over several rounds of adult "gatekeepers": those who publish the book, those who stock it in their stores, those who purchase it and those who first read it with the child. If a board book bores adults, it is much less likely to ever be read by children. Board books must be beautiful and clever in ways that appeal to the young and the older. After all, young children are engaged in that which engages the adults around them: remote controls, keys, smartphones and hopefully, books. This cannot be an afterthought in a book’s creation, but must be an intentional secondary consideration—secondary, of course, to developing a book that serves the child.
I often use the word "transformative" when discussing the criteria [for our books]—books that transform children's perceptions of the world by beginning with what they know and building toward something new. In my mind, every successful children's book (as well as lesson plan, professional presentation or wedding speech) pairs the comfort of familiarity with the introduction of something new or unexpected. That "twist at the end" serves a purpose greater than being a surprise—it remaps the reader's brain!
None of that is possible, though, if the book is not inherently based on a familiar or relevant experience. If children cannot relate to the story, the illustrations, the setting or the topic of a book, then they are unable to grow with it. A successful board book is one that first acknowledges the physical, cognitive and emotional stages of its intended audience—and then expertly pushes the boundaries.
Tell me what it is that you look for in authors and illustrators for these books.
Every one of my authors and illustrators is an expert. Not only do they know how to write a book and/or compose and render an illustration, but they also have a genuine understanding of and respect for young children. You cannot successfully draft a text for 4-year-olds without an awareness of their trials; likewise, you cannot successfully illustrate scenes for 2-year-olds without grasping the way they see the world.
Most of these books thus far have been board books, yes? But do you also do picture books?
The Appleseed list serves children ages 0-5. Developmentally, the range is similar to publishing one list for both urban teenage boys and Midwestern middle-aged women!
Babies are so different from toddlers, who are so different from preschoolers and kindergartners. And thus, our range of books and book formats vary widely: We create traditional board books, such as B is for Babar; slightly older "casebound" board books, such as Pantone: Colors; novelty books, such as Alphablock; and young picture books as well. Some of our picture books feature subtle interactivity (such as the gatefolds in Andrew Drew and Drew or the holes in Huff & Puff), while others are of a more traditional format, sans jacket (such as I Can See Just Fine or Santiago Stays).
Our picture books are united by virtue of the sparsity of text and/or illustration, topics and stories to which children as young as 3 and 4 can relate, and an overall design aesthetic.
Can you tell me about Raschka's Thingy Thing series?
Chris Raschka is a force in today's children's market and an absolute creative. Having admired his work for decades, I recently attempted to buy some additional titles from his Thingy Things series published back in 2000, only to find that they were out of print and going for hundreds at resale! At that instant, I reached out to his agent, Brenda Bowen, and was thrilled to learn that the rights were available. This series has been a favorite of mine and the young children I know for quite a while.
Chris actually wrote them as a tribute to his then-toddler son, with each book authentically capturing a sliver of the toddler persona. The opportunity to re-edit, redesign, and reposition them as Abrams Appleseed books for the under-5 set is a gift unto itself.
And the icing? Chris had written and illustrated four more books in the series that had never been published! It feels like a coup from my end, though I know that Chris is equally as elated about publishing the Thingy Things for a new generation. After almost a year of giggling behind closed office doors, we cannot wait for Chris’ toddler humor to reach the world in Spring 2014.
ALPHABLOCK. Copyright © 2013 by Christopher Franceschelli. Illustrations © 2013 by Peskimo. Image here reproduced by permission of the publisher, Abrams Appleseed, New York.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.