MEDIA ROUNDUP: Kids' literature isn't just child's play

Led by the Harry Potter series and a host of celebrity authors, children's literature is no longer the neglected offspring of the book-review section.

Led by the Harry Potter series and a host of celebrity authors, children's literature is no longer the neglected offspring of the book-review section.

Those of us raised on Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are may not recognize the children's book industry today. Not only have the players changed, with Ramona Quimby, Encyclopedia Brown, and Nancy Drew now usurped by Harry Potter and Junie B. Jones, but the media coverage is beginning to break out of its small subsection on the book review page and into the mainstream features section. "I've been doing this for 10 years and over that time I've seen an increase in the amount of children's book coverage overall," says Sarah Shealy, associate director of publicity for Harcourt Children's Books. "A lot of the parenting magazines are now dedicating sections for children's books reviews. Parenting has always had coverage, but now Parent is and so is Child." Some of this is simply the media recognizing that many of their best customers also happen to be parents who tend to view their child's development as yet another sign of achievement. But there's also no doubt that with celebrities such as Madonna, Jerry Seinfeld, and John Lithgow all penning children's books, the category suddenly has cachet. Celebrities lead the way "The high-profile authors like Madonna...have increased the profile of the children's book industry," says Shealy. "But sometimes it is tough to break through to the mainstream media with a new author, for example, because when there's a Madonna book there the mainstream reporters will gravitate toward the celebrity angle." But Judith Haut, VP and executive director of publicity for Random House Children's Books, points out that even if it takes a celebrity to initially drive the interest of reporters, that creates an opening for additional stories. "We can take the opportunity to say, 'There's a really big trend in fantasy and science fiction and that would make a really good story for you,'" she says. Lissa Warren, senior director of publicity at De Capo Press and the author of The Savvy Author's Guide to Book Publicity (set to be released next month), says that unlike a lot of products for kids, books don't seem to need a stamp of approval from an educator or development specialist to generate interest among reporters. "In fact, there's actually a bit of backlash against that," she notes. "There are a lot of people who believe a children's book should simply entertain and encourage imagination, and the fact that it may help a child be more caring toward another disabled child...is just icing on the cake." No one on the PR side is assuming this growing media interest will be a long-term trend, in part because children's titles have been a neglected offspring of the book sections of many outlets. Susan Raab, founder and president of Chappaqua, NY-based Raab Associates, says, "It's not that unusual that if a book section needs to cut back, the area that's susceptible is children's books because that's often done by a freelancer. It's not something the head book reviewer is focusing on." Given the fact that there are a flood of children's books being released every month, PR pros stress the importance of reaching out to vertical outlets such as Publisher's Weekly, Focus, Book List, and School Library Journal. "Trade coverage is always key for sell-in because it's important for the booksellers to know what's big, what's coming, and what's working," says Haut. Serious literature Some argue that it's rare for a children's book to get harshly reviewed in the press, but Shealy says that's not entirely true. "We don't see a lot of [negative reviews] in the consumer-directed newspapers and magazines, but you do get those in the [trade] journals," she says. "If it's a novel, these books are reviewed as pieces of literature," adds Haut. "The New York Times children's book section takes their reviews very seriously - and they should." Haut recently had success generating press for Eragon, a fantasy novel Christopher Paolini wrote when he was 15. Not only has the book been holding its own in sales against the Harry Potter series, but Paolini has been featured in Time, Newsweek, and USA Today, and he's made an appearance on David Letterman. "While there are limitations to coverage of children's books, if you have a good story to tell, it really doesn't matter what book it is," Haut says. ----- Pitching...children's books
  • Leverage early positive reviews in the trade press by sending out clips to mainstream reviewers and feature writers once the title hits shelves.
  • Develop relationships with key syndicated writers whose columns appear in major publications across the country.
  • Books based on licensed properties, such as SpongeBob SquarePants, are tough to get covered because they're more an extension of the toy or media brand rather than literature, so focus most of your efforts on original authors and content.

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