Saturday, March 14, 2009

Who Buys Picture Books?

I guess the answer to the above question is fairly obvious - 99% of the time, adults buy picture books. Parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians. And then small children get to read those picture books with the adults. And then eventually by themselves. But the person with the money in their hand gets to decide what goes on the bestseller lists, simply by virtue of the $$ they spend. What interests me is how the same old books end up on those lists, year after year, when I know there are absolutely wonderful new picture books being published every week.

One of my current favourites is Wolves by Emily Gravett. Check out her website, too. And Mo Willems' books are great. But there are many picture books that never seem to get a look in, because adults are too busy buying into nostalgia (literally). There seems to be a whole market now for picture books that appeal to adults, that are reprints of the books they had when they were little, or are books that have a definite adult perspective (e.g. stories about harrassed mothers with kids that never give them any peace). I guess I understand why The Very Hungry Caterpillar is still around after 30+ years - it's a simple story with a great concept to engage littlies (the holes in the pages, the rhythm of the words).
But I don't really get why Possum Magic is still selling heaps after 20 years (sorry, but I don't - it's a nice story, but...). And although Where the Wild Things Are is certainly a classic, I know plenty of littlies today who hate the pictures. Now I hear that not only are they bringing back Captain Pugwash, but also Horrid Henry! Come on - surely there are plenty of great current picture books that would be just as good to promote, if not better?
Except, of course, I'm forgetting about the person with the money in their hand. The parent for whom Captain Pugwash was a favourite when they were little. And Horrid Henry? Hilarious! I remember reading that ... well, no, I didn't actually read either, nor did my daughter. No, our favourite was The Paperbag Princess, and that has als
o been reprinted, but I still have our copy. I have to admit I have asked people who work in bookshops the "oldies on the bestseller list" question, and received an answer that dismayed me - lots of people have no idea about books for children. They roll into a bookshop, look puzzled, and ask for help. And because most booksellers in large stores are not familiar with kid's books, they inevitably recommend the ones they recognise themselves. Thus perpetuating the cycle.
I listened to a talk recently by a person from the Australian Booksellers' Association. It was great to hear her talk about training booksellers in how to find out about children's books in order to sell a wider range, but it sounded like her training sessions were reaching about 2% of the staff in stores. How can we encourage buyers to try new authors and illustrators? To give all those wonderful new picture books a chance? Any ideas?


Tracey said...

I think the pictures are a big part of the appeal of Possum magic.

I know I certainly bought books I remembered for my kids. My mother inflicted some on me that I ended up hating (not so much picture books though). But I've certainly bought old favourites: the Little Black books (about a black pony) and Green eggs and ham, which was my favourite Dr Seuss.

Getting them to try new illustrators is easier than new authors, because they can sample these on a quick flick through. But perhaps the writing is also dependent on the pictures: the ability of the illustrator to suggest the excitement of the story. It's a bit unfair on the writer, but just part of the game. (In the same vein, a photography book I edited for a self-publisher was picked up by the major bookshops because they could see the quality of the photos in a few seconds. But a self-published narrative -- they haven't got the time to sit down and assess this.) So word of mouth. Good PR on our parts -- it's back to all the usual tricks.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that Mo Willems books are really good. My kids love Knuffle Bunny.

My parents had kept some of my picture books which my kids have had the benefit of having.

But I have bought a lot of others. Yes we have Possum Magic, which my daughter counts among her favourites. I really like Alison Lester's books. My son loves David Melling books. They both like Kim Dale's Bush Babies at the moment.

I'm of the opinion you can't have too many picture books.

Sherryl said...

Tracey - the pictures are a big part of it, for sure. What I like about Mo Willems is that his illustrations are incredibly simple - it's the story and the concept (Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! is a good example). I'm sure we all buy books we remember fondly, but publishers often jump on this bandwagon for the sales factor (why wouldn't they - they have to earn money) - at the expense of new talent.

Sherryl said...

Cathy - I wish picture books weren't quite so expensive, but I understand why. All that glorious colour!
I often pick up good ones at library books sales, and you can tell the ones that aren't popular because they're still pretty new.

Sandy Fussell said...

I never thought about it until I read your post - but until recently my picture book purchases were my childhood favourites (usually revamped), titles I noticed because they got media attention and those covers I liked in the bookstore. When I started reviewing my horizons expanded as I started to look for books based on reviews - and would order them in if they weren't in my local stores. But lately, since I started reading blogs, I have discovered a whole world of new wonderful picture books and have been purchasing based on blog reviews.

Words4FaithPeep said...

Grandparents buy more books from us than do parents, probably because the book "I Love You More Than That" by Millie Nettles presents a values concept they identify with and want to pass along to the toddlers. It's about God's love. But, you have to be Internet savvy. It isn't in book stores, only on an independent web site or on Amazon. There are many others wandering the web as well. Finding the good new ones takes a little effort, but online searches work.