- The Constantly (Un)Changing World of Children's Book Publishing
Last week a student asked me what I thought of Madonna's new children's book. I confessed that I had not read it and therefore could not give an opinion. My student rolled her eyes at me and shook her head and laughed.
"Now wait," I said magnanimously. "Just because Madonna's a celebrity doesn't mean she can't write. She has talent. She has rhythm. She might be able to transfer skills to children's writing." (After all, couldn't I, a children's book writer and scholar, make music videos as well as Madonna, if only I had the time?)
More students joined the eye rolling and head shaking and laughing while those who had seen Madonna's book jumped on each other's sentences describing The English Roses to me. It's an illustrated storybook for ages 4 to 8, they said—but it's about a clique of jealous eleven-year-olds—and the text is really long, with lots of preaching from a fairy godmother. Yes, my students had learned their lessons well. They knew what I would think. So, without having read the book, I joined the eye rolling and head shaking and laughing—not at Madonna but at the mixed-up world of children's book publishing.
Serious aspiring authors (that is, those who aren't already famous for something else) spend years of rejection-riddled apprenticeship learning to write publishable books; for me, ten years between my first draft and my first book signing. Our early submissions for publication are almost always returned, often unread, with generic rejection slips. We can hardly blame the editors for this insensitive practice; the "slush pile" of unsolicited manuscripts received at top trade houses numbers in the thousands every year. Writers rejoice on that memorable day when an actual editor writes an actual letter about the actual manuscript and signs her name in actual ink. Dabblers and hobbyists and people writing down the cute little stories they made up for their own darling children and grandchildren tend to drop away after a few years of this investment in wasted postage. Dedicated writers stay with it, learning all they can—about children and children's literature, about the writing craft, about the business of publishing. They become active in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, attend conferences, take classes, participate in critique groups. And along the way, this torturous publication quest trains authors away from such literary sins as triteness, condescension, sentimentality, didacticism, political incorrectness, and age-inappropriateness.
Professionals learn about the forms and formats of children's books published for various audiences and adapt their writing accordingly; for instance, putting cliques of jealous eleven-year-olds into chapter books for middle-aged children instead of picture books for preschool and early elementary readers.
Madonna, of course, didn't have to run the literary gauntlet before getting published. From a business perspective, why should she? Her books—The English Roses is the first in a series of five—will find a ready market regardless of all the literary no-no's that no no-name author could sell. According to publisher Nicholas Callaway, the book was released in 30 languages in over 100 countries on September 15th, 2003, in "the widest simultaneous release of any book in publishing history" (np). Two weeks later, The English Roses hit #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List for picture books. By October 7, when I looked the book up on Amazon.com, it had already garnered 234 customer reviews and shot up to 38 in sales rank. By comparison, the 2003 Caldecott Award winner, Eric Rohmann's My Friend Rabbit—which, incidentally, does fit the literary conventions and developmental concerns of the picture book genre—had 15 customer reviews and a sales rank of 478.
The Amazon.com reviewing debate over The English Roses is fierce, with satisfied customers repeatedly praising its great message, important lessons, and cuteness while dissatisfied lovers of children's literature rail the book for its didactic message, adult-spouted lessons, and valorization of anorexic...