It doesn’t take a Nostradamus or a Jean Dixon (is anyone alive making a living doing predictions these day?) to figure out what the big sellers in children’s books are going to be this holiday season. Unless a child is a fanatical follower of Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, or Shel Silverstein the chances are they didn’t get these books the day they were released recently, and more importantly they won’t own these books until the holidays roll around. They may have a chance to see them in the library before then, but given the way these authors are constantly checked out they may not see them anywhere but while hanging around with their parents on those rare occasions they step into a book store.
Not to suggest that these brand-name, marquee-worthy authors don’t deserve the sales, but my prediction has more to do with what I know about bookselling and the behaviors of those who shop for children. There is nothing more frustrating than standing in a store full of nothing but books for children, being solicited for an opinion or recommendation on a title for a child as a gift, only to have the parent (or just as often a grandparent) say “Yes, well, what about (insert well-known children’s book title here)? Do you have that?” When it comes to books, adult shoppers, more than children, fear what they don’t know.
This actually gets trickier as readers get older. When parents are still reading to their children they at least have a sense of the quality and range for what’s available. With voracious appetites for another story, parents will grab stacks full of picture books from the library to read to their lap-sitters, but once those readers become independent and move into newer realms parents have less say and less knowledge about what their kids are reading. I suppose it’s understandable that adults don’t want to have to read middle grade titles to determine their appropriateness or quality, and maybe they shouldn’t read young adult novels so that teens still have their own private club that excludes their parents, but this creates a difficult divide for the book-buying adult to breach. How do they purchase books and encourage reading for the minors in their charge while at the same time retain their distance from actually having to read them?
As with anything, buy what you know.
The truth is, it’s difficult to top Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, or Shel Silverstein. Any fan of these authors is hard pressed when looking for “something else like them,” as they often ask librarians and store clerks. And if it is difficult for younger readers its near impossible for adults to second guess what authors and titles are in the same realm as these authors. There are plenty of humorous poets who write for children, but when a child wants more Shel Silverstein they cannot easily be convinced that Jack Prelutsky is a worthy substitute.
So come the holiday season – which is just a polite way of saying, come the time of year we voluntarily agree to our tithing to the church of capitalism in the form of holiday-based purchases – as frantic adults go in search of gift books for their children and grandchildren, the familiar will win out over the new.
I could be wrong, I often am. We’ll see.