Children’s Institute Addresses Strategies to Sell Picture Books

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Panelists Ann Seaton, Maureen Palacios, Marianne Follis, and Elizabeth Bluemle, with moderater Valerie Koehler.

A session at last month’s ABC Children’s Institute in San Antonio, Texas, addressed strategies for selling picture books in the wake of age compression. The panel, moderated by Valerie Koehler of Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, examined the ways that booksellers can counter a growing trend to push titles for older children –– such as chapter books –– on young children who are just starting to read.

Session panelists were Elizabeth Bluemle of The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont; Maureen Palacios of Once Upon a Time in Montrose, California; Ann Seaton of Hicklebee’s in San Jose, California; and Marianne Follis, a librarian at Valley Ranch Library in Irving, Texas.

Koehler began the discussion by noting that picture books are frequently dismissed by parents of emerging readers and that young children are often drawn to chapter books, even though there is great value in picture books for new readers. “There are certainly some scripts and strategies we can use to continue to sell picture books to emerging and independent readers,” said Koehler.

Bluemle said that parents often feed into the idea of age compression by dismissing a child’s choice to read picture books, but it’s important for booksellers to gently educate the customer. Bluemle noted that “picture books are often more sophisticated –– and have richer language than chapter books –– because they’re meant to be read aloud and children can understand words aurally better than they can sound them out and decode them as text.”

For the many adults who “may have forgotten what a picture book truly is” and don’t realize that picture books contain words at all, Bluemle suggested, “Show an adult a Bill Peet book full of text, and they start to understand.”

At Valley Ranch Library, Follis often brings the type of language that exists in picture books to the attention of parents, as well as how the language helps expand children’s vocabulary while allowing for parent-child interaction. In addition, Follis said that she uses thematic picture books to supplement all of her children’s programming at the library.

At Once Upon a Time, when parents and grandparents start pushing for chapter books for an emerging reader, Palacios suggests a text-heavy book with rich language and artistic illustrations, such as Miss Spider’s Tea Party by David Kirk (Scholastic Press).

“You need to show them that, when the words and illustrations are married perfectly together, that’s how kids connect to the story and remember it.” When most children and young adults are asked about their favorite book, many name a picture book, she added. “And the reason is because of the memories and the experiences they’ve had with it. So if you can sell an experience, that’s what you need to do.”

Bluemle noted that a picture book’s pictures don’t just enhance the story, as they often do in chapter books. Rather, they tell their own story or subplot, or sometimes illustrate an idea that belies the text. This helps children’s social/emotional development, she said, as well as connects the brain’s auditory and visual cortex to the frontal lobe in a way chapter books do not.

In the community surrounding Valley Ranch Library, there is an emphasis on education and testing, and that often means that children are encouraged to read on a more advanced level, said Follis. When this comes to her attention, she will compare the Lexile levels of picture books to many popular chapter books to show that picture books often rank higher. “There’s no contest there,” Follis said.

For gift giving, Hicklebee’s Seaton said that a picture book is her go-to recommendation, since there are picture books for almost every holiday or occasion. “It’s almost like an extended greeting card,” she said. “It means so much more, and it will be picked up over and over again and will convey such wonderful sentiments.”

To successfully promote picture book sales, the panelists agreed that training staff to read and to get to know picture books is key. “When I took over the shop, the best thing the owner told me to do is, every single day bring home a stack of picture books,” said Palacios. “You can’t sell it if you haven’t read it.”

At the library, Follis said she will often break out a picture book for an informal “staff storytime” to help the library’s shelvers connect to picture books and be able to suggest specific titles to patrons.

Audience member Tegan Tigani of Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle suggested that booksellers who are thinking about holding a “staff story time” do so at the store’s front desk. “That was a breakthrough for us,” said Tigani. With Skippyjon Jones by Judith Schachner (Dutton Juvenile), “we couldn’t resist reading passages out loud,” she said. People would ask staff what they were reading, “and it sold the book.”

Nancy Felton of Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, Massachusetts, said that even though her store is a general bookstore, every staff member is instructed to spend a half-hour each week in the children’s department. “When you find a picture book that you love, share it with staff immediately,” she told her fellow session attendees. “That really works.”

Though wordless picture books are admittedly a hard sell, the compelling, beautiful, and interesting artwork definitely helps, said Seaton. “There are so many stories you can tell,” she said. “Kids can tell visual stories. It’s a pretty sophisticated thing that’s going on.”

Elise Supovitz of Candlewick Press noted that author-illustrator Aaron Becker has written “A Guide to Reading a Wordless Book,” which booksellers might find helpful, and it’s available for download in PDF format from the Candlewick website.

Suggestions for successful picture book displays were offered by a number of booksellers in the audience: Books Inc., which has several locations in California, has had success with a display of “comfort books” chosen by staff members. At Once Upon a Time, Palacios created a window display featuring books having to do with numbers, which brought a lot of people into the store. And Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, often puts together a display based on what’s going on in the adult world.

A colorful session handout, perfect for use in stores, features timeless picture books for everyone and panelists’ comments on their appropriateness for kids of all ages. The handout and video footage of the entire session, in four parts, which was made possible by a grant from author James Patterson, are available on the ABA Education Curriculum page on BookWeb.