Up Against Barriers for Children’s Books
by Linda Salisbury
Independent publishers and self-publishers, especially of children’s books, can often be identified by lumpy heads and bruised egos. We’ve been bumping into walls and closed doors for years: newspapers that won’t review books (regardless of quality) that aren’t produced by well-known houses; libraries that purchase through bundled contracts rather than at local or regional discretion; school book fairs open only to Scholastic’s products; schools that buy and recommend only books that come through the Renaissance Learning (Accelerated Reader [AR]) program; and even the national chains.
But we learn to take our lumps and doggedly look for ways around the obstacles, especially ways that create interest, build credibility, and generate publicity and sales. For example, at Tabby House, we search out relevant columnists and freelancers to send announcements of our new books, and we present school or library programs.
The Awards Approach
One of the most fulfilling ways, for me, entails winning meaningful awards, even if these awards so far haven’t unlocked doors to key national markets. Awards sell books. And they show youngsters that medals are not just for athletics. Books win golds too.
I do a lot of hand-selling, so I’m in constant contact with readers and buyers. They look at, touch, and relate to award-winner stickers on my books, and I’m proud to say that each of my 10 children’s titles has been a winner (16 awards so far). Sometimes people impulsively purchase one book rather than another on the basis of which has received the most awards.
Three of the books in my Bailey Fish Adventure series received top honors (silver or bronze) from the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards; two received the gold in juvenile fiction from the President’s Book Awards sponsored by the Florida Publishers Association. One, a multiple award-winner, also placed first in the Virginia Press Women’s Association contest (that one doesn’t offer stickers, so we made our own). And still others have received finalist awards from Eric Hoffer and ForeWord, or silver medals from FPA.
Each time a book wins or is honored, I, and usually the contest organizers, generate press releases; I post to my Web site (lindasalisburyauthor.com) and my Facebook author page; I tweet (not my strong suit); and I affix stickers to covers (even if cover designers don’t want their art plastered over). Independent bookstores, gift shops, and other retail outlets value the stickers and ask that they be added to books in stock. And at festivals, shows, farmers’ markets―anywhere we can hand-sell books for a greater profit—Tabby House has a table many weekends, and the award stickers sell books there too.
Award mentions also let the public know that a book has been recognized by independent judges—who are often otherwise hard-to-reach librarians or booksellers. In short, awards build credibility for books and their authors that directly translates to sales.
The AR Obstacle
As word of an award reaches the public, it may help you get the attention of schools and, occasionally, librarians, but awards are not likely to help you deal with the closed doors of organizations, such as Renaissance Learning (purveyor of the Accelerated Reader system), that have a tight grip on many school systems.
So, here’s a quiz, and depending on how well you answer, you may get a prize.
You’ve written or published award-winning children’s books praised by kids, parents, and teachers, but they are not read in schools, including schools in districts where you are invited to present programs. In fact, your books may not even be allowed on the shelves of school libraries.
Question #1: Why?
A. Your books are too controversial.
B. You publish paperbacks.
C. You haven’t dumbed-down vocabulary.
D. Your titles aren’t included in AR reading-management programs.
If you picked D, you were correct, and your AR candy is in the mail.
On the surface, programs such as Renaissance Learning (founded in 1986) appear to be a great way to motivate children to read more and to let teachers easily ascertain whether a student has actually read a particular book.
About 40,000 school districts (including some overseas) are involved with the Renaissance Learning Accelerated Reader Enterprise program for grades K–12, purchasing software and quizzes designed to “determine reading level,” “set practice goals,” “personalize practice,” assess achievement, and provide “instant feedback.”
Obviously, if your book is not part of the program, a district that has invested heavily in the Renaissance Learning software may be reluctant to buy the book for library or classroom use. And acceptance is where the difficulties begin for small presses.
Look at some of the criteria:
● multiple positive reviews from national publications such as School Library Journal, Horn Book, Library Media Connection, YOYA, and Booklist
● national awards
● inclusion on state recommended reading lists, among others
● popular authors
● inclusion in continuing popular series such as Magic Tree House or Harry Potter
● recommendations from a number of different schools across the nation
I think most independent book publishers would agree that it would be tough to meet those criteria―enough of them, at least, to add up to AR acceptance—regardless of how worthy the book.
Question #2: Why does this matter? Because of:
● reaching your market
● reaching your market
● reaching your market
● your bottom line
If you answered “All the above,” you are correct.
The school market is potentially huge for publishers of children’s books. We would like our biographies, fiction, histories, animal stories, picture books, and more to be available to schoolchildren everywhere. But numerous schools and districts have tied into the reading-management programs that essentially exclude anything the programs haven’t accepted. As a result, students may not read anything but the AR-accepted books that they get points for reading.
Holly Moulder, a White Pelican Press award-winning author, is a former teacher. She told me she used AR in the classroom to get an idea of comprehension and for book reports, and she said it did help motivate some kids to read. But she also said: “I did see teachers demand that students read only AR books, which to me was ridiculous. Worse still was that some teachers demanded that the students read only those books in their predetermined AR range.”
Unfortunately, that isn’t unusual. Several years ago I was invited to a southwest Florida school to talk about my award-wining Bailey Fish Adventure series with its target age group. Tabby House had prepared AR quizzes and developed reading levels for these books, almost all of which have references to that area.
At the end of the first session of lively discussion, a student asked the librarian where the books were shelved. The librarian pointed to a shelf, but then said that the books (reading level, grade five) were too
difficult for this child, a bright third-grader. What? I was astonished. I know that my books have been read and discussed elsewhere in classrooms from second to sixth grades Even six-year-olds have been hooked on the series.
I confronted the librarian after she made similar remarks in my next session and her response was, Well, kids would ask about the AR levels when they asked whether they should read the books. I said it would be better if kids were encouraged to read what interested them instead of being arbitrarily limited. I’m sure I did not change her views.
Another school librarian once emailed me because her school’s IT department couldn’t locate the AR questions Tabby House had provided. “I need to input the tests in our system for our students so they will continue to read the series. If they can’t take the tests, I’m afraid they will not be motivated to continue to read the series,” said the librarian.
AR obviously doesn’t work to cultivate a love of reading; it works to focus kids on points and rewards.
Does that bother you? It troubles me as a reader and an author as well as a publisher.
Theoretically, teachers and media specialists and other publishers can create their own Accelerated Reader tests for books that are not part of the Renaissance Learning program, just as we did. Developing multiple-choice questions is the simple part. Determining the reading level requires using a formula that involves counting words, sentences, and syllables to come up with numbers and establishing grade levels from intersections on a graph.
But developing the questions is not always sufficient. We’ve discovered that some schools don’t know how to integrate these questions into the software purchased from Renaissance Learning, or they are suspicious of books not listed by the giant reading-management program.
Recently, an American child living in China contacted me about my books. She loves the series, and relates to the characters and their family situations. Coincidentally, her parents are teaching in an international school that uses AR, so I asked her mother about how the program works there. She replied that students are given the Renaissance Learning STAR test; their points goals are set for a year; they do most reading of books in the program at home; tests are given during free time; and a child gets rewards such as a hat or a pin for reaching a certain percentage of the goals.
“So what has happened for three years now,” the teacher-mother added, “is that after the AR testing and recording start, students only want to read books that we have put an AR sticker on because they want to get points for almost every book they read.”
She strongly urged that I try to get my books on the Accelerated Reader list. But despite awards and much success, my books don’t cross the Renaissance Learning acceptance threshold. I’ve tried.
Some authors have told me that districts are currently shifting to Scholastic’s Reading Counts! program and lexile scoring, which, according to Scholastic, comes up with points for each book determined by word count and interest level. I haven’t tried to work with these programs yet because schools so far have only inquired about AR. But reliance on either AR or Scholastic programs instead of encouragement of reading whatever captures children’s interest makes me weary and discouraged about the state of education and reading.
There’s no easy answer. Thankfully, I know kids drag parents to our booth to buy another book and another; and I hear from parents and grandparents about what my books have meant to particular children and families. That’s my bottom line.
Of course, I applaud programs that stimulate youngsters to read. My argument is with the stranglehold reading-management companies have on school districts, which makes it so hard to get books from independent publishers accepted on their merits and into the lives of more children who would love reading them.
Linda Salisbury is the author of 16 books, including 10 for children, and senior editor at Tabby House in central Virginia. A retired journalist who freelances, she can be reached through lindasalisburyauthor.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.