The se­cret in­gre­di­ents to a chil­dren’s clas­sic

Jam Pub­lish­ers is a new­comer to the genre, but it’s em­brac­ing qual­ity sto­ry­telling that both kids and par­ents can ap­pre­ci­ate

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By John Wen­zel

Find­ing a great chil­dren’s book is a mat­ter of ne­ces­sity for par­ents and teach­ers — and some­thing the rest of us tend to ig­nore, at least un­til we have no choice.

But whether we re­al­ize it or not, most of us also have a strong con­nec­tion to chil­dren’s books. And wait­ing un­til we need a quick birth­day present for a niece, nephew or friend’s kid means we’re more likely to buy from a small, stag­nant pool of peren­nial best sell­ers, in turn skip­ping over dozens of wor­thy ti­tles that have the same po­ten­tial to in­flu­ence young readers the way clas­sics like “Good­night Moon” or “Where the Wild Things Are” have for decades.

“I don’t have kids and I’m not around them all the time, but I love be­ing around my niece, and I have a huge col­lec­tion of chil­dren’s books,” said Joshua Vi­ola, the founder of Den­ver-based Jam Pub­lish­ers, which is­sued its first two chil­dren’s books this sum­mer. “There are some re­ally neat con­cepts in chil­dren’s books that al­low you to tell a dif­fer­ent sort of story than in other gen­res. And as a cre­ative per­son, I like hav­ing this out­let to dip into so many dif­fer­ent things.”

The suc­cess of Vi­ola’s adult-fo­cused Hex im­print, which has pub­lished the na­tion­ally re­viewed and lo­cally best-sell­ing hor­ror and sci-fi an­tholo­gies “Night­mares Un­hinged” and “Cy­ber World,” in­spired him to ex­pand into the chil­dren’s book mar­ket this year. He feels his de­but ti­tles — “Boomer and Friends!” (which he wrote, with il­lus­tra­tions by Lind­sey Bell and Aaron Lovett) and “The Zoo’s Se­cret” (writ­ten and il­lus­trated by Bell) — high­light an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated artistry in the genre.

“I meet peo­ple who say, ‘I have this great idea for a kid’s book. We’ll just dumb some­thing down and it’ll work!’ But while a book like ‘Boomer’ may have far less words than a novel, I had

nu­mer­ous cri­tiques and rewrites for it,” Vi­ola said. “And the first thing is the art: the style, the com­po­si­tion, the col­ors. That has to grab you, then the con­cept and the flow of the prose can do their work.”

Stud­ies by the Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics have shown that read­ing to young chil­dren in­creases lit­er­acy skills, lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion, gen­eral brain devel­op­ment and other “hid­den benefits,” such as par­ent-child bond­ing and self-esteem.

“We be­lieve kids who read and have ac­cess to books … lead hap­pier, bet­ter ad­justed and more suc­cess­ful lives,” the own­ers of Den­ver’s Tat­tered Cover book stores wrote in a re­cent news­let­ter.

Like most book re­tail­ers, the Tat­tered Cover car­ries ti­tles by lo­cal chil­dren’s au­thors and pub­lish­ers, and hosts reg­u­lar Au­thor Sto­ry­times. But the com­pany also sells dis­counted books to schools and takes au­thors into class­rooms, free of charge, as part of its Vis­it­ing Au­thor series.

“We had over 80 au­thors vis­it­ing Den­ver metro schools just this past spring,” said co-owner Kris­ten Gil­li­gan, who is work­ing with area schools to bring heavy hit­ters R.L. Stine, Sarah J. Mass and Jon Klassen to Den­ver in the fall, via email. “I still re­mem­ber Judy Blume vis­it­ing our school when I was young.”

Hun­dreds of lo­cal chil­dren’s au­thors, il­lus­tra­tors and ed­u­ca­tors are also ex­pected to at­tend the Tat­tered Cover’s Ed­u­ca­tor Night on Sept. 7 at its East Col­fax Av­enue lo­ca­tion, Gil­li­gan said.

“I have ev­ery chil­dren’s book I’ve ever been given since I was baby,” said Colorado artist Bell, who will be on hand at the Sloan’s Lake Alamo Draft­house on Aug. 13 for an au­thor read­ing and screen­ing of the an­i­mated movie “The Se­cret Life of Pets.” The event, or­ga­nized with the Tat­tered Cover, will pro­mote the re­lease of Jam Pub­lish­ers’ chil­dren’s books that Bell il­lus­trated. Each ticket in­cludes a choice of one of the books.

Bell, Vi­ola and Lovett will also present and read from “Boomer and Friends!” and “The Zoo’s Se­cret” at the Tat­tered Cover at 2526 E. Col­fax Ave. at 7 p.m. on Aug. 10.

Like her pub­lisher Vi­ola, Bell does not have any kids of her own. But as an artist and teacher at Whimsy Paint and Sip Art Stu­dio in West­min­ster for the past five years, she has taught thou­sands of kids (and adults) how to ex­press them­selves through art.

“Chil­dren’s books should be like a good song from be­gin­ning to end,” she said. “The story has got to be good. It should be fun or re­lat­able, par­tic­u­larly for chil­dren, but also for the par­ents, be­cause they are the ones buy­ing the book. A good ed­i­tor is needed for a good story. Angie Ho­dapp did an amaz­ing job with my story, ‘The Zoo’s Se­cret.’ She came in with fresh per­spec­tive and knew what the story needed.”

A pub­lisher that in­tel­li­gently mar­kets the book is also a must, given the glut of self-pub­lished ti­tles, Bell said. Jam Pub­lish­ers, for ex­am­ple, is try­ing to sep­a­rate it­self with an­i­mated trail­ers and, as Vi­ola did for a cou­ple of his Hex ti­tles, dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing such as cus­tom­ized themes for the Playsta­tion 4 sys­tem.

Books that sell well and con­nect with young readers of­ten have an­other hid­den se­cret, said chil­dren’s au­thor and pub­lisher Robin Barone, who will visit schools and li­braries in Den­ver on Oct. 24-26: test­ing the idea with the tar­get au­di­ence.

“I am a big be­liever in feed­back,” Barone wrote via email. “I love to ask ques­tions and com­pare op­tions in the process of re­fin­ing an idea and text. While work­ing in the heart of a project, it is so easy to be­come bi­ased to­ward cer­tain paths or without al­low­ing for other thoughts to bub­ble to the sur­face.”

In Septem­ber, Barone’s Diplo­mat Books will pub­lish her lat­est ti­tle, “Where Is Robin?” The chil­dren’s book series for 4- to 8year-olds uses travel sto­ries to teach cu­rios­ity.

“While the over­all book mar­ket has grown 33 per­cent since 2004, the chil­dren’s book mar­ket has grown 52 per­cent growth,” re­ported the Amer­i­can Book­sellers As­so­ci­a­tion.

The sheer num­ber of ti­tles in the chil­dren’s pic­ture-book cat­e­gory makes find­ing the right ones all the more im­por­tant, au­thors and il­lus­tra­tors say.

Im­ages pro­vided by Jam Pub­lish­ers

Pro­vided by Jam Pub­lish­ers

The new chil­dren’s pic­ture book “Boomer and Friends!” puts a pre­mium on lush il­lus­tra­tions and a solid story, says au­thor and Jam Pub­lish­ers founder Joshua Vi­ola.

Pro­vided by Jam Pub­lish­ers

“The Zoo’s Se­cret,” writ­ten and il­lus­trated by Lind­sey Bell, is one of two de­but ti­tles from Colorado-based Jam Pub­lish­ers.

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