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