A woodcut illustration of a boy and girl reading.

Editing Children’s Books on Mature Topics: What to Consider

While books can be a wonderful way for readers to escape reality for a few hundred pages, they can also help foster learning and provide readers with safe ways to cope with challenges they might be facing.

Authors and publishing houses have been tackling books on topics such as gender identity, depression, anxiety, divorce, and death for centuries. However, we have seen a more recent trend in books meant for children and middle grade readers that address these more “mature” topics for the younger audience.

An article from Publishers Weekly discussed a wave of middle grade books addressing topics ranging from gender transitioning to war and how these books have faced both ridicule and praise.

David Levithan, vice president, publisher, and editorial director at Scholastic, told Publishers Weekly he does not believe there are any true “taboo” topics anymore. He explained that the test he likes to follow is to determine if a topic is able to be contextualized for a child to understand.

“Some issues are very hard to contextualize for an elementary school level, but it can be done,” Levithan told Publishers Weekly. “Rita Williams-Garcia managed to explain female genital mutilation in No Laughter Here [Amistad, 2003] so nine- and ten-year-olds could understand.” Editors working with books for children should keep Levithan’s advice in mind when addressing the language of children’s books.

Rebecca Westcott, with The Guardian, explains how, despite an editor or author’s best wishes, not every book was written to be read by every person. Some books just simply do not stick with some readers. Westcott gave the example of We Need To Talk About Kevin, a book she described as powerful, well-written, and featuring a great storyline—and she also said she strongly wishes she had never read it.

One of the last things we want to do as publishers is leave a reader wishing they could erase a book from their memory. However, we never wish to go in the opposite direction, either, and aid in censorship. So how do we find a balance in what is appropriate for our readers? And how do those guidelines apply to children who are, according to Publishers Weekly, in the “storm-and-stress” period of their life, where so much is in flux.

There does not appear to be one right answer to determine what is appropriate for children to read when it comes to taboo topics. However, there is one important piece of advice to consider when thinking about what children can or can’t handle.

“I don’t believe the subject matter or the themes are too tough for a younger audience: kids deal with these issues,” former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee Pat Scales told Publishers Weekly. And thus it is important to show children they are not alone by having their experiences reflected in the literature they read.

In addition to showing children they are not alone in their struggles by seeing characters tackling the same experiences, these books can teach children empathy and educate them in a safe, calming way about a challenge they may be having, such as how dyslexia sets them apart from their peers.

While we wait for more books taking on these tough topics for children, here is a list of published works that could provide parents and teachers with a way to help children cope with common struggles including depression, death, immigration, politics, learning disabilities, dementia, and more.

A Brief Guide to Children’s Book Design

We all likely remember a children’s picture book (or several) that we adored as children. Personally, I had an affinity for Go, Dog. Go!, a Dr. Seuss-esque beginning reader written and illustrated by P.D. Eastman. As one of the earliest introductions a child gets to literature, a picture book’s design and content are important to consider at every stage of production.

According to the article “A Brief History of Children’s Publishing and the Art of Visual Storytelling,” pictorial storytelling has been a foundation in many cultures since the dawn of time, dating back to early cave paintings. However, the original “picture book” only dates back 130 years ago, from artist Randolph Caldecott.

Since then, picture books have evolved to serve different agendas, from educational, such as teaching the alphabet, to more “edgy” topics in recent years, such as tackling what it’s like to be a child of divorce. With every change, however, according to editor and illustrator John Shelley, one thing remains consistent: the design of a children’s book must keep a child interested and entice them to turn the page.

Shelley explains that there are four types of illustrations in children’s books. The first type is a “boxed” illustration, meaning the image is completely contained within straight, abrupt edges. This can be achieved by placing a border around the image or by cropping the image to give the edges a sharp, clean line.

The second type of illustration is called a “vignette,” or an illustration that has fading edges. The borders are more loose, giving the image a sprawling, this-was-drawn-right-on-this-exact-page feel.

The third type is called a “spot” illustration. These are the small, free-floating images sprinkled throughout the pages.

Finally, “bleed” illustrations are images that are situated up to the edge of the page. Some bleed images span the entire two-page spread, and an elaborate bleed image can be effective for a highly-detailed climactic point in the book. These illustrations require an attentive designer who knows not to allow important parts of the illustration to fall in the gutter, the place where the pages are bound at the spine. If there is any action or a central character in the center of these full-spread illustrations, they will get swallowed by the gutter.

Shelley argues that with these four different types of illustrations, designers can play around with pacing and the mood invoked by a picture book. For example, let’s say an illustrator used four spot images to show a character—let’s name him Fred—running to catch the bus. The first image shows Fred grabbing his coat, the next shows him closing the front door, the third shows him running down his driveway, and the final shows Fred stepping on the bus. By strategically placing these images, you can create a sense of urgency that you would not get from a vignette or bleed image showing him stepping on the bus with text saying “Fred raced to the bus.”

Shelley also explains that the way the images are placed in relation to the text is imperative. A picture book’s goal should be to get the young reader to want to flip the page, eager to learn what happens next. So, for example, if the image of Fred rushing to the bus is placed on the left-hand page with the text “Fred raced to the bus, knowing if he missed it, he wouldn’t make it in time to present his project at the science fair,” the reader will find out whether he made it or not by simply looking to the right-hand page. But if you place that image and text on the right-hand page, the reader must turn to the next page to discover if Fred caught the bus in time. Shelley argues that a picture book’s illustrations and text should lead the reader down the page and to the right. The bottom right corner should be the ultimate goal of a page’s design.

Other aspects Shelley mentions to consider for designing a children’s book include identifying patterns to maintain throughout the book and the use of large and small images to create drama or draw focus to specific details. The most important items to remember, however, are the following: First, consider both the images and the text, not just one or the other. Second, remember your audience: both children and the adults who purchase the books and read to them. Third, keep in mind that the ultimate goal of a picture book’s design is to keep the reader moving forward. And finally, don’t be afraid to experiment and break the rules.

Battle for Books: Texts and Tariff Exemptions

The written word only matters insofar as it is made available and accessible—and in this case, insofar as it can be taxed. With the Trump administration dealing with the aftermath of a trade war with China, many consumers and publication producers are licking their wounds. In an unprecedented tariff implementation, almost every form of publication is being exposed to a 10 percent tax increase that started September 1, 2019. A second wave of taxes will come in December 2019.

There have been moves to grant pardons to specific products, with only one significant publications exemption: religious texts. After religious groups made (and won) their case to have the Bible, Quran, and other similar texts exempted, independent publishers and bookstores were hoping that such clemency would trickle down to other publications. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Most publications were rejected from exemption, including fiction, nonfiction, scientific texts, coloring books, maps, atlases, dictionaries, textbooks—basically anything bound in the form of a book.

There was, however, a short reprieve granted specifically to children’s books, which received partial clemency until mid-December so as to escape a price increase during this year’s holiday season. However, the new year will usher in a new economy. According to ProPublica, after December 15, “importers will pay 10 percent of the value of whatever they bring in from China.” Dan Reynolds, CEO of Workman Publishing, notes that China is exceptionally useful when “producing affordable children’s books with all kinds of bells and whistles, like pop-ups and textures.” It will get increasingly more challenging to market the tariffed book prices when buyers like school districts and libraries already have set budgets that do not account for these new tariffs.

The extra 10 percent tax is especially substantial for independent publishing houses and bookstores, who now need to revisit and revise their budgets, acquisition schedules, and hiring plans in order to compensate for the increase in importation costs. Furthermore, it is not just the physical books and book-like materials that are being levied, but also bookmaking equipment. Publishing Perspectives notes that “bookbinding machinery, including book-sewing machines” and equipment parts, are also being taxed.

China is an important player in American publishing, and these changes in taxation cannot be ignored. According to Derek Stordahl, executive vice president of Holiday House, “there are good color printers in the US and Canada, but they don’t have the capacity to service the entire industry and their prices are usually twice what you might pay.” Plus, with publishing houses scrambling to get out of China, neighboring Asian facilities have limited amounts of space to take on new customers, with the majority of that space going to publishers within the “Big Five.”

With September 1 having passed and December 15 rapidly approaching, consumers and producers alike are feeling the ramifications of the tariff increases. Budgets, proposals, and schedules are being overhauled in attempts to keep businesses afloat in the face of the influx of taxes imposed by the Trump administration. Both nationally and locally, the unprecedented fiscal pressures are shifting not only the market, but also the institutions. The very foundation of publishing houses and bookstores is under attack.