Reaching Today’s Kids
Several recently published studies have found that kids are becoming “teens” at a younger age than ever before. Children’s book publishers must face the challenge of reaching a changing audience demographic of more independent and mature readers. Lisa Holton, executive vice president of Scholastic and president of the company’s book fairs and trade books, talks with Book Business about the task.
● How are children’s book publishers responding to the trend of children becoming “teenagers” at a much earlier age?
Lisa Holton: It’s very interesting to see what kids are actually reading, in terms of understanding whether that trend is true. At Scholastic, we have a wonderful way of looking at what kids are reading, not only through the books they buy through all of the independent bookstores and various other bookstores, but also through our own book clubs and book fairs. While it’s certainly true kids are using advanced technological stuff, like cell phones and computers and games, there’s still a very wide range of reading interest. So that we find, depending on who they are and what their sophistication level and … reading level is, some are, at a much earlier age, ready for our specific teenage line.
● How do you ensure that the content is not too mature, yet appeals to them?
Holton: Kids, just like 10 and 20 years ago, just respond to great writing. They really do. Dav Pilkey writes “[The Adventures of] Captain Underpants,” which on the surface seem really silly, but in fact they are genius in understanding the audience. … That’s what the kids respond to. It’s not that someone set out to try and capture where they are. It’s just that he’s writing straight from his heart.
We’re publishing a new series—“Main Street” from Ann Martin, the author of “The Baby-Sitters Club.” It’s as if she’s channeling eight- or nine-year-old girls. And she’s not setting out to write to them. It’s her voice and where she comes from. …
● What kind of push has been made to meet the demand for content in electronic form in the past year?
Holton: It’s something we believe is only going to become more integrated into our own business. It’s something that goes very much hand in glove when we think about our publishing program. This year, for example, when we published the new “Captain Underpants,” we already had a fantastic Web site that many kids visited. One of the many things we did was send a ‘Purple Potty’ on tour across the United States. You could actually go online and track the Purple Potty.
We also have a very cool book club, called Flashlight Readers, and it’s kind of an interactive game. It’s about reading the book and translating the experience online. We’re working on several different projects like that.
● Is this done in conjunction with the writers?
Holton: We work very closely with the writers. It’s their characters, it’s their world. Clearly, the marketing department is a big part of it, and they collaborate. But ultimately the more the writer’s voice and world and characters … come through in every single medium, the stronger it’s going to be.
● What is the biggest challenge, beyond competing with other forms of media, that children’s book publishers are going to face as an industry in 2007?
Holton: I would say two things. First, the economy. Honestly, I think we’re facing what everyone else is facing. Not only in terms of rising prices in our own industry, but simply where people are in the U.S. economy and how much disposable income they have.
Secondly, the challenge that we in the children’s book industry have is to reinforce the importance of pleasure reading and the importance of independent reading. There’s been an enormous focus on decoding and testing as part of school. Our mission
and challenge is to help everyone understand when children read for pleasure and when they find the right book, and they choose to read that book outside of school, that can contribute to their success in school. It sounds obvious, but it is not always so obvious. It’s a challenge we have to always be in front of.
● And here’s the obligatory “Harry Potter” question: With the end of new installments to the “Harry Potter” franchise coming this year, how is Scholastic preparing for post-“Potter” life?
Holton: One of my favorite poems is T.S. Elliott’s “Four Quartets,” and there’s a really wonderful line that says, “In my end is my beginning.” “Harry Potter” is not ending. This particular ride will end. The readers will then come together and form this intense community and discuss every last strand (of the book). The beauty of our business is next year, millions of new readers are coming on board that haven’t been to “Hogwarts” yet. So, Scholastic’s challenge is to make sure we reach those 8 year olds and assume they’re going to start the “Harry Potter” journey by themselves. BB