Publishers and advocates of books with a “point of view” gathered at the Jefferson Market Library in Manhattan on October 25 for a panel discussion. The speakers were Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson, publishers and founders, Just Us Books; Jennifer Levesque, v-p and editorial director, Rodale Kids; and Margery Cuyler of PJ Library. Susan Knopf, president of Scout Books and Media, moderated the conversation, which touched on finding and filling needs within the market, building cohesive points of view, and utilizing innovative outreach strategies to reach the right readerships.
Knopf opened the discussion by commenting on the value of more specialized approaches to publishing within a vast children’s book field, praising the “personal, focused stories” that are being told in the books represented by the publishers there. She invited the speakers to share their own stories of how they came to work in their fields.
Married panelists and publishing partners Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson own and operate Just Us Books, which Knopf referred to as a publisher of “positive, vibrant, black interest books.” Cheryl Willis Hudson developed an interest in children’s illustration early on: “I got started as a doodler in second and third grade,” she joked. She worked in educational publishing at Houghton Mifflin and at Macmillan, before working on the Mercer Mayer brand. Throughout their life and careers, the Hudsons had been cognizant of the dearth of children’s books for and about black kids. Wade Hudson recalled that, growing up in segregated southern Louisiana, there was no public library accessible to black children, and the only books he could find about black people were a handful of biographies. “I knew there was so much more to the black experience that I was not exposed to,” he said. The Hudsons worked together on their own books, but they were frequently told by publishers that “there was no market for these kinds of books.” Rather than be discouraged, they started their own company in 1988. The name, Just Us Books, isn’t actually in reference to the company’s publishing focus, he said; they came up with it because it was, literally, “just the two of us. Just Cheryl and Wade Hudson.”
Cuyler’s path to becoming a children’s book author and niche publisher was pre-ordained by her upbringing: “I was raised by children, because I was one of nine kids,” she said. “It was a great entrée into children’s books.” Cuyler has written a total of 50 children’s books; her latest, Bonaparte Falls Apart (Crown), is a Halloween-themed story about a skeleton whose bones, well, are falling apart. Her first book was a very different kind of story. In the late 1970s, Cuyler explained, she was engaged to a rabbi and was invited to his family’s home for Passover. Realizing she knew next to nothing about Jewish holidays, she began researching them in earnest. “I never married this man, but I wrote a book called Jewish Holidays (1978).” She went onto work at several children’s publishing houses, including Holiday House and Henry Holt, but her interest in Jewish culture and heritage never left her. She now works with PJ Library (PJ refers to pajamas), a subscription program that partners with publishing houses to supply free children’s books that feature Jewish characters and content to families worldwide. The organization was created by philanthropist Harold Grinspoon in 2005. Cuyler describes herself as a “book doctor” for PJ Library—helping to rebrand and build upon the books they acquire. One of the organization’s primary missions, she said, is to help “build Jewish identity,” in its many variations, “from the ground up.”
New to the children’s book market is Rodale Kids (an imprint of Rodale), which launched just this fall with an emphasis on health and wellness. Levesque joined Rodale in 2013 as v-p and editorial director. Her career has primarily focused on editing a range of titles for adults, with a focus on lifestyle, diet and fitness, self-help and others. Working on a line of children’s wellness-related titles has been a new experience, and the process has led to the challenge of “honing the list to fit into the mission” of Rodale as a whole. While the Rodale Kids list focuses on physical and mental well-being, there is plenty of room for interpretation and exploration within that category. Titles so far include the Mrs. Peanuckle’s Alphabet Library board book series and an exercise and health guide for teens by Tracy Anderson called Total Teen. As Levesque and her team (including associate publisher and director of marketing and publicity, Jason M. Wells) continue to define Rodale Kids, “we’re open to everything, really,” Levesque said.
Finding the Right Authors and Readers
The speakers discussed the approaches they take to finding authors and illustrators as well as the strategies they have utilized for reaching their audiences. The Hudsons started out with no real existing publishing models upon which to base their marketing outreach, nor were many black authors and illustrators being published at all. “We saw resistance and found support,” said Wade Hudson. They focused on “looking in the marketplace for where there was a need, and also what we didn’t have as kids,” he added. They spent a lot of time networking within local black communities, at daycare centers, at festivals, and black churches. They still work with literacy programs and the Children’s Defense Fund to locate reading communities, he said. Since the publication of their first book, Afro-Bets, which they wrote and illustrated, their list has grown substantially. Now, their offerings include chapter book series, picture books, nonfiction titles, biographies, concept, poetry, and more. With series like Kid Caramel, about a boy private investigator, “we are broadening the spectrum” of the types of books being published for and about black kids, Cheryl Hudson said.
Through PJ Library, Cuyler has learned the value of finding “new models for marketing,” and being open to unconventional approaches. Though PJ Library’s web presence is vital, it also reaches out to synagogues and Jewish community centers to find families desiring books. In fact, with two brothers who are currently living in senior communities, she has started setting up tables of books for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren visiting loved ones. Cuyler also counts libraries as being one of their most fundamental resources: “Besides children, librarians are the best people,” she said. Cuyler added that it can be difficult to find authors to write for a specific audience, saying that her biggest challenge “is to find good manuscripts.” In response to this challenge, PJ Library has launched a program through the Harold Grinspoon Foundation that awards $2,000 to authors if their books are selected by PJ Library.
Meanwhile, Rodale Kids continues to define and fine-tune its point of view. Upcoming projects include the launch of a new series created in partnership with Story Pirates, novels based on stories created by kids. Levesque is eager to explore inventive and pinpointed marketing, whether it means selling in department stores like Nordstrom or independent bookstores.
Diversity, Inclusion, and Going Forward
The panelists finished their discussion by reflecting on the progress the industry has made in regards to publishing more diverse voices—and how much further it has to go—as well as what they see as publishing trends.
Saying that “Just Us Books is a business, but also a mission,” Wade Hudson is proud of that fact that the organization has provided so many black authors with the chance to get their work into the world. In terms of the slow growth of diversity within the publishing world, he said: “A lot needs to be done in terms of diversity and inclusion.” Cheryl Hudson continues to see a problem with the way that children’s books featuring black characters are perceived and presented. She encourages white parents to themselves read books featuring black characters on the cover to set examples for their children, and advocates for the message that “African-American books aren’t just for African-American readers.” Wade Hudson also commented that doing better going forward requires “all hands on deck. We all must stand up.”
Cuyler said she sees that publishers are becoming more aware of the need for inclusion and representation in children’s books, but still questions how much progress has truly been made. Currently, she notes a strong demand for books “on kindness, meditation, and mindfulness,” which she traces back to the pervasive divisiveness in the country today. Books have the power to help kids “navigate a world that seems nasty right now,” she said. And on a deeper level, she believes that they help to form identities and worldviews that kids carry into adulthood: “I call it architecture of the soul…. Books do that,” she said.