You'd expect to see children's books flying off the shelf.
Reading is being emphasized in this country as never before. The
Bush administration is rolling out its $5 billion Reading First
initiative. The president and the first lady are both making young
readers a personal cause and a top national priority.
But the flurry of excitement over "Harry Potter" seems to have
been the exception. There's an abundance of good books out there,
experts say, but children just don't seem to be connecting with them
Parents who don't read themselves, teachers who are too busy to
learn about the wealth of literature that's available, and school
budgets that don't permit informed teachers the luxury of purchasing
such books anyway - these are among the explanations for the gap
between kids and literature.
After all, say many of the experts, with the enormously expanded
entertainment possibilities available to today's children, unless
the adults around them really work to get the right books into their
hands, the reading habit has little hope of grabbing hold.
A new report from the Matawan, N.J.-based Book Industry Study
Group, sales of children's books are down by 7 percent - from
$1,954.2 million in 2000 to $1,816.2 million in 2001. While the
report depicts stagnation throughout much of the industry, the drop-
off in young readership seems particularly alarming.
The irony, say some observers, is that the downturn comes when
there is a richer field of reading material for children than ever
The industry churns out about 5,000 new children's titles a year,
at least a few hundred of which are widely acclaimed as excellent.
While many of these titles are fiction, there are also a large
number of quality nonfiction works - biographies, books on outer
space or historical subjects - that would seem ideal both for
classroom use and independent reading.
Some blame the grown-ups. "It only reflects what's happening in
the adult population," says Michael Cader, creator of
publisherslunch.com. "We're reading less, we're less compelled by
But there's also a failure to channel relevant information to the
people - parents and teachers - who need it most, says Leonard
Marcus, a children's book author and critic based in New York.
"There's a disconnect between all the talk about literacy and the
lack of resources for people to find out about the books that
already exist," he says.
Any children's bookstores nearby?
He points to the disappearance of children's bookstores. At their
peak, in the 1980s, there were about 800 in the United States, many
of them staffed by people who had worked in libraries. Today - due
to the rise of large chain bookstores - there are only about 200.
Becky Anderson, owner of Anderson's Book Shops in Chicago, does
about half her business in children's books. But Ms. Anderson is not
encouraged by the consumer response she sees.
"It's incredible what's available today," she says. "We're being
offered translations of so much literature from other countries. Old
favorites are coming back into print." And yet, she finds, most
teachers and parents are too busy to investigate the possibilities
for their children. "People aren't looking hard enough. Kids need to
read more, to be exposed to better literature." As a nation, she
feels, "we're missing the boat on this."
And of course, it's not just children's bookstores that are
disappearing. Budget cuts are also thinning the ranks of school
librarians, the professionals perhaps best placed to funnel the
right books to the right children.
"Librarians are already on the lookout for new books," says
Theresa Borzumato, executive director of school and library
marketing for Random House Children's Books in New York. With the
many demands teachers have on their time, "we have to be very
selective and find creative ways to let them know about our new