Kids Want Serials When it Comes to Books

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Ben Lopez, who works at Christopher’s Books on 18th Street, has noticed that when it comes to book buying customers, “Kids seem to know what they like. Adults ask for help more.” 

These days, it’s serials that dominate at the cash register. “Like Harry Potter, they want something that is expansive and something they can read many volumes of,” Lopez said. “It is compulsive and they want more of it.”

Perennials on The New York Times bestseller list for “Children’s Series” include Captain Underpants, which is on its 12th volume, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, on its 11th.. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians series has five books, and has spawned two other series in which Jackson is a character.  A recent addition to the list is Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which has two sequels.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is still popular,” said Lopez.  “Each time there is a new addition it sells out.” For Captain Underpants fans who want more, Lopez pointed out that its creator, Dave Pilkey, has a new series, Dog Man, about a police officer who gets fused with his dog after both are victims of a bombing.

Lopez also singled out the Thrown of Glass series, by Sarah J. Maas, and the Legend sequence, by Marie Lu, as popular, particularly with those who were drawn to the Hunger Games, which he says isn’t as demanded these days.

The popularity of serials is as old as storytelling itself. Riordan began writing his books after running out of Greek myths to read to his son, who had become a fan of the classics. While sequels make for easier marketing, it isn’t as if the juvenile book market is hurting for new ideas. The children’s market has been the book industry’s fastest growing segment, with sales increasing 53 percent from 2004 to 2014, according to the Nielsen marketing research firm. In 2002, there were 4,700 young adult titles; 10,000 in 2012.

Growth has cooled in the last couple years, mostly due to oversupply, said Shannon Mathis, the children’s buyer for Books, Inc., whose warehouse on Vermont Street serves 11 Bay Area stores. “Things that work really well sell a ton of copies, but only a few rise to the top,” she said. The ones that attract youth the most offer elements they can relate to. “Books that are funny, truthful and honest, and reflect what is going on in their daily life,” she explained.

Media tie-ins have been one of the market’s major drivers. In 2013, only five juvenile books made the U.S. top 20 in sales. In 2014, 16 did, and from Frozen to Minecraft to Divergent, all were connected to movies, games or television. Those, in turn, spur trends. “When Harry Potter was in its heyday we were seeing lots and lots of fantasy books,” said Mathis. “When Twilight was popular, paranormal romance was popular.”

According to Nielsen, robots are now the fastest growing sub-category in juvenile fiction. There’s The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown, which follows a robot that wakes up to find itself on a deserted island; and Fuzzy, by Tom Angleberger, about a school where the principal is a supercomputer and the new kid a robot.

The next fastest category is time-travel.  In the sequel to the bestselling picture book, Dragons Love Tacos, tacos are becoming extinct, creating a need to go back in time to replenish the stock.

When it comes to books for young readers, it’s not all salsa-fed fire-breathing dragons, however. Non-fiction is also popular, as reflected in picture books for young children and teen reading. “When Common Core standards came about, non-fiction titles increased and have gotten more interesting,” said Mathis.

Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted is among the country’s bestselling picture books. According to Mathis, among younger teenagers I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark; The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr; and Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed The World have all been good sellers. The Who Was/Is biography series for children “has been doing very well in all of our stores,” she added.Also, there have been quite a few successful adaptations of adult nonfiction bestsellers into young readers editions. Hidden Figures, by Margot Shetterly, and Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, are good examples.”

Graphic novels are a booming market segment.  According to Mathis, kids who don’t normally read can still be drawn in by them. In the Bay Area, San Francisco native Reina Telgemeier may be the most popular author/illustrator in the genre. In 2010, Telgemeier released the best seller Smile, about a sixth-grade girl who has her front teeth knocked out in a fall and deals with the relentless teasing that ensues, something that happened to Telgemeier as a teen. She followed up with Drama, about a middle schooler who helps put on the school play, and Sisters, another autobiographical tale about growing up with her younger sister. Last year she released Ghosts, about a girl who moves to a new town and sees spirits.

Lopez singled out another graphic novel, Amulet, by Kazu Kibuishi, as rising above the more formulaic releases. Popular with boys and girls, it follows two siblings who have to journey through a mystical underworld to save their mother, who was kidnapped by an eight-legged creature known as an arachnopod. “It’s an imaginative piece of work and beautifully illustrated,” he said.

Carla Kozak, the San Francisco Public Library’s Children’s and Teen Collection and Development Specialist, helps compile the library’s summer reading list with input from San Francisco Unified School District librarians, a job she called exhaustive but rewarding. The list includes more than 20 new titles for various grade levels.  Kozak said the library tries to find a cross section of fiction, non-fiction, educational, graphic novels and books that span a variety of cultures. “There is such a wealth of wonderful books out there. We could easily have 100 for each level. There is so much talent out there, authors and illustrators, and the books are so spectacular,” she said.

The summer reading list includes A Goofy Guide to Penguins, by Jean-Luc Coudray, for kindergarten through second grade, and The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon, for high schoolers. In between those age groups can be found Radiant Child, which tells the story of neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Bronze and Sunflower, about two lonely children who bond during the Chinese Cultural Revolution

SFPL doesn’t keep records as to what books people are checking out. However, Kozak has her own sense of what’s been popular. She cites Elephant and Piggy, by Mo Williams, as a good starting point for young children.  “I call him the gateway drug to literacy,” she said.  She also recommended All’s Faire in Middle School, a graphic novel being released this fall that she’s reading an advance copy of. Written and illustrated by Victoria Jamieson, who authored the bestselling Roller Girl two years ago, it follows an 11-year old girl who grows up surrounded by her parents’ passion for the Renaissance Faire.