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What makes good a good kids' book? Publishers say the great ones share common traits

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Some children's books are so irresistible, they elicit cries of: read it again! And again. These stories are usually simple. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to write.

Jane O’Conner’s multi-million dollar children’s book empire was born almost by accident.

She was cooking dinner for her sons in 2005 and while the pots bubbled on the stove, an idea bubbled up, too.

“All of a sudden,” she said, “the name Fancy Nancy flew in my head.”

O'Conner fed her family. And then she went to work on what would become a best-selling storybook collection that has sold 22 million copies. Fancy Nancy is a, “sort of hothouse orchid in a family of very plain daisies,” O’Conner said. The books, which now number 60, have enticed a generation of little girls to want to read.

RELATED: #KidReads: Which children's book do you or your child hold most dear?

Everyone has a favorite children’s book. The stories are a linchpin of almost every culture. Some books are so irresistible, they elicit cries of: read it again! And again.

These stories, which set the stage for a lifetime of reading, are often very simple. But publishers said that doesn’t mean they’re easy to write. 

“A good picture book tells a compelling story in 32 pages,” said Margaret Anastas, an editor at Harper Collins Kids, “which is very difficult to do because you have to establish a character, you have to make your reader fall in love with the character, and sort of embrace the story.”

That, she said, is tricky.

O’Conner, for instance, uses language and imagery in a compelling way. The main character, Nancy, is, according to O’Conner “words fancy.” She uses complex words that a 2- to 6-year-old might not have heard or used before (like iridescent or delectable) and a charming main character explains what these “fancy” words mean.

The high-brow language is woven into fun and adventuresome stories based on ordinary everyday events.

Literacy should be “fun,” said O’Conner, who describes her playful use of language in the books as “sort of like sprinkles on your ice cream cone.”

As O’Conner’s character plays with language, she is simultaneously building a love for language in her young readers, said Anastas, her publisher. She knew she had a hit on her hands the moment she read the first manuscript.

Anastas said the three elements to a popular children’s book are: rhythm, rhyming and pacing.

Fancy Nancy fits the bill, she said. It also hit because the illustrations are rich and tell a good portion of the story – another key to a good children’s book.

In the first Fancy Nancy book, there’s a scene where Nancy and her family walk into a pizza parlor and Nancy declares, “oh everybody thinks we look like movie stars.”

Yet Robin Preiss Glasser’s illustrations tell another story.

“Clearly from the reaction on the faces of people at this restaurant they think they look silly,” O’Conner said.

Like many best-selling kids’ books, Fancy Nancy has grown into an industry. There are over 60 titles as well as Fancy Nancy dolls, backpacks, games, clothes, bedding, sneakers, calendars, and the list goes on. There are multiple iPad apps and even an off-Broadway show.

But with 5,000 children’s books published last year, not all of them can be blockbusters – and not all parents go for the big sellers. Some want more diversity of characters and stories, or even multi-lingual books.

Those books often come from small publishing houses, which measure success on a much smaller scale. Because they don’t need the big numbers, they can be creative.

Take the series Cinco Puntos Press published by author Cynthia Weill. They are simple books of ABC’s, Opposites and counting –but they feature beautiful Mexican Folk art and characters. Each book sold out of its first print run of between 3,000 and 5,000 copies, which the publisher’s Managing Director John Byrd describes as a success.

Yet publishing these bilingual baby and toddler books was expensive. Weill drew on her relationships with indigenous Oaxacan artists, who created art sculptures that formed the illustrations for the book.

Weill had originally sent the books to Scholastic, which turned her down. At a book fair years later, Byrd said a Scholastic editor flipped through Weill’s books and complimented him: “You know, we couldn’t have done these the way you have done them.”

Byrd said his company, which prioritizes cross-border and bilingual Spanish-English books, manages to make a small profit and is growing. It mainly sells online, in independent bookstores and at book festivals. And its authors do a lot of promotion themselves. One author, Joe Hayes, who writes cross-border stories in Spanglish, has sold over one million copies.

“We like our books to serve as both a window into a culture for kids that are outside of that culture but also as a mirror for kids that are already within that culture,” said Jessica Powers, a writer who works in publicity for Cinco Puntos. She adds that there are “not enough books being published for Latino kids.”

The statistics back her up.

In an annual study, the University of Wisconsin found that only 3.3% of children’s books published last year were about African Americans and 1.5% about Latinos. Even fewer were about Asian-Americans or Native Americans.

“As a whole, the books being published just don’t reflect who we are as a nation in terms of diversity,” said Megan Schliesman, a children’s librarian in the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education. The university’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center complies the annual statistics on the number of kids' books by and about people of color.

Schliesman said individual editors at large publishing houses are trying to combat the problem. But, she adds, “they aren’t necessarily the ones making final decisions. Their marketing and business departments are going: ‘is it going to sell?’ ”

Anastas, of Harper Collins Kids, said Shliesman’s right about big publisher’s motivations.

“We have to go into an acquisition meeting and justify that there is an audience for the book,” she said.

That doesn’t mean the books are bad, she said. It means they have to have the potential to be popular.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “our goal is to create a great product that we feel fits a need in our marketplace.”

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