Girl reading under covers

Children's books – a success story for the whole family

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At home for much of the pandemic, children and their parents have been immersing themselves in the wonderful world of books. And, say industry insiders, it all points to a rosy future for the European children's book market.

While good news has been thin on the ground for the past few years, there has been much to shout about in the world of books – children's books especially. 

In fact, we may never have had it so good than during last couple of years. 

"We've seen big increases," says Penny Thomas at UK children's book publishing company Firefly. "For a long time, children weren't able to go to school, and they couldn't go out and see their friends. So they would read. I think we've seen a real rise in people thinking that books for kids are really important, and good for their mental health at a time when they could at least read about things when they couldn't go out and do it themselves." 

It's a sentiment echoed by Friederike Fuxen, the Rights Director at German children's book publisher Loewe Verlag. She says that the market has grown "massively" since Covid first hit. "I've been in publishing for 10 years and have never seen a period like the last 18 months," she says. 

Part of this reversal of fortunes, she feels, is a renewed interest in the value of "story time" as a family pursuit. "Parents are reading aloud and having quality time with their kids," she says. "I think also that parents see books as a valuable way to keep their children busy." 

In Finland, Saara Tiuraniemi from the well-known children's book publishing company Tammi, has seen bedtime stories suddenly bounce back in popularity, too. "It was a tradition that was dying out in Finland, and had fallen from 75 per cent of families who did it to just 30 per cent. But now people are wanting to spend time together with books and read them as a family again." 

Children have high standards

The world of children's books has never looked so vibrant – and not just from a sales point of view. With a seemingly endless array of colors, papers and finishes, many of today's children's books are as much 'work of art' as they are reading material.

"Children love really beautiful books," says Penny Thomas from Firefly. "In the 8-12 age group, for example, we rarely used to have illustrations, but children are now really enjoying beautiful black and white illustrations with extra features like sprayed edges and embossing. Children have very high standards."

Tiuraniemi points to the success of the new MinaLima graphic design studio editions of the Harry Potter books as another example (Tammi were the company to translate J.K. Rowling's classics into Finnish). "They're real treasures," she says. "Very beautiful and collectable."

It's a trend that has also manifested itself in magnificent picture books – 'wordless books' as they are often referred to – where the reader is encouraged to use his/her imagination to flesh out the story. Fuxen's publishing house has a slight variation on this theme – a range of books which are 90 per cent picture and 10 per cent words, the text only there to communicate what the illustration can't. "It's not a comic or a graphic novel – although those are very popular," she says. "It's a way to reduce the text to get kids interested in reading."

Dragons, spooky stories and fact books

One trend that Tiuraniemi has seen a spike in is books with a hint of nostalgia; parents and grandparents are wanting to read books to their children that resonate with them personally. As well as modern classics such as the Harry Potter series and golden oldies like The Famous Five, collections of stories that were popular in the 50s and 60s are currently big in Finland. "It's grandparents wanting to share stories with their grandchildren that were read to them when they were little," Tiuraniemi explains.

Among the other popular subjects mentioned by the three book industry insiders were magic, dragons, Nordic Noir, spooky stories, activity books and comedy. Fuxen, whose company is also a name to be reckoned with in children's non-fiction, tells of her surprise that a book of theirs about bacteria and microorganisms has been a best-seller since the start of 2021. "You'd never have predicted that three years ago," she says, "but children are interested in everything, from small subjects to big ones, and they like to go through all the facts with their parents."

Today's children are perhaps more tuned in to the world than ever – something evidenced by a rise in books that feature a diverse group of characters of differing abilities, says Penny Thomas, as well as a focus on sustainability and the environment.

"Everything from dystopian fiction where the world is flooded to animal stories," she says. "We had an event at the Hay Festival the other week and there were 462 children there and another 63 schools online. They all sat there for 40 minutes and listened to a talk about a book called The Song That Sings Us, which has a really strong environmental theme, and they loved it."

All in all, it adds up to something incredibly important that we can perhaps thank Covid for. Is it a blip, though? Is the rise of audiobooks and ebooks (plus non-literary media like Netflix and TikTok) soon to spell the demise of printed books?

Our three industry experts think not. In many instances, they say, children (or, more likely their parents) are actually buying the same books over and over again in multiple formats.

"I think books are here to stay," says Tiuraniemi. "When you watch a TV series or a movie, you can enter a different world for a while, and that's great – but when you read a book, that world is inside you."