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Boston leads in young adult, children’s books

Emily Theis for the Boston Globe

The room was packed to capacity, a mix of the gray-haired and the nose-pierced, buzzing with shop talk and schmoozing and divided into teams with subject-appropriate names like Harold’s Purple Crayons, The Stupids, and The Mild Things.

For those connected to the field of children’s and young adult literature, personally or professionally, a recent gathering at a Back Bay pub was a tribal celebration — and an eye-opener for anyone who thinks all the life had been kicked out of Boston’s publishing world years ago.

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Scores from all corners of the local kids’ lit-YA book world — editorial staffers, booksellers, authors, agents, book reviewers, teachers, librarians — gathered for a competition organized by Children’s Books Boston (CBB), an alliance of publishers and educators that came together last year. Hosted by Jack Gantos, an award-winning children’s author, the sold-out event, billed as the 1st Wicked Boston Trivia Challenge, was part “College Bowl,” part beer-and-blarney laughfest.

If the evening’s mood was light-hearted, the underlying purpose was serious: to showcase Boston as a national center of literature for the young, home to an impressive community of professionals and students involved in the writing, publishing, marketing, and study of books for teens, children, and their parents. Networking was very much on the organizers’ minds, too.

Gantos, best known for his Rotten Ralph and Joey Pigza series, kept the wisecracks flowing as he administered a 45-question test to a dozen or so teams. (Sample question: Which book did George W. Bush claim, in 1999, to be one of his favorites growing up, even though the book was published when he was 25? Answer: “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle.)

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Gantos later expressed surprise at the crowd’s size and energy, despite having lived and worked in the Boston area for decades while publishing more than 20 books.

Since the 1970s, Gantos said, there has been a “sense of decline” around the local publishing scene, and in particular since Little, Brown moved most of its operations to New York in 2002.

“That’s why the event was so amazing to me,” he reflected. “You could sense an infusion of new talent, a vibrant group of creators and teachers” showing off both their book knowledge and playfully competitive sides.

For all involved in books for the young there is much to celebrate.

Rebounding from a post-“Harry Potter,” post-”Hunger Games” slump, that publishing niche is on the upswing, according to the Association of American Publishers. Its figures show a 43 percent growth in all formats (hardcover, soft cover, e-books) of the children’s-YA category this year compared with a similar period in 2013. Overall, sales in trade books for younger readers topped $1.56 billion last year.

If not quite Manhattan’s equal, Boston has been and remains a major player in this field, with a “rich, vibrant children’s book publishing scene,” according to Nicole Deming of the Children’s Book Council. A nonprofit trade association representing more than 90 publishers, the council cosponsors several Boston-area events each year.

The trivia contest was CBB’s third public gathering. Last fall, it held a kickoff party attended by 250 participants. It followed with a panel discussion on children’s book awards, hosted by CBB cofounder Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book Inc., which recently moved into offices on the Simmons College campus from its previous headquarters in Charlestown.

Horn Book publishes two influential national journals, a quarterly magazine and semiannual reader’s guide, focused on books for children and young adults. Its website (www.hbook.com) is packed with news, reviews, opinion pieces, and a calendar of upcoming events in and around Greater Boston. In addition, the organization hands out annual awards that rank among the industry’s most prestigious. The 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children’s Literature, awarded in three categories (fiction or poetry, nonfiction, picture book), were announced on May 31.

The three CBB events to date, organizers say, reflect a collaborative spirit that makes Boston’s publishing scene, if not unique, an unusually robust mix of academic, creative, and commercial interests.

“If you tried to get everybody together in New York who’s interested in children’s books, you’d fill a giant stadium,” said Yolanda Scott, editorial director of Charlesbridge Publishing in Watertown, after the trivia contest had wrapped up.

From left, Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge Publishing, Betsy Groban of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, and Robert Sutton of Horn Book.

From left, Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge Publishing, Betsy Groban of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, and Robert Sutton of Horn Book.

Because Boston’s publishing community is relatively small, said Scott, a CBB cofounder, it has “a unique opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas, from teachers, librarians, booksellers, and others. To get more synergy going.”

Currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, Charlesbridge publishes 40 to 50 titles annually for readers age14 and under. Among its best-selling titles are “Grin and Bear It” and a pair of books based on popular songs, “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Over the Rainbow.”

Scott was joined in the post-quiz discussion by cofounders Betsy Groban, senior vice president and publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, whose offices are on Berkeley Street; Cathryn Mercier, director of Simmons College’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature; and Jennifer Roberts, director of publicity for Candlewick Press, a Somerville-based publisher whose best-selling titles include “I Want My Hat Back” and “Flora and Ulysses,” a 2014 Newbery Medalist.

Last year, Mercier recalled, she and Sutton were kicking around the idea of creating a children’s book community drawing upon the area’s best talent, one that would provide a forum for swapping ideas and socializing over shared interests.

“The students were here,” Mercier said, “but the heart throb was what was coming out of the publishing houses,” notably Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Candlewick, and Charlesbridge.

People working in publishing locally “have been hungry for a sense of community, and programming built around that community,” added Mercier, who has served on committees for the Newbery medals and Caldecott awards, two of the industry’s highest honors.

Since its founding in 1977, the Simmons center has graduated approximately 500 and offers a master’s of arts in children’s literature — the first degree of its kind in the country — as well as an MFA in writing for children. Graduates have gone into a variety of related professions, according to Mercier, including writing, teaching, and library work. The center also sponsors offsite programs at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst.

Other local colleges, including Emerson and Lesley, also offer MFA programs in writing for children. Now in its 10th year, a writer-in-residence program at the Boston Public Library, sponsored by the Associates of the BPL, provides financial and office support for an emerging author in the kids’ lit-YA field.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, meanwhile, is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary. The oldest and largest of local publishers, it issues 250 titles a year aimed at readers (and pre-readers) from infants to teenagers. The home of “Mary Poppins,’’ the Curious George books, “The Little Prince,’’ “The Polar Express,’’ and hundreds more childhood favorites, Houghton has kept most of its children’s book staff and offices in Boston as the industry has entered what Groban calls “a new golden age.”

“At each [CBB] event, we’ve turned people away,” said Groban. The 1940s brought a “huge flowering” in children’s books, she added, “and we think we’re in another one now, a great creative blossoming that’s fun to be a part of.”

Besides Gantos, other well-known authors and illustrators living in Greater Boston include Nancy Werlin Irene Smalls-Hector, and Karsten Knight (Boston); Lois Lowry, Kristin Cashore, M. T. Anderson, and Kathryn Lasky (Cambridge); Leslie Sills (Brookline); Liza Ketchum Morrow (Watertown); Elaine Dimopoulos (Arlington); Jeff Kinney (Plainville); Jacqueline Davies (Needham); Gregory Maguire (Concord); Francisco X. Stork (Newton); Leo Landry (Easton); Brian Lies (Duxbury); and Susan Cooper (Marshfield).

Another Children’s Book Council member, Tumblehome Learning, a leading publisher of scientific books for children, maintains offices in Weston.

In an interview at his office, Sutton, a former librarian and journal editor who joined Horn Book in 1996, called Boston “a very strong second city to New York.”

Sutton manages a staff of nine and personally reads roughly 600 titles a year. His guide reviews virtually all hardcover trade titles in the young adult and children’s categories, around 4,500 annually, and maintains a database of more than 100,000 reviews. In moving to the Simmons campus, Horn Book donated thousands of its books to the college library program, creating an important resource for academics in the field.

Old-school in style and bearing, Sutton nevertheless keeps a close eye on issues affecting books for young readers, including the rise of e-books and self-publishing, young adult titles attracting older readers, and once-taboo topics like homosexuality and teen pregnancy going mainstream in kids’ lit.

“There’s much more that’s taken for granted now,” Sutton said, “a recognition that 10-year-olds aren’t stupid. They know about this stuff.”

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.
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