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Children's Books Take a Turn Back to Normalcy

August 13, 1987|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

A story making the rounds at this week's Writer's Conference in Children's Literature here went like this: Aspiring author to big-name publisher: "Do you buy books about talking animals?" Big-name publisher: "It depends on what they say."

But, short of an extraordinary four-footed protagonist, the message from the people who buy manuscripts is clearly that they wish all those animals would just shut up.

Frank Sloan, senior editor at Franklin Watts, rolled his eyes and said, "Whales. Talking whales. I got three of those in one week."

After a decade or so of obsession with matters of social significance--and with talking animals and other gimmickry at saturation point--editors are talking about literature for its own sake. "We're getting away from that old problem novel where mother's a drug addict and father's an alcoholic," said Judith Whipple, vice president/publisher of Macmillan Children's Books. "We were hitting people over the head with them. I think we're getting back to normalcy."

Understand, people who publish for the preschool to preteen book-reading audience don't like to talk trends--"It's almost a contradiction," said Linda Zuckerman, executive editor, West Coast, for Harper Junior Books Group--"the ABCs are forever."

"We try to publish, quote, the eternal truth, enduring values," seconded Whipple.

Still, this is 1987 and Nancy Drew, now the 57-year-old teen-age creation of a writing syndicate, wears jeans instead of "frocks" and has traded in her roadster for a Mustang. The Hardy Boys? You'll find them investigating the "Mystery of the Space Shuttle."

"They're trying to compete with 'Miami Vice,' " said Stephen Mooser, president of the conference-sponsoring Society of Children's Book Writers, who deplored what he sees as a violent trend in Hardy adventures.

People had not come to talk about how kids don't read anymore and point a finger at television. Indeed, said Lin Oliver, executive director and co-founder with Mooser of this writers' society, TV programs such as PBS' "The Reading Rainbow " have boosted book sales.

"The challenge for us as writers," she said, "is to find ways to pull children into literature," visually or through the written word.

Sid Fleischman of Santa Monica, author of "The Whipping Boy" and father of Paul Fleischman, also a respected children's writer, said, "Probably 10% of the population reads a book. The other 90% never did and never will. It's the same with kids."

Giving Credit to Yuppie Parents

But publishers are enjoying a boom in children's book sales despite publishing house mergers, increasing pressures to turn profits and library budget cutbacks--and they give partial credit to the oft-maligned yuppie.

"Yuppies are having kids later and they're more interested in better books for their children," said Zuckerman. Whipple agreed: "They want their kids to get a head start." Thus, there is a proliferation of books for preschoolers and, in Southern California, of children's bookstores.

Even the ABCs have been yuppified, said Emily E. M. Smythe, co-owner with her husband Michael of the "Happily Ever After" bookstore in Los Feliz. There, one shelf selection--"ABC: The Museum of Modern Art New York"--takes the entire family on a $13 romp from A to Z using reproductions of art works from one of yuppiedom's favorite citadels. (S is for Soup, as in Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup.)

In an age when even picture books address such nitty-gritty issues as sibling rivalry, bigotry and interracial adoption, teddy bears and friendly monsters and Peter Pan endure.

And dinosaurs. "Kids are fascinated by dinosaurs, absolutely fascinated," said Steven Kellogg of Sandy Hook, Conn., a celebrated children's writer-illustrator and creator of "Pinkerton" the problem dog. Having reared six stepchildren, Kellogg should know.

Publishers today "want books that deal with real feelings," he said. A case in point: His big seller is "Can I Keep Him?" about a boy who wants a pet.

Stereotypes Edited Out

Sexual or racial stereotypes are being edited out. Nevertheless, Frank Sloan said, some die hard--books about ballet and horses still appeal to preteen girls, boys still like sports.

In the '70s, picture books broke new ground by addressing issues such as divorce, sex and nuclear fears. Today, these subjects are fairly routinely dealt with, as are AIDS and drugs.

Deplored by some, considered by others a relatively healthy outlet for adolescent girls' natural curiosity about relationships, is Bantam Books' paperback series "Sweet Valley High," which is sort of the romance novel of the junior high set.

But a hard-cover romance novel would have to be "exceptional" to be considered for publication today, Whipple said. " 'Do I get to go to the senior prom? Will he ask me? Won't he?' That was all right when a book was $3.95."

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