Baby boom boosts publishing. Bookshelves brimming

YOU can spot them at 50 paces. As they stride along bustling mid-town Manhattan sidewalks, they're the ones with the broad smiles and giddy laughs. Children's book publishers clearly are basking in the sunshine of success.

As the boom in children's books continues into its fourth year, there's no sign of a letup in production or profits. Words like ``renaissance'' and ``revival'' flow from the lips of publicists who 10 years ago were bemoaning budget cuts and wondering if they'd ever see a return to four-color picture books.

Nor are they the only ones leading the cheers for children's books. Academics, bookstore owners, and critics alike agree that these are halcyon days for children's literature. As they point to the baby boomlet of the past five years and the recent proliferation of bookstores selling only children's books, they predict that the current demand for infant and toddler books soon will leapfrog into a need for more and better middle-grade readers, and ultimately more young-adult fiction.

``Children's books are flourishing, there's no question about it,'' says Margaret K. McElderry, a vice-president of the Macmillan Publishing Company, who supervises her own imprint and who is considered by many to be the most knowledgeable editor in the business.

Ms. McElderry is a hearty supporter of a promising recent trend in publishing - the international coproduction of children's books. By buying the rights to books produced overseas, American publishers not only get to choose from among the best foreign artists and writers, but also can share printing costs with local publishers. The result often is a beautiful product that helps to meet the current demand for quality picture books from a sophisticated new generation of moms and dads - parents whose spending is thought to account for almost 40 percent of the business in trade books today.

But behind the brilliant colors and stunning artistry of books that are designed to turn shopping-mall strollers into buyers, some specialists see the sprouting weeds of uniformity.

``Just like there's an international standard in a lot of hotels you stay in today, there's a growing international quality in some new books,'' says Amy Cohn, marketing manager of Boston's prestigious Horn Book magazine. ``In some cases, the integral zest of a particular culture is no longer visible, and in its place is a flattening out of the images and a flattening out of the perspective.''

As more and more picture books are shoved to the front of bookstore shelves, the titles that suffer most from lack of display space are novels for young adults: ``YA fiction,'' as it's called.

``They're still the hardest category to sell,'' Ms. McElderry observes. ``To be able to `move' them in the bookstore trade, you have to have someone who's going to read them - and there aren't very many stores that have a staff member free to do that. It's a shame, because I think there's more really good writing being done ... today than has ever been done before.''

If contemporary fiction is difficult to ``move,'' some timeless classics of children's literature are making a steady comeback. This spring, for example, at least six different editions of ``The Secret Garden,'' by Frances Hodgson Burnett, are available, largely because the copyright has now passed into the public domain. The classics not only do well in bookstores, but they are once again in demand from public libraries and school librarians. Similarly, it's a good year for folk and fairy tales, and for nonfiction titles, particularly science books and photographic nature essays.

Yet another growing trend in children's book publishing has already become established fact for many companies: Hard-cover titles are being followed quickly, often within a year's time, by paperback editions, something that rarely happened a few years back. Just last year the venerable firm of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, one of the last small, independent publishing houses, announced the formation of its first-ever paperback line for young readers, Sunburst Books. The list of authors appearing on the current Sunburst list reads like a Who's Who of contemporary children's writers and illustrators: Natalie Babbitt, Nikki Giovanni, Maurice Sendak, Isaac Bashevis Singer, William Steig, and Jill Paton Walsh.

With those kinds of names on their backlists, children's publishers can bank on one trend: Quality sells.

Diane Manuel reviews children's books regularly for the Monitor.

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