Create destination points for children’s brands.

Trends in children’s products may come and go, but this popular genre never falters. Suppliers continue to build brands, get shelf space in retail stores, and produce quality content. New this year are more books for all ages featuring diversity including religious, economic, racial, gender, nationality, and physical ability. Concept books—what it means to be brave, be free, love God—are also on the rise.

Publishers have embraced the understanding that brands sell and that retailers focus on brands more than just categories.

“Retailers want to have destination points for ‘Berenstain Bears’ or ‘I Can Read,’ so familiarity with that brand brings buyers back to see what’s new there,” says Annette Bourland, VP and group publisher for Zonderkidz, which also is home to “Faithgirlz” and “Jesus Storybook Bible” lines.

The strategic move toward boosting brands comes as the discoverability challenge continues to grow. Consumers search online or in stores for books or products, “so the brand is going to be most helpful,” says Bourland.

Linda Howard, associate publisher for Tyndale Kids, agrees. “To get good space in the stores, you need to have some sort of brand. We need to give retailers a reason to give us shelf space.”

Tyndale Kids is initiating two new brands this spring, “I’ve Got Questions” and “The Faith that God Built.” In addition, the company is planning a fall release for its “Prayer Monsters” line, which will include three books, videos, and plush toys.

“We know retail is struggling, so we’ll do anything we can to make it easier for them,” says Howard.

Dan Lynch, a seasoned veteran in children’s publishing, is now at Brentwood Studios, which works primarily with publishers, authors, and others to create and build brands.

“There are opportunities to grow new brands and build new things, but people have to be willing to try: retailers, publishers, brand owners, all of us,” he says. “We need to reach consumers in new ways that are relevant.”

Board books hit new highs

Board books are on the upswing. Discovery House is releasing its first two board books in the “Our Daily Bread for Kids” line, while WorthyKids/Ideals, known for its myriad board books, will release two titles as part of the “Museum of the Bible” imprint.

“Board books are ruling the day in four color,” says Bourland. “The trends are outrageous now.”

Laura Minchew, senior VP and publisher of gift books, children’s books, and new media at Thomas Nelson, describes a publishing plan that has board books releasing in many ways: as a brand or solo, as follow-ups to popular picture or adult books, and as precursors to picture books.

Thomas Nelson has found much success with board books by Amy Parker, including the “Night Night” books and the “Faith, Hope, Love” series. The board book edition of Chris Tomlin’s best-selling picture book Good Good Father released in late January with a brisk sales forecast.

Picture book refocus

Picture books are another perennial favorite. Minchew points to new titles from established adult authors such as Tomlin and Lisa Bevere for Tommy Nelson. Picture books also are part of the expanded Harvest House imprint Harvest Kids. One of its newest products is the “Called and Courageous Girls” line featuring women of the Bible telling their stories in picture book format.

Bourland says premium picture books aren’t the hottest right now, pointing to Barnes & Noble replacing its picture book walls with books for middle grade readers. It’s not that picture books don’t sell; it’s just that one-off or standalone picture books—not tied to a brand—don’t do as well as branded books that become destinations in stores.

“Being part of a brand makes it easier for people to find them and retailers to sell as a set,” says Howard.

Picture books sure to draw buyer attention: John Ortburg’s Your Magnificent Chooser (Tyndale Kids), Rick Warren’s God’s Great Love for You (Zonderkidz), Same Kind of Different as Me for Kids by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (Thomas Nelson), Stormie Omartian’s What Happens When I Talk to God? in English and Spanish (Harvest Kids).

Children’s Bible products

Publishers (and retailers) have seen real success with children’s Bible products and many continue to build brands around their best-sellers.

Tyndale released The Story Travelers Bible in March. Harvest Kids plans more products in the “Illustrated Children’s Bible” brand and continues in the vein with Through the Bible One Rhyme at a Time by Jim and Elizabeth George.

Thomas Nelson has a number of Bible storybooks, including Read and Share Look, I’m Reading Bible Storybook and Jesus Calling My First Bible Storybook by Sarah Young. Worthy Kids/Ideals is working on a “Museum of the Bible” storybook Bible that will feature art from kids in nearly 50 countries. Discovery House is also developing an “Our Daily Bread for Kids” storybook Bible.

Nelson’s Minchew offers good advice for publishers looking at this genre and retailers eager to sell storybook Bibles. “We’ve learned to do Bible storybooks that each have a different emphasis and meet a different need,” she said. “Each one is targeting a little bit different message.”

Tweens and teens

Publishers seem to be focusing more on books for younger children than on tween and teen books right now, though they still publish books for those ages and the numbers are huge in the general market. Harvest House has been organically developing a tween nonfiction line for years, taking trusted names from their adult line—Tony Evans, Elizabeth George, Stormie Omartian—and publishing books for tweens. Executive VP and Publisher Barb Sherrill says there’s room to grow in the nonfiction tween line but fiction not so much.

“We still struggle with fiction,” she says. “We publish a couple of well-written stories for tweens but haven’t figured out how to get to the teen market. We’re experimenting with something next spring, but it’s tricky to figure out how to get fiction working.”

Zonderkidz, known for its teen fiction, is slowing down a bit and has no fantasy/escapism in its pipeline, “but we’re looking for it,” says Bourland. “We’ll see if retailers want it.”

Tyndale is doing its first YA in decades, a novel titled The Delusion. It’s a spiritual warfare novel based on a high school having a rash of suicides. A movie deal has been signed, with theatrical release hopefully two years away.

More than just books

Christian retailers know that toys, activity books, games, and plush are likely to draw potential shoppers into the stores. Melissa & Doug supplies many retailers with its wholesome, well-priced wares.

Allison Narins, major account sales manager for Melissa & Doug, encourages retailers to intermingle religious toys with other wholesome toys to draw consumers in. The key, she says, is placing religious toys and activity products alongside imaginative, play-based items such as blocks, pretend food, baby toys, role-play toys, and other items.

“Buyers say, ‘If I’m going to buy something with religious meaning behind it, what else might I buy when I’m there?’ Merchandise those items together,” says Narins.

Lynch encourages content developers to think outside just creating books, to think about digital products, quality toy items, etc. Publishers are buying in as well, with sticker books and activity books, plus downloadable activities, on the rise.

For retailers

Publishers offer several suggestions for retailers eager to sell children’s products.

  • “Absolutely engage on social media channels such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest,” says Bourland. “You need to get more people into the store, and young people are using social media.”
  • Recognize that millennial parents and boomer grandparents are today’s buying demographic. “Kids products need sensibilities that millennials appreciate and grandparents purchase,” says Rogers.
  • Rethink displays for children’s products. “Often books are displayed spine out, but kids books are all about covers,” says Howard.
  • Create spaces for adults to sit down and read to children.
  • Carry a breadth of product that includes new authors and artists. “Retailers can really win by being the place people go to discover authors,” says Minchew.
  • Partner with Christian schools to create book fairs, either in store or at the school.

Continue reading this story, including how Baker Book House changed their children’s section and increased sales by 20 percent:

— Ann Byle