Never Meant for Children: The Odd Consumer-Driven Rise of the Graduation Book
This comes just on the tail end of graduation season, but I’m sure we’ve a couple schools going through the process here and there even now. And across this great nation, at graduation parties for high schoolers and college grads alike, gifts will be exchanged. And inevitably some of those gift will be children’s books. Inspirational graduation-style children’s books.
The graduation book as a genre has fascinated me for years. Where did it come from? How did it start? And precisely at what point did publishers catch on to the fact that there was an untapped goldmine just sitting there, waiting to be exploited? Well, let’s back up a bit in time. I’ve never read a systematic analysis of graduation book origins, but I think we can make some assumptions.
To be blunt, I blame Winnie-the-Pooh. For whatever reason that silly old bear may to be the reason for the state we’re in today. Just the other day I spoke at a gathering of Rotary Club members (national headquarters = Evanston, IL) and afterwards an older gentleman started waxing eloquent about his relatively recent discovery of the Winnie-the-Pooh books. He said he’d never read them before so he gathered his grandchildren around him and started to read. Before he knew it he was doubled over laughing. Pooh is funny, but much of the time people like to take little Pooh quotations and place them alone somewhere. Possibly in a cross stitch. When I was a graduating high school student I seem to remember that there were two children’s books given away at grad parties like crazy. Winnie-the-Pooh was the first, and this makes a lot of sense. It was around that time that The Tao of Pooh was making the rounds and people were gleaning their preferred form of wisdom from it. Yet you never get the sense that A.A. Milne ever wrote the original Pooh books for anyone other than children. Would that you could say the same for Dr. Seuss’s greatest graduation gift book of all time.
Sometimes I’ll flip through a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go and wonder if it was intended to be a graduation gift picture book from the start. That’s a silly thought since Seuss penned and published the title in 1990 when the grad market was still in its infancy. It was also, through no fault of its own, the book that Melania Trump chose to read in public this past March. Read into that what you will. In any case, the book sort of set the standard for grad gift books to come. What I would love to determine is whether or not parents and relatives started handing it to grads naturally or if there was some genius marketing guru over at Random House that figured out that this was the way to sell it. The world may never know.
It actually took a while for the floodgates of graduation book publishing to open wide after the success of this particular Seuss title. I feel like grad books have only really hit their stride in the last 15 years. This year alone we’ve seen books like Everywhere, Wonder by Matthew Swanson, ill. Robbi Behr, Life by Cynthia Rylant, ill. Brendan Wenzel, amongst others. Today I’d like to highlight two titles from small publishers that could fit this category as well, but won’t get the same attention as those books coming out from the big pubs.
The Frog in the Well by Alvin Tresselt
I mentioned this book back in my post on wonderful children’s books being reprinted in 2017 (They’re Aliiiiive!). At the time, I had high praise for this book but it was only later that I realized just how poignant and timely its message is. All these books for kids and teens these days share a common theme of finding your people. But The Frog in the Well goes the extra mile of also talking about a limited world view. In the book a frog lives in the bottom of the well and believes that this is all that there is. When necessity means it must leave the well, it meets other animals. Each one has its own limited world view, unable to see past its own current circumstances. The more animals the frog talks to, the more it gains in wisdom until, at last, it finds a pond full of frogs and joins them. Tresselt leaves the happy frog there, but I can’t be the only one that reads this book and thinks that after a little time the frog will discover that its fellows are as limited in their thinking as he once was, and he goes off to find like-minded, if not like-bodied, friends. But clearly this book is tailor made for handing over to a graduating student. It may even be better for a graduating high schooler, since they too hopefully stand on the edges of their own wells.
Always Share Your Iceberg: A Penguin’s Guide to Life by Jamison Odone
This one’s a little more traditional in terms of grad gifts, but there are a couple things I like about it. First off, Jamison Odone came to my attention years ago with his sublime picture book Honey Badgers. In this book quotations from various writers, philosophers and scientists are coupled with the wise and unwise actions of hapless penguins. This book marks the second time I’ve seen Nietzsche in a 2017 children’s book (the other being Nothing Rhymes With Orange by Adam Rex). Clearly continental philosophy is having its day. Altogether, the title isn’t really for kids since you see the penguins smoke and drink at different times in the text. Still, as little books of wisdom go, it has great charm. You could do worse than to instruct your grown children in the ways of penguins.
As for the future, I don’t see this trend of grad book publishing going away anytime soon. At the same time, I don’t really feel that it detracts from the publishing of other books. Unlike celebrity picture books where precious marketing dollars are used to hock schlock, graduation books are pushed relatively lightly. And the nice thing is, you can turn any good book into one. An inclusive attitude in an age of specified marketing.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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