An adventure in finding books for boys
For years, the thinking in the book world was that adolescent boys don't like and won't read nonfiction books. Steven D. Hill and Peggy Hogan think that opinion is wrong, and they're out to prove it.
Hill and Hogan, president and editorial director , respectively, of newly founded Flying Point Press, spent years in the 1980s and '90s at Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Co., he as head of the trade and reference division, she as marketing manager for children's books. A couple of years ago they met to talk about new ventures and hit upon the idea of publishing nonfiction books for boys ages 10 to 15.
They had noticed there's a strong nonfiction market for men -- adventure books such as Sebastian Junger's "A Perfect Storm" or Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air." But, said Hill, "it was clear that publishers were ignoring adventure, history, and nonfiction for 10-to-15-year-old boys." Hogan said, "If you look at what men read, there was no springboard for boys. If they want to read the kind of books they will read as adults, there is nothing to lead them into that area."
Then Hill, 57, remembered a series of books he had loved as a boy: the old Random House Landmark Books. Started in the 1950s by Random House co founder Bennett Cerf, they featured narrative nonfiction, mostly history and biography. Cerf signed up such adult stars as John Gunther, C.S. Forester, Alistair MacLean, and William L. Shirer. The series sold millions of books, but Random House (which still publishes several Landmark titles) let many of the classics go out of print. Hill and Hogan got the idea of bringing them back.
After scrapping the idea of starting a publisher from scratch -- startup costs were prohibitive -- they made a deal with Sterling Publishing, which is owned by Barnes & Noble. Sterling would act as publisher, marketing the books under the name Sterling Point Books, while Flying Point would act as packager. (A book-packager is to a publisher what a ghostwriter is to an author: The publisher's name is on the cover, but the packager does the work of putting the book together.)
Hill and Hogan sought out the out-of-print Landmark rights - holders, usually the authors' estates, signed new contracts, and are putting the books back in print. The first eight came out last fall, eight more are coming this spring, and another eight next fall. The list includes: Bruce Bliven's "Invasion: The Story of D-Day," MacLean's "Lawrence of Arabia," Forester's "The Barbary Pirates," and Shirer's "The Deadly Hunt: The Sinking of the Bismarck."
"A single book is not going to make a difference," said Hogan, 65, "but a series for children is a powerful concept, as it was with Landmark. The idea is to have a list of all the titles in each book, so that if you like one, you know you can find something similar."
Not all the books in the first 24 are Landmark Books, and there is one wholly new title, a World War II first-person memoir called "Behind Enemy Lines: A Young Pilot's Story," by H.R. DeMallie. Hill and Hogan plan to seek new and out-of-print books, and to expand into current adventure, the adolescent equivalent of the Krakauer and Junger books.
Will it work? Some librarians, booksellers, and children's book specialists have their doubts. For one thing, today's boys are not the boys of the 1950s.
"I wonder if it's that there aren't enough books or that the cultural mind-set is that reading is not the cool thing to do," said Leonard Marcus, children's book editor of Parenting magazine. "My son, who is 14, and his schoolmates have to read for school, and when they come home they want to play video games or go to sports practice. There's a lot of competition for kids' attention."
"I don't do well with nonfiction of any type, even for girls," said Ellen Richmond, owner of the Children's Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine. Other booksellers said much the same.
"Really good boy readers almost all read fantasy," said Caroline Ward, past president of the children's division of the American Library Association. She also has doubts about the Landmark Books themselves. "One of the criticisms of that series in the 1950s and '60s is that it was somewhat fictionalized to sweeten the material. There is such interest in fact-checking and documentation today. We try to avoid narrative nonfiction if it has dialogue that is conjectural."
However, some booksellers think Hill and Hogan may be right that boys will read nonfiction if the books are there.
Terri Schmitz, owner of Brookline's Children's Book Shop, has ordered the Sterling/Flying Point books. "I am trying to find a way to display them," she said, "to let people know they are there."
"You do get that kid who loves nonfiction," said Carol Stoltz, children's manager at Porter Square Bookshop in Cambridge. "When they say, 'I want to read some adventure,' we steer them to our 'Thrills and Chills' section, for adventure, mountain climbing."
Asked about their reading tastes, some boys did mention fiction first. "When I was 14, my favorites were science fiction, mystery, and fantasy," said David Chu, 16, of Hanover.
But they didn't exclude nonfiction entirely. "I like books that have a lot of suspense," said James Golden, 12, of Weymouth. " I don't really care if it's fiction or nonfiction, as long as it's a good story."
Ben Logan, 12, of Brookline, has several Sterling Point books. "I started 'The Deadly Hunt,' " he said. "It starts with a good introduction. It seems more story-like, with a plot, more action-packed."
No one disputes that boys will read if they love the books. Jon Scieszka, author of the "Stinky Cheese" children's books, has started a website called guysread.com to encourage boy readers and their parents. Librarian Michael Sullivan of Portsmouth, N.H., author of "Connecting Boys With Books: What Libraries Can Do," has a blog called "Boy Meets Book," linked from his site, talestoldtall.com.
"We have not done well in promoting reading for boys," Sullivan said. "It's a good time to be a boy reader right now. There are new authors, like Gordon Korman and Ben Mikaelsen, writing amazing outdoor adventure stuff. Boys are a tougher audience to reach. But when you give them books they like, they react as well as girls do. Everybody loves a good story."
David Mehegan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.