By Beth Kephart
Not long ago, Pamela Paul was reading a book aloud at a play date with her four-year-old son when a little girl she’d never met before wandered near, nestled close, and reached for Paul’s hand.
It is a scene, says Paul, that plays out around the world — the seduction of an open book, the power of a story. Paul has seen it at work in her own life and with her three young children. She saw it in Thailand, where, years ago, she taught kindergarten and high school (and in her apparent spare time managed a library), and in London and Paris. And as the fifth children’s book editor at The New York Times Book Review, Paul bears witness to the bond between people and stories everyday on her job. She’s made it her business to help parents, grandparents, librarians, teachers, aunts, uncles, neighbors, teens — readers, in short — know just which stories should be brought home and lodged within the heart.
“It’s a busy world,” says Paul, a journalist and author who was named to the post in late January of this year. “There’s so much competing for our time. My hope with the children’s pages is to make them relevant and essential for all the readers of the Times — to provide expanded coverage of everything from board books and middle grade stories to young adult fiction and nonfiction. There are so many ways to tell a story. I’m trying to make room for them all.”
In less than a year, Paul has redefined the face of children’s book coverage in the Times — asserting what appears to be a boundless imagination on behalf of exceptional books. In late February, for example, Paul announced a new feature—the weekly online-only review of a picture book — explaining, “Here, we can give readers a better sense of the book’s visual style, showing how the text relates to the images and making it clearer whether a book might appeal to a 5-year-old boy without turning a 37-year-old mother’s stomach.”
That new feature reflects but one of a number of welcome changes. Attentive readers of the New York Times Book Review have already taken note of the short thematic reviews that appear each Sunday as well as the expanded number of pages dedicated to children’s books (up to three, from two). On-line readers will soon have access to two new round ups — one for board books and one for pop-ups. And in a few weeks, readers will see yet another amplification — the expansion of the Notable Children’s Book List from eight titles to twenty-five.
“The number of quality books created for children is on the rise,” says Paul. “Choosing which books to cover is an almost impossible task. I felt strongly, when I started this job, that I needed more room and more ways to cover children’s literature.” Paul has had the backing of the Times, she says, which has recognized that children’s books constitute “an area of real interest.”
Consider the exponential rise of “kid lit” book groups attended by adults. Consider, too, the viral fire that erupts every time an essay on young adult literature appears in the pages of the Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and elsewhere. Add to that the simple fact that what constitutes a “children’s book” is a changeable, morph-worthy topic; the boundaries are endlessly shifting.
“Look at War Horse,” says Paul. “It was labeled as a middle-grade novel, but it is read by everyone. Think about the work of Shel Silverstein: Should it be classified as an illustrated book, as a poetry book, as a book for children or for adults? And what about young adult literature, which some say is just adult literature with more plot? The lines are very fuzzy.”
Will apps and digital storytelling erode this welcome bright spot in a literary market that has otherwise lately struggled to maintain its footing? Paul doesn’t think so. “I just don’t think Apps and e-readers are going to kill off paper books,” says Paul, who professes a strong preference for the old-fashioned book that can be held and stowed and shared. For now Paul, at the Times, is keeping her focus on the broad spectrum of books published for children and teens and looking ahead to the 60th anniversary of the Times’ Best Illustrated Books, a milestone she plans to celebrate in new and memorable ways.
“I’m personally blown away by the quality of the illustrations in both classic books and the books being published today,” says Paul. “I know that some parents fear that children will drop the picture book once they have learned to read. I don’t share that fear. You open an illustrated book and you share it with a child and you see the wonder on their face.”
That, says Paul, is a form of magic. An enchantment she is committed to spreading.
Beth Kephart is the author, most recently, of You Are My Only. Her 14th book, Small Damages, is due out from Philomel next July. Please visit her blog, beth-kephart.blogspot.com.