Thursday, April 5, 2007

Interview: Janna Morishima of Diamond Kids Group

This week, in place of our regular reviews, we proudly present an interview with Janna Morishima of Diamond Book Distributors’ newly formed Diamond Kids Group. Morishima, formerly an editor at Scholastic Graphix, will work with children’s book publishers, comic and graphic novel publishers, store buyers, and the media to bring more graphic novels and comics to the kids’ market.

All Ages Reads: While at Scholastic Graphix you worked on Bone, the Babysitters Club, and Goosebumps, which are all great books that are really breaking ground in getting kids excited about graphic novels. Do you feel that Graphix has been successful so far? Was it hard to leave?

Janna Morishima: Yes, I do think that Graphix has been successful. The books you just mentioned represent, in different ways, what I believe is the future in kids’ comics.

The phenomenal success of manga in recent years proves that boys are not the only ones who love comics; girls do, too, as long as the stories being told appeal to them. The Babysitters Club graphic novels are adorable, funny, touching stories aimed at girls. Raina Telgemeier has an uncanny ability to channel the emotions of nine to twelve-year-old girls and express them in her illustrations. I think we’ll see more books like Babysitters Club soon – graphic novels that are not manga, but are directly aimed at female readers. (This is not to say that I think manga will go away – I think they are here to stay. I simply think there is room for a range of artistic and storytelling styles.)

Goosebumps represents another trend that I hope will keep growing in kids’ graphic novels: genre fiction. I am looking for publishers to release more good, fun, juicy graphic novel series. Horror stories, mysteries, romance, science fiction, historical adventure – all those genres that get you hooked on reading for its pure entertainment value, those are the types of graphic novels I hope we see more and more.

And finally, Bone is a classic. It’s an epic tale that will stand the test of time. It’s the kind of book you can read on different levels when you’re seven, when you’re twelve, when you’re twenty-one, and then start all over again when you have your own seven-year-old. In other words, graphic novels can tell a story with as much depth and truth as the best prose novels. So I’m looking forward to more gns that add to the canon of great children’s literature.

Having said all this, I’m sure you can imagine that it was hard to leave. I admired and loved working with all the artists and writers I edited at Scholastic. But a couple of things made my departure easier. First of all, the Graphix line is in very good hands. Sheila Keenan and David Saylor, the executive editor and creative director of Graphix, are both phenomenal – I think the publishing industry is lucky to have them. Second, I think my job at Diamond is perfect for me; all I want to do is evangelize for kids’ graphic novels, and that is basically what I’m being paid to do!

AAR: Can you give us a general picture of the goals for Diamond Kids Group?

JM: Diamond Kids Group has two main goals: first, to work with publishers to help them develop children’s graphic novels that are effectively edited, packaged, and marketed; and second, to work with retailers to convince them that children’s graphic novels are a category worth investing in. As a distributor, Diamond is the middleman between publishers and retailers, so we’re in the perfect position to create a dialogue and help both bookstores and publishers figure out what they can do to increase sales of kids’ graphic novels.

AAR: For the most part, kids don’t get their comics at local comic shops anymore. Libraries seem to be the place most kids are getting their first exposure to graphic novels. I know you attended the American Library Association’s meeting in Seattle. How did that go? Are librarians still excited about graphic novels?

JM: Absolutely, librarians are the graphic novel industry’s biggest cheerleaders. I have never heard of a library that introduced graphic novels without seeing healthy -- or even abnormally high -- circulation rates. So the answer is yes, librarians are still excited about graphic novels, and we (the graphic novel industry) are correspondingly excited about librarians. Seattle was a nice lovefest.

As a matter of fact, by this point some librarians are so ahead of the curve that the rest of us in the industry should be turning to them for advice. Questions like how to shelve graphic novels for maximum exposure, the most useful ways to categorize graphic novels by age level and genre, how to lure new and reluctant readers, what types of stories kids respond to … librarians have been grappling with these questions for a few years now, and they have strong and well-founded opinions.

AAR: Librarians are on board, but I know many teachers still look at graphic novels as “light reading” or “entertainment.” Shelby's fifth grade teacher told her class they couldn’t count graphic novels as part of their required reading minutes. How can the industry help teachers and parents understand the value of graphic novels?

JM: Yes, I’ve discussed this issue with many people – librarians are big graphic novel supporters, but many teachers are still skeptical. Part of this must be because teachers are under so much pressure these days to focus on test-taking and rigidly controlled curricula. It’s not hard to see why they are reluctant to try graphic novels, which haven’t been thoroughly “clinically tested and approved” by the education establishment.

Luckily there are already a number of great people and organizations who have been working on creating curricula and classroom guides for using graphic novels. The industry needs to keep supporting these efforts, and graphic novel publishers and creators should target the education community at national and local conventions, like the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English.

AAR: You mentioned that part of your job will be to help publishers package and market graphic novels for children. What do you think they need to do better?

JM: Comic book publishers need to take the children’s book market seriously and do their homework. For instance, if they’re going to publish a graphic novel aimed at boys ages 9-12, they need to go take a look at books that are being published for those readers. What trim size are they? How are the covers designed? How are they priced? What does the jacket copy say?

Then they need to actually *read* some of those books aimed at boys ages 9-12. What kinds of issues are dealt with in the stories? How do the kids talk? What makes the books funny, or suspenseful, or thrilling?

And finally, they need to learn about the book market’s marketing cycle and make sure that they get advance copies into the right reviewers’ hands, with the appropriate amount of lead time before the books hit the stores. Rather than just drop the books onto shelves and hope for the best, investing the time to create and execute a marketing plan will pay off.

My greatest hope is that there will be some “cross-pollination” in the industry: I’d love to see a comics publisher hire an experienced children’s book editor (of course, someone who also knows and loves graphic novels – and I know these people exist!) to develop a children’s graphic novel line.

AAR: Another big part of your job will be to work with book retailers. What specific things can retailers do to sell more graphic novels to kids?

JM: About six years ago, the graphic novel industry used to complain that their books were getting lost, either racked on a few lonely shelves at the end of the science fiction section, or mixed in somewhere among the humor books. A couple of things happened to change this situation: first, retailers decided to create a separate section with signage that clearly indicated “Graphic Novels.” Having a critical mass of graphic novels in one bay (bookcase) in the bookstores helped increase the books’ visibility. Second, some publishers, like Tokyopop, created P.O.P. (point-of-purchase) displays that called out their books even more noticeably for consumers. Suddenly, graphic novel and manga sales started taking off, and over the past five years sales have grown an astonishing 400% (according to, graphic novel sales were approximately $75 million in 2001, and were approximately $330 million in 2006).

I predict that we’ll see the same pattern occurring for children’s graphic novels. Retailers will create a distinct subsection labeled “Graphic Novels and Manga” in the children’s department, and suddenly kids who love comics and manga will know where to find their books. Publishers who are interested in focusing on the category will work harder to market their books with promotions such as displays, special offers, advertising, author signings, etc.

AAR: There’s been a lot of discussion about content labeling for comics and graphic novels, mostly stemming from the popularity of manga, where many of the covers look like kids’ books even when they are not, and superhero titles featuring childhood heroes engaged in extreme violence. Many parents are really reluctant to let their kids read any graphic novels for fear that they will be, well, graphic. As a distributor, is there anything you can do to make it clear to parents and teachers that your titles are kid-friendly?

JM: Discussions about kid-friendly comics often head straight into debates about age ratings. While I do believe that labeling books with icons that indicate their age-appropriateness is extremely important – and most comic book publishers agree – I do not think that this action in itself will solve the graphic novel industry’s “image problem.” After all, parents are not necessarily crazy when they are reluctant to let their kids read graphic novels for fear that they will be violent. As a matter of fact, a huge number of the graphic novels currently on the market ARE quite violent! The problem here lies in the fact that most comic book publishers’ target demographic is 18- to 35-year-old men. As soon as more publishers start looking beyond that demographic and start making books for kids, for girls, for women, etc., the graphic novel category will start emerging from the superhero ghetto and become recognized as simply another format for telling stories. I think this process is just beginning right now, but we have a long way to go.

Second, I think that the graphic novel industry’s outreach to librarians and educators is critical. Librarians have already seen that graphic novels are a great aid to literacy. Kids who never used to set foot in the library will gobble up 10 or 20 volumes of a graphic novel or manga series and keep coming back for more. I’ve heard anecdotally from Steve Weiner, a Massachusetts librarian, that the circulation for prose books that are shelved next to popular graphic novels also increases. And finally, the vocabulary that kids encounter in graphic novels is often just as sophisticated – if not more sophisticated – than the vocabulary they would find in prose books at their reading level. The more that the graphic novel industry can help communicate this positive message to schools and libraries, the better.

As a distributor, we reach out to parents and teachers in basic ways by providing lists of our kid-friendly titles and attending library and educational conferences as much as possible. But we’re also working behind the scenes to encourage publishers to publish more graphic novels that are expressly aimed at kids.

AAR: What do you think the difference is between a “kids’ book” and an “all-ages book”? Can the distinction between them affect sales?

JM: This is a very good question. Honestly, I think this distinction is largely meaningless. Many of the world’s best children’s books appeal to a wide age range. On, Harry Potter is listed for “ages 9-12”, but we all know that kids as young as 7 and adults of every age are reading it. Now, it might seem counter-productive to give a book like Harry Potter an age level, but in fact, I believe that labeling books with an age or reading level is almost always useful. This is because it provides consumers with a general idea of the book’s vocabulary and thematic sophistication, and it helps booksellers target an audience. This is especially important when a book or series is first released, and the general public knows little or nothing about it.

From my casual observation, comic book publishers seem to want to label anything that is for kids “all ages.” This is probably because they don’t want to lose adult readers who might buy certain graphic novels because they are fans of the artist, writer, or character. I wonder, though, if this reluctance to explicitly target, for instance, 9- to 12-year-old readers is actually hampering the development of the children’s graphic novel market. It certainly makes it hard for sales reps and bookstore buyers to figure out where the books should be shelved – do they go in the children’s book section, or in the adult graphic novel section? As a matter of fact, many “all ages” titles do get shelved in the adult graphic novel section, where they will probably never reach thousands of kids who might otherwise love to read them.

AAR: Can you tell us about any specific titles in the works for Diamond Kids Group? Do you plan on mostly helping publishers repackage existing titles, or will you scout out new works as well?

JM: One publisher with whom I’ve been working closely recently is Seven Seas. Seven Seas is known primarily as an adult manga publisher, but they are expanding into the children’s market in an interesting way. Avalon is the first children's series that Seven Seas is releasing as part of its new children's book line. It's an interesting twist on a relaunch: Avalon is a very popular fantasy series for middle grade girls that was first published by Scholastic and then taken over by CDS. When CDS was acquired by Perseus and decided to get out of the children's book publishing business, Avalon was left without a publisher. Jason de Angelis discovered it last year and decided to relaunch all ten original volumes with new, manga-inspired cover art and interior illustrations. Seven Seas will also be publishing the last two volumes in the series (#11 and #12) which have never been published. And to top it off, Seven Seas is launching an all-new manga series based in the Avalon universe in Spring 2008.

Seven Seas has also licensed a whole slew of Japanese children’s book series that sort of straddle the line between prose and manga: they are traditional chapter books, heavily loaded with manga-style illustration. The first series, coming in October, will be The Pirate And The Princess, about a young princess whose family dies at the hands of an invading army and who is saved by a mysterious – and apparently immortal – pirate queen. Naturally, avenging the death of her family and uncovering the truth about her rescuer become the focus of the series.

The Pirate And The Princess will be followed by a series about an apprentice thief who is learning the trade at the side of his uncle, a true master criminal, and another series about a girl who wrangles ghosts and supernatural beings for a living, a la Ghostbusters.

I’ve also been working with Jimmy Gownley, the author of Amelia Rules!, who is continuing that series and planning a big publicity push this year. He just wrapped up Kids Love Comics Day March 3rd at the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts in Harrisburg, PA, where a group of creators held all-day workshops, signings, and demonstrations for more than 500 wide-eyed local kids and their parents. The tremendous success of that event bodes well for the future; Kids Love Comics is hoping to take their “Kids Love Comics Day” model around the country.

Top Shelf has a brand-new kids’ graphic novel coming out next month called Korgi, which looks absolutely beautiful. There’s a trailer for the book on the Top Shelf website. And of course, Owly volume 4 will be coming out April, too. Chris Staros and I have discussed the possiblility of repackaging Owly in color specifically for the children’s market, but it’s an option that we’re still exploring….

Lastly, I am in touch with a lot of artists and agents who have fantastic projects that are just waiting to find a home. As much as I can, I’m hoping to act as a conduit, sending the right projects to the right editors.


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