Children's Book Publishing in the New Millennium: Compassionate Capitalism

A monthly spotlight on Children's Book Publishers who enrich their readers, their communities, and our World. This month: Peachtree Publishing and the RIC Learning Series.
This article is the first in a series profiling socially responsible children's book publishers. Social responsibility is one of those terms that sneaks up on you. To me, "social" goes back to all the good things I learned in kindergarten, including playing well with others and by the rules. "Responsibility" came later with homework assignments and chores. I learned that when I did them conscientiously I got an "A" and an allowance. Lately, "social responsibility" has become a buzz word in business, even a burgeoning term-of-art, but it still retains the tenets I learned early in school: "play well" and "conscientiously fulfill obligations."

How does "socially responsible" apply to publishing? Since publishing is a business, it is illuminating to briefly examine the term "socially responsible" as it applies to business in general. Economist Milton Friedman said "the one and only social responsibility of business (is) to increase profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."

But the rules and the games are changing. In recent times many people disagree with Friedman. They advocate that it is important to explore how businesses can contribute to both economic and social progress, since businesses exercise a profound influence on American life and culture, and their decisions affect millions of people. The new operative principle for business states that for economic longevity companies need to be socially responsible. This standard is further explained by renowned business management expert, Peter F. Drucker, who states that "moral vision and commitment to social values are the foundation of enduring business success."

We are all familiar with some of the morally thoughtful ways certain corporations are fulfilling their social and environmental responsibility. One company donates a percentage of profits to local charities, another packages with recycled materials, a third allows employees to volunteer on company time. Some businesses buy products from family-owned farms instead of conglomerates, some tackle social issues such as economic revitalization in troubled inner city neighborhoods, some make employee satisfaction a top priority, and one company created a lending program for low-income customers. These companies operate under the compelling parameter that businesses who serve their constituencies in creative and morally thoughtful ways, in the long run, also serve their shareholders best.

The business precepts above are instructive for corporations but certainly not controlling in the children's book publishing industry. Even so, it is worthwhile to explore the idea of social responsibility in this genre since children's book writers and publishers shape the youngest generation and their future through the written word. Additionally, children's book publishers exercise a profound influence on American life and culture when they decide what to publish. For these reasons this column will explore how children's book publishers can and do contribute to social progress.

Peachtree Publishers Ltd. of Atlanta, Georgia is one children's book publisher that deserves a spotlight for the socially responsible content of its publications. By combining sound management with a social conscience, Peachtree has created several series of titles that will help create a better future.

Peachtree Publishers recently forged a partnership with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). RIC, for more than forty years, has been one of the world's leading institutions serving the physically disabled. They offer hands-on rehabilitation therapy designed to improve quality of life for people with any level of disability--who regain or improve their physical functions and become empowered to participate more fully in their lives. RIC also provides educational and psychological support and job training resources.

Peachtree Publishers and RIC allied to create a new series of children's books that focuses on children with disabilities. Through such collaborative efforts and united by a shared mission, the publishing company and the rehabilitation center utilized their diversity of experience, expertise and resources. The result is the full-color children's picture book series called RIC Learning Books. Scheduled to launch in the spring of 2000, RIC Learning Books will explain to readers ages five and up the needs of children with physical disabilities.

Each book is written from the viewpoint of a real child with a physical disability. The goal of the series is to give young readers a look into the special worlds of disabled children, to help them understand the physical challenges the children face, and show them how the use of assistive devices can empower the children to overcome the limitations posed by their disabilities. Don Olson of RIC explains further, "One goal, addressing the needs of persons with disabilities, is to gain acceptance and comfort with them by the public. These books fill part of that educational need."

The Making of My Special Hand: Madison's Story is written by Jamee Riggio Heelan, an occupational therapist at RIC, and illustrated by Nicola Simmonds. The author holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Occupational Therapy, and has worked at RIC for the past 11 years, 6 years as coordinator of the RIC Children's Amputee Program (CAP). Her work is dedicated to treating children and educating others about childhood disabilities. In The Making of My Special Hand the reader experiences Madison's story. Born without her left hand, Madison tells her story of anticipation and excitement about her prosthetic hand. Madison explains how her prosthesis was fitted and made, and shows the new activities her prosthetic hand allows. She can now pick up toys, throw a ball, and carry her doll. Madison also explains how the medical team from CAP worked with her and her family. The story is written from Madison's unique point of view. The book begins: "Hi, my name is Madison. I was born with one hand. I want to tell you a story about how I got my helper hand." The book dispels fears about prosthetics: "I jumped and tumbled. We made sure the helper hand was able to stay on." It's clear the hand empowers Madison:" I love my special hand. It's part of me now."

The second book in the RIC Learning Books series is Rolling Along: the Story of Taylor and his Wheelchair. Also written by Heelan and illustrated by Simmonds, the book is the tale of young Taylor who has cerebral palsey and uses a wheelchair. Through Taylor's eyes we see how much effort he must expend to strengthen his legs which are weak. Taylor explains how valuable his wheelchair is because it helps him maneuver more easily and do the things he wants like go to school and play basketball with his brother.

There are ten more titles planned for the series, dealing with other disabilities. For example, one will focus on the use of a hearing aid by a deaf child, and another will feature a visually impaired child with a seeing-eye dog.

The go-ahead for the series came about through a market evaluation. The idea was proposed at conferences, and with librarians and school specialists. Through these means Peachtree determined that nothing like this was available. The approach would be a fresh new perspective and the series would serve a currently under-served niche market. Peachtree Publishers indicates that response to RIC Learning Books from professionals in rehabilitation and education has been positive. Through careful research of the market, an alliance with RIC, a creative fresh approach and the view that a socially challenging subject matter is an opportunity for a new market, this publisher has made significant contributions to the quality of life and learning for children.

What Peachtree has accomplished with the series is five-fold. The series dispels fears and stereotypes about the disabled. The books provide insight and inspiration for children with disabilities. The books crossover into broader markets as they are designed to provide children without disabilities a detailed look into aspects of the everyday world of a child with a specific disability. The books enlighten family members. Finally, the books are highly profitable and compassionate, championing socially responsible content.

Author Jamee Heelan explains further, "The photos and the softened images in the artwork make it more inviting and less fearful for kids to look at. We wanted kids to see other kids like themselves, not cartoon characters. My whole purpose in doing the books was to demystify the questions kids have, whether it's about their own disabilities, or their friends' or classmates'. A big part of my job as a physical therapist is to educate kids and families about how the machinery in prosthetics and wheelchairs works, who builds them, and how we make them work. The idea is to take away the mystery and portray these situations as part of daily life." The project is Heelan's first try at publishing, and she says she's "having an absolute ball."

A second new socially responsible series from Peachtree Publishers is entitled GirlSports GirlStories. This series, slated for Spring 2000, is for ages eight-to-twelve, and features fast-paced sports and believable characters in dramatic situations. For example, in Playing To Win by Margo Sorenson, twelve-year-old Kelly is the most valuable player on her soccer team. But her impatience to win puts her at odds with her friends. In the end, Kelly learns that sometimes winning isn't everything. All books in the series encourage young girls to take charge on the field and in their lives. They also address issues of friendship and self-esteem.

Peachtree Publishers is the vision behind other rewarding projects. Their award-winning About...series is written by Cathryn Sill, an elementary school teacher and illustrated by John Sill, a prize-winning wildlife artist with a Bachelor of Science degree in wildlife biology. Titles include About Birds, About Mammals, About Reptiles, and About Insects. These books, for ages three through eight, have been heralded for their clarity, simplicity, quality and detail of the illustrations, and they give young naturalists a first glimpse into the world of nature and answer their first questions.

Finally, Night Rabbits, written by Lee Posey, education policy consultant, and illustrated by Michael G. Montgomery is the sensitive story of a young girl who values her relationship with peaceful rabbits that dance and romp in the grass to summertime sounds. The book teaches appreciation of nature and that one can work with others to help protect it.

It's clear Peachtree Publishers provides an inspirational blueprint for socially responsible publishing. They aim high, producing quality titles that challenge and transform those who read them, and use the power of publishing to create a better world.