It sometimes happens in publishing that more than one publisher releases a book about the same subject or person in the same season or soon after. This is occurring more and more, especially with biographies. Recently we published a picture book biography of Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist and environmentalist who initiated a tree planting movement in Kenya that resulted in the planting of 30 million trees. Our book was the fourth book about Maathai to be published for children in the past couple of years.
Why does this happen? Serendipity? Coincidence? Stars lining up in a certain alignment? Publishers in general are on constant lookout for inspirational stories. At the same time, authors are writing about people who inspire them, and experienced authors are doing their homework, searching for stories that are absent in the marketplace in an effort to present something new to readers. It is entirely possible that four different authors, around the same time, came to the same conclusion that there were no books on Wangari Maathai for children and decided to do something about it. This is where overlap can occur.
The timing of the books and when they come out depends on how far ahead a publisher acquires manuscripts. Larger houses tend to acquire several years ahead while small houses tend to publish books as soon as possible after acquiring a manuscript. LEE & LOW has been publishing since 1993, and we now tend to fall somewhere in the middle of these two models as our publishing program has matured. In the case of our Wangari Maathai manuscript, only one book about her was on the horizon when we first read Jen Cullerton Johnson’s manuscript. We decided the market could bear one more.
Publishers are like individuals and will take vastly different approaches to publishing a book. Picture books are intended for younger readers, and the limited number of pages allow an author to tell only a snippet of a person’s whole life, which is not the case in a longer book. Depending on the author, the snippet chosen for the focus of the story can vary wildly. Different illustrators also play a big role in creating a unique vision of the same story. Placing all the Wangari Maathai picture books side by side shows how Kadir Nelson, Claire Nivola, Jeanette Winter, and Sonia Lynn Sadler make Maathai’s story uniquely their own while offering original visual statements of who Wangari Maathai is in their eyes.
In the past we have been the first to publish books about a number of historical figures, including Sammy Lee, Su Dongpo, John Lewis, Duke Kahanamoku, and Toni Stone, but for Wangari Maathai we brought up the rear. This indicates to me that the overall definition for modern-day heroes may be widening. I think it’s great that four different houses published children’s books about Wangari Maathai, each telling her story in a way that presents a different viewpoint of her life that will appeal to different types of readers.