BOSTON — Once upon a time it was hard to find a wide selection of Jewish children’s books. Mostly there were books on Chanukah and Passover, plus retellings of Bible stories and folk tales.
The market was small and uncertain, and mainstream publishers could not count on large enough sales to justify the expense of publishing new titles.
That was before the creation of PJ Library, a 5-year-old program created by businessman and philanthropist Harold Grinspoon that sends new Jewish children’s books to the homes of families with young children every month — for free.
In a recent phone conversation from the Grinspoon Foundation office in West Springfield, Mass., Grinspoon reflected on the meteoric rise of a small book giveaway to a wildly popular international Jewish literacy program that industry executives and children’s writers say is changing the nature of Jewish children’s publishing.
Grinspoon told JTA that he envisioned PJ Library as a way to introduce Jewish culture and values to the large segment of the Jewish population that had little or no contact with Jewish institutions or education, as well as the ever growing number of interfaith families.
He recalls sending out the first shipment of 200 books. Now PJ Library sends out 60,000 books each month to families in 125 communities across North America and Israel. PJ Library partners with other Jewish organizations to sponsor participation in the program.
The Grinspoon Foundation pays 60 percent of the approximately $100 cost of sending the monthly package to each participating family, while the partnering group pays the rest.
To Grinspoon’s surprise, PJ Library has become a boon to a shrinking business, a bright spot in the tough and challenging market of children’s publishing.
In the United States, sales of books are declining, from $25 billion to $24.3 billion between 2007 and 2008, according to the Association of American Publishers.
By contrast, since 2006, PJ Library reports that it has purchased more than 2 million books, contributing to the one growth area in publishing with religious book sales.
“Initially they [publishers] thought we were a little kooky,” Grinspoon told JTA.
Now, he said, PJ Library buys 15,000 books at a time.
“They are very happy with us,” Grinspoon said of publishers. “The work we do is important to them — and we’re good customers.”
“Publishers and editors now have a better understanding of who PJ is and the kinds of quality Jewish picture books we should be looking to publish,” said Jennifer Schwabinger, vice president-director of special markets for Penguin, a major trade publishing house.
PJ staffers say the PJ Library has purchased about 250,000 books from Penguin.
“PJ Library is changing the dynamics of Jewish children’s literature,” said Suzanne La Rosa, publisher of New South Books. “They are raising awareness of the body of work and are demonstrating to publishers and possibly to the retail market there really is a Jewish market.”
At the end of April, PJ Library held a conference in Baltimore that brought together 155 editors, publishing executives and writers. It was a rare opportunity to collaborate, said Adrian Bailey, PJ’s director of operations.
Beyond the numbers, PJ Library has exacting standards for the quality of the story as well as the artwork, raising the bar for Jewish children’s books, according to John Briggs, president of Holiday House, which has partnered with PJ Library on several books.
The PJ Library has managed to bring Jewish children’s books to a population that probably didn’t even know that Jewish children’s books existed as a genre, said Joni Sussman, publisher of Kar Ben, which publishes 15 to 18 Jewish children’s books each year. Among its PJ titles was a new Passover book, “Nachshon Who Was Afraid to Swim,” by Deborah Bodin Cohen.
Sussman said the success of the PJ Library is prompting accomplished children’s authors to consider writing books with Jewish content — an important factor for publishers as they consider the risk of bringing new Jewish children’s titles to market.
In addition to publishing new books, PJ Library has been able to exert its clout to bring back out-of-print books that appeal to the PJ Library selection committee of librarians, writers and editors, according to Natalie Blitt, PJ Library program director.
Take the case of “Chicken Man,” a book written and illustrated by Michelle Edwards that was published in 1991 by New South Press.
The popular book set on an Israeli kibbutz sold well in its first printing and won the coveted National Jewish Book Award. The demand remained high even after the book went out of print in 1997, Edwards told JTA in a phone conversation.
When PJ Library offered the promise of an advance order of a large quantity of “Chicken Man,” a deal with New South Press came quickly, Edwards said.
Since 2008, 30,000 more copies of “Chicken Man” have been sold, some through PJ Library and others through the retail bookstore market.
That’s a very good number, especially for a relatively small publishing house, according to La Rosa, the New South publisher.
Blitt said PJ Library’s influence also extends to a book’s content. In reviewing a book about modern-day Israel with publisher Albert Whitman, she said the editors were willing to have the artwork changed to reflect the reality of Israel as a multiracial, multicultural place.
“There’s a lot of diversity in Israel,” Blitt said.
Edwards credits Grinspoon with understanding the business side of publishing.
Still enthused by the recent gathering of those involved with PJ Library, Grinspoon is exuberant about his dual passions, Jewish philanthropies and children’s literacy.
“If you love the Jewish people and you want to make a difference in the Jewish world, this is the place to invest,” he said.