Cookbook Publishers Try to Think Small

Published: May 14, 2008

At a time when 2-year-olds take cooking classes, trick-or-treaters turn up in chef’s whites and a personalized child’s size spatula costs $20, it is no surprise that the children’s cookbook genre is enjoying a new life.

Not that it had much of a life before.
Children’s cookbooks have long been among the tiniest of literary niches. Rarely taken seriously or invited to the adult cookbook party, they usually end up stuck on the bottom shelf of the children’s activity section in the bookstore. With a couple of notable exceptions in the 1980s and 1990s, children’s cookbooks have made little impact, either in sales or attention.

But that is changing, as parents who have a keen interest in cooking encourage their young children to spend time in the kitchen and new titles take a more sophisticated approach to children’s food. Although no one tracks overall sales of cookbooks aimed at children, some retailers say that sales have shot up. Readers too young to drive don’t yet have their own “Joy of Cooking,” but publishers are looking everywhere for it. And a number of cooking celebrities have joined in, too.

“It’s not like the books didn’t exist five years ago, but they were very introductory, very dessert driven, or very one-size-fits-all,” said Melanie Rhodes, a children’s book buyer for Borders, where sales of children’s cookbooks have jumped by a third in the past year. “What we’re seeing now are publishers who are a little more tuned into the real food audience.”

In the last few years, the children’s cookbook market has moved beyond all-encompassing tomes from Betty Crocker or Better Homes and Gardens. Increasingly customized by age, books now teach toddlers to make lettuce wraps and older children to make entire meals. Some predict that cookbooks for teenagers will be the next break-out category.

The subject matter has been expanding, too. Nursery-school staples like macaroni and cheese, cupcakes and eggs on a raft are still going strong. But the new cookbooks reflect a trend toward better nutrition and health and toward ethnic dishes like sushi or bibimbop. Local and sustainable food are having their moments, too.

If there is a flaw in all this expansion, it’s that some cookbook authors have swung from the simple to the complex.

“We’re seeing some books that are trying to do too much,” said Gillian Engberg, an editor who specializes in books for young people at Booklist, the journal of the American Library Association. She said that some books contain so much information about nutrition or gardening that they might try the already limited patience of young cooks.

But she isn’t too critical of overly ambitious books, because they represent a return to the kitchen. “We are seeing more of these because people are growing more knowledgeable about food,” she said. “Cooking together represents a pause, a chance for families to come together.”

There are also less cozy motives, like money. Children’s cooking gear sells well, as Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table have discovered. Television cooking shows seem to have a magic hold over children, and children’s cooking Web sites continue to pop up. All of that has book editors looking for the genre’s pot of gold. But a breakaway hit remains elusive.

“It’s an area publishers aren’t steady on the ground with yet,” said Bill LeBlond, the editorial director for food and wine at Chronicle Books. “We all have the sense that the audience is out there, but we just can’t figure it out.”

Chronicle recently published “Kitchen Playdates” by Lauren Bank Deen and “The Toddler Café” by Jennifer Carden, which hopes to inspire toddlers to eat more adventurously by teaching them to crimp the edges of an empanada.

Mr. LeBlond also has high hopes for “Cook It in a Cup!” by Julia Myall, which came out in March and is packaged with silicone rubber baking cups.

Celebrity chefs have been prodigious writers of adult cookbooks, and this year two Food Network stars have leapt into the children’s market.
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