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Monday, December 5, 2011

Chatting with Dr.Peggy Sissel-Phelan founding President and CEO of Brain Child Press, Inc.

Tell us about yourself. 

I am the founding President and CEO of Brain Child Press, Inc., an educational publishing company based in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Over the past 30 years, my research, teaching, writing, advocacy, and community service has been dedicated to the elimination of illiteracy and to the healthy development of children, families, and communities – mainly in the areas that affect maternal and child health. 
I have served as a board member or committee volunteer for fifty-seven groups and associations around the nation and am a former Fellow of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  My publishing experience within academics includes editing three scholarly books, authoring eight textbook chapters and seventeen scholarly articles, and numerous conference proceedings, reports and evaluations. Publications outside of academics include six picture books.
I hold a doctorate in education from the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, a masters degree in education from Michigan State University and a bachelors degree in communications and public relations from the University of Iowa.   

My Work with Literacy, Health, and Reach Out and Read

      In 1994, I worked as a research consultant at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where I discovered the unsettling fact that when parents did not know how to read well, or at all, it had a huge effect on the kind of health care they sought for their children.  As a result, I began to raise awareness of the role low literacy can have on health care access and understanding.  I continued my interest in health literacy when I became Assistant and then Associate Professor of Education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  I continue to provide expertise in the area of health literacy at the federal, state and local level.
            Relatedly, in 2002 I helped found Reach Out and Read Arkansas, a statewide 501(c)(3) non-profit which works with primary care health providers to distribute free books to low-income families, talk to parents, and “prescribe” reading when parents bring their babies in for well-child visits at health care clinic.  Read Out and Read is an evidence-based medical model grounded in the understanding that sharing books with babies and the resulting development of pre-literacy skills has a direct connection to their health and well-being for years to come.  Developed in 1989 as a way to intervene in the developmental problems of children living in poverty, it uses the well-child check up as the opportunity for intervention.
            Read Out and Read is used by 28,000 health care providers in 4,688 hospitals and health centers around the nation, serves 3.9 million families and distributes 6.4 million books each year.  Twenty-two years of implementation and fourteen peer-reviewed research studies have shown the proven effectiveness of this approach.  Some findings include: significant increases in positive parenting behaviors, improved developmental outcomes, higher levels of language development, and greater degrees of school readiness and capacity for learning.    It is the only intervention besides immunizations that has a proven effect on the health and development of children, and is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners.

Why I Developed Brain Child Press

I developed the company in 2005 in response to the growing need for easy-to-read, inviting educational materials that could assist in fighting the dual epidemics facing this country: childhood obesity and chronic levels of adult functional illiteracy.  I wanted to create materials that both children and their parents could learn from and enjoy; materials that would provide an important message relevant to children's health and well­being – but written at a second grade level.
I started with a book that filled a particular need.  In 2005 I was involved in a project with staff from the federally funded WIC program here in Arkansas.  This program for women and children had recently developed a voucher program whereby mothers could purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at local Farmers’ Markets.  They needed someway to get the message out to families and encourage them to participate.  Concurrently, WIC was undertaking a national initiative to encourage reading.   I combined the two ideas and the result was “A Visit to the Farmers’ Market.”  Printed in both English and in Spanish, I sold close to 100,000 copies to agencies around the nation.   This year it book was revised and published in an updated, bilingual edition. 
With this success, I went on to produce additional titles related to food and nutrition and am now developing additional categories such as Fitness and Active Fun, Family and Child Development, Health and Safety, and more.  I am no longer the sole author of our books, as additional authors are currently contributing to this growth.

What is the breakdown of books you publish?

            We publish picture books for ages 3 -8 as well flash cards, games, and various curriculum.  The focus of our books is to provide early exposure to concepts and practices that promote healthy behaviors and positive development of the whole child. 

What are some of the books you have published?  Fiction or non-fiction?

            One very popular book is A Very Purple Pepper.   It approaches vegetables in a fun way and gives kids the facts about why vegetables are im­portant in their diet, how the color in vegetables can help them grow and stay healthy, and why eating a variety of vegetables is important.
            Vegetables Count introduces more than 40 varieties of vegetables and addresses the concept of serving size while helping kids develop counting, grouping, and estimating skills.  Colorful photographic illustrations also offer clever opportunities for practicing observation skills and learning new vocabulary.
            I See A Star: Amazing Shapes to Find on Your Plate! uses vibrant photo illustrations of over 50 different kinds of fruits and vegetables to help kids learn to identify dozens of shapes and improve their observation skills.
            A Visit to the Farmers’ Market/Una Visita al Mercado de los Granjeros explores the sights, sounds, and tastes of the market, and depicts diverse families enjoying the market as a great way to get fresh air, healthy food, and time together.

How are they different than other picture/children’s books?  

            All our books are nonfiction, and each deals with a particular concept such as food, fitness, family, etc.  Many cover two or more categories: for example – food and family.
            Our books are very different from other​children’s books.  They are designed to present big ideas with simple text, the use real world, high interest full color photography to put the information in contexts children have seen and know.  Our books are diverse in race, ethnicity, gender, age and are developed and reviewed by experts in education, pediatrics, nutrition, and physical education. 
            Early on, when I was consulting with WIC, I did an assessment of the available books about food and nutrition for children ages 2 to 5.  What I found did not meet my criteria for quality if the focus was on helping kids learn.  The artwork in them was either beautiful, abstract depictions, or cartoons and caricatures.  Research has shown that toddlers learn concepts best with photo-illustrations in picture books, rather than stylized graphics.  So, our motto is: “NO Talking Tomatoes!”  The following philosophical principals ground the work we do.
  • ​​The child, family, & the community are all interconnected
  • ​Parents are the gateway to a child's understanding and practice of healthy behaviors 
  • ​A well-designed picture book can teach children important information, give them experience with books, and reach and teach parents and caregivers 
  • ​Early exposure to books and a print-rich environment is key to healthy brain development
  • Every organization and business that serves families with young children can play a role in getting books to kids
  • Attractive, informative picture books are more likely to be used in the home, regardless of a parent's literacy level and language fluency 
  • Books should be affordable at both retail and organizational bulk rates to get books in the hands of kids
  • Every child deserves quality books 
My Perspective on Creating Educational Materials

As an educator, I take a constructivist approach to learning and teaching, whereby the context of a learner's lived experience is used as the starting point or framework for building knowledge.  This framework is at the heart of the materials I produce, design, and edit. 
The way in which I approach the development of educational materials can be seen through the following example of how I consider learners’ needs in relation to the childhood obesity epidemic.     The causes of this unfolding crisis are many and complex.  At its most basic level of analysis, however, six key issues stand out:  poor nutrition, poverty, low literacy, lack of physical activity, parental avoidance/denial of the issue, and contemporary consumer culture.  Acknowledging these six factors as having a role in creating these conditions means that we have to consider them as we think about ways of addressing interventions. 
            I recognize that no single program or intervention will be able to stop its progression. The issues and surrounding psychosocial dynamics are too complex.  I do believe that interdisciplinary collaborations and partnerships between private, public, non-profit, and philanthropic sectors can make a difference, and that a small publishing company like ours can help in making change. 
             Brain Child Press, Inc. was founded with an understanding of the way the educational, psychological, and sociological aspects of the issue intersect.  This understanding grounds the rationale for why children’s picture books about food, fitness, and other topics important to health and wellbeing are an important, effective medium for creating awareness and helping promote change in individuals and families.  Each issues is first addressed, and then is followed by a discussion regarding the way in which Brain Child Press, Inc. and the books we publish, is helping to respond to these conditions.  
            Issue 1- Poor Nutrition:
            Poor nutrition in children is rarely the result of one specific problem.  Rather, it may be the result of a combination of factors, including poverty (lack of money & access), low literacy (lack of understanding about nutrition concepts & inability to use printed information to seek it), parental avoidance and denial (obesity and poor diet and health habits in parents, lack of food literacy i.e. knowing basics of food preparation and nutritional needs) and consumer culture (seductive advertising, selection of nutrient-poor foods,  societal pressure to purchase manufactured food).
            The nutrition messages in our books are encouraging and positive and are combined with basic concepts that all young children need to know, such as colors, shapes, and numbers.  Rhyming text, clever design, and fun content-related brainteasers create unique, memorable books that kids will want to look at again and again.  As they do so, they will learn to identify around 50 different types of fresh produce, thereby beginning the process of becoming food literate.   Furthermore, our Brain Child Books provide valuable exposure that results in children being more likely to look for, point out, name, and ask for veggies and fruits when they visit the grocery store or Farmers’ Market with their parents.

            Issue 2 - Poverty:    
            Poverty is directly correlated to a lack of functional literacy skills and low levels of educational attainment in adults, and results in poor health status, food insecurity, and lack of resources of all kinds for the entire household.   Research also indicates that the intermittent nature of food consumption (not having enough food, or any food at all during times of the month or week) that is common to families in poverty may disrupt normal metabolism and is a factor in obesity levels among this population.  Furthermore, when funds are available, poor food choices (fast food, junk food, high sugar, fat, and sodium) beckon from all sources of media. 
            Low-income families typically have few books of any kind in the home, and children in these families are read to less frequently than middle and higher income families.  Books stimulate the use of more complex language and sentence structure between parents and children, even if parents are only talking about the pictures on the page instead of actually reading the text.  Being read to and exposure to rich language experiences is key to learning to read, and the roots of low literacy can be found in the fact that kids in poverty are exposed to four times fewer words than children from professional-class households (estimates are 12 million vs. 48 million words by age 4). We offer great bulk prices so organizations can put our books in the hands of youngsters who might not otherwise have a book of their own.  

            Issue 3: Low literacy
            Low literacy levels, like obesity, are at crisis levels in this country.  Almost half of all adults ages 16 and up in the U.S. read at the 4th grade level or below.  Low literacy plays a role in school dropout rates, teen pregnancy, drug use, depression, criminal behavior, and the inability to get or keep a job that provides adequate household income.  Moreover, poor reading skills limit the kind of health information a person can access, and this lack of “health literacy” results in medication errors, missed doctors’ appointments, overuse of emergency rooms, and billions of dollars of expense, among other issues.  People who don’t read well and have lesser amounts of education are less likely to use preventative care, have poorer health status than those who are more highly educated, and are less likely to have health insurance.   Finally, poor reading skills prevent individuals from being able to adequately access and analyze print information about health, nutrition, or any topic, which leads to the unquestioning acceptance of mass media messages.
            Our books are written at the second grade level, making them easy to use and understand, even by adults in the household who may have poor literacy skills.  When a child brings one of our books home, they will want to share it with a parent and other family members.  While this will reinforce their own learning, it will also expand the reach of the message promoting good nutrition to others in the household, as well as to extended family, friends, and neighbors.

            Issue 4 - Lack of Physical Activity:
            Much has been written about the lack of physical activity among today’s youngsters.   As electronics have become smaller and cheaper, and the applications they can run are more exciting and innovative, the amount of couch time among youth has exploded.  Whereby the television used to be the sole promoter of inactivity, a huge range of communication and entertainment devises now fill up the rest of the day.   But while technology promotes inactivity, it is not the only factor.  Real and perceived increases in crime keep children behind locked doors, out of sight, or overbooked in safe activities.  Sidewalks are hard to find, and the car has replaced walking to and from school.  Once children arrive at school, the demand for increased test scores keep them inside, seated, and without a break.  Physical education has turned into lectures and hanging out; after school programs are sometimes little more than warehousing, the arts in all their forms have been slashed to the bone. 
            It may seem odd to propose that books can be key players in promoting physical activity in kids; however, books are a child’s gateway to the world.  Storybooks can send imaginations soaring and foster creativity, understanding, and empathy.  Nonfiction books such as ours encourage kids to explore, examine, and observe the physical world.  Both genres can open up new places, ideas, and possibilities, and make kids want to get off the couch to go somewhere, do something, or be someone they hadn’t been before.  Exposure to books and ideas lead to greater levels of literacy and schooling, and it is well known that the number of years of schooling is correlated to better fitness as adults.

            Issue 5 - Parent Outreach and Education: 
            A child’s parents are the conduit by which all of their needs are met.  Ample research shows that the more education a mother has, the better cared for, fed, and educated her children are.   Parents who do not understand basic nutrition, or cannot provide nutritional food for their children are putting the healthy development of their children at risk.  A parent who is obese may not see their child’s diet as an issue and may, in denial, either ignore or dismiss efforts at intervention.  Likewise, obese parents may see intervention in their child’s diet as insulting and intrusive and act out with anger, as well as avoid future communication about the issue.  Resistance or defensiveness is not unexpected when trying to make change in the dietary habits of parents and families.  The strong emotional and cultural connotations and attachments food engenders also means that increasing parent awareness about better nutrition needs to be done gently, particularly with those who may feel attacked, guilty, or remorseful about what they are feeding their child, their child’s health status, or their general parenting style.
            The content, styling, and format of our books are engaging to both children and parents.  Brain Child Books make readers want to pick them up again and again.  The power and potential of receiving a healthy message several times has the effect of encouraging the reader to begin to think about the message in reference to themselves.   The theory described below depicts how this happens.
            The psycho-social TransTheoretical Model (Prochaska et al, 1992, 1997) of learning and lifestyle modification explains intentional behavior change as having cognitive and performance-based components.  Based on more than two decades of research, the TTM has revealed that individuals move through a series of stages before change is recognized as being needed, attempted, and then maintained.  
            These stages - pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance depict how difficult it is to change ingrained eating patterns.  The first three stages are especially pertinent to the use of picture books in promoting changes.   Individuals begin at the stage of “Pre-contemplation.” They are unaware, resistant, unmotivated, and avoid information, discussion, or thought with regard to the targeted health behavior.  As information is provided to them and is consistently reinforced, they slowly progress to the Contemplation stage.  As they become aware of the issues, concerns and benefits of change, they may begin to see how the information applies to themselves.  They may occasionally state their intent to change but are ambivalent about it and procrastinate.  This stage may take a long time as individuals weigh the issues and consider how changes will impact various aspects of their daily living and overall lifestyle.
            Individuals who are fully motivated and have the actual intention to change are in the Preparation stage.  They develop plans, seek out support mechanisms, and share with others the actions and changes they intend to take.  As they move into the action stage, they can envision what the results of their change making will be and feel a sense of resolve and determination. 
            This behavior is followed by the Action stage whereby individuals actually beginning to carry out their plans.  This stage is marked with stops and starts as individuals lapse into old behaviors, then try again and again.  The learning of new behaviors is difficult, but because of their understanding of the need to do so, they continue to attempt it.  Maintenance of new behaviors may result after time, but there is no guarantee this will occur.  What is guaranteed, however, is that permanent changes will never be made unless accessible, understandable information that kick-starts the process of becoming aware and educated is readily made available. 
            This model illustrates why a children’s book can be an excellent tool to help parents move from the initial Pre-contemplation stage, which is marked by the lack of awareness, to the Contemplation stage whereby they begin having thoughts about making changes.  Using a picture book as the conveyor of information is non-threatening, and in fact, is a pleasurable experience as parent and child explore the book together.  Moreover, by sharing the book together, mutual support for making the decision to plan for, and then begin to carry out changes in the family’s eating habits is developed among the family unit.   Encouraging the step into the Action stage is the entire purpose of our books.

            Issue 6 - Consumer Culture:
            Consumer culture is a key player in the crisis this country faces.  The past 50 years of “food modernization” has vastly changed the diet of Americans.  The rise of electronic media has influenced consumer behavior in all areas, and in ways that are often not beneficial to individuals, families, and society as a whole.  Mass produced and marketed manufactured in foods have taken over the vast majority of space in American supermarkets.
             The result is an ethic and aesthetic that prizes time and convenience over quality and nutrition.  This processed, prepackaged food may be quick and tasty, but it is filled with dangerously high levels of sodium, sugar, fats, and all manner of chemical additives.  While fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables, whole grains, meat and dairy ring the outer aisles of the store, these foods often cost more in terms of dollars and cents. The nutrient value per dollar of fresh, unprocessed foods, however, far exceeds that of processed foods – a fact few consumers may know.   Furthermore, in order to use these elemental foods in both a basic and creative way, one needs to know how to select, store, prepare, and cook it, as well as how to safely keep any leftovers. In other words, one must be food literate.
            The attractiveness and novelty of our books creates a “come look at this!” moment that promotes sharing of the book with others and having the nutrition messages more greatly disseminated.  While any one source of information cannot cancel out the million-dollar messages of the food industry, the emotional power of a parent and child sitting together and sharing a book they both enjoy and learn from cannot be underestimated. 

How long does it take to make a name a publishing house in the industry? 

             I serve a very specific niche market, and as such sell bulk quantities directly to local, state, and federal agencies and organizations, as well as to catalogs and businesses serving educators.  Given the fact that I don’t sell to the trade my “name” and reputation were developed differently than it would have been otherwise. 
 Our Brain Child Books and games are purchased by adults who care for, play with, and teach Pre-K to elementary school age children.   These occupations include health care workers, nutritionists, preschool and elementary school teachers, speech therapists, human service workers, parent educators, museum docents, and issue-specific advocates in areas such as the environment.  Parents, grandparents, and others in the general public also purchase our materials online, to be given as gifts and used as supplemental learning tools in the home.
  Our resources are featured in the USDA's Team Nutrition, WIC Works, Farm to School, and Agriculture in the Classroom websites, and have been used extensively in state and local programs around the nation.

What frustrations have you overcome to make it a success?

  Frustrations?  Never enough time!  Anything else?  The economy.

Are the books you publish illustrated, do you select the illustrator or the author?

            As noted, our picture books are about real things, so we only use photos of the real thing.  The photography in our books comes from photos I take myself, photos by a colleague of mine who is a professional photographer, and those we purchase.  When an author submits a manuscript for review, we ask if they will be supplying photography?  If not, we will provide it, however their book royalty rate would be reduced. 

Do you publish both soft cover and eBooks?

            We haven’t published any eBooks yet, however, I am talking with VOOK about this, and will be pursuing production soon.

Do you create other materials with the books? 

            Yes.  One notable in particular is my All About Farmers’ Markets: A Teaching Guide for Classrooms, Camps, and Community Programs.  This 106-page guide is filled with fun, educational activities for children in Pre-K through 2nd grade.  The guide incorporates basic nutrition education with language arts, math, social studies, science, music, physical activities, and more.  Many activities are adaptable for older children as well.  Ten units include important topics such as “Thinking About What We Eat,” “Making Good Food Choices,” “From Farm to Market,” and “Tastes and Textures of the Market.”  Each unit has clearly stated main concepts and learning objectives that address current health education standards and cross-curricular approaches.   All of the 40+ activities are original and were developed specifically for the book by the author.  Activities include games, songs, ideas for parent involvement, and suggestions for field trips.  And includes 50 pages of reproducibles.  This curriculum was selected by the New York City Greenmarket Program as the recommended resource about food and food systems for public school teachers in the New York City School system.  

How do you publicize your books?

          On occasion, I will place an ad in a specialty catalog, but mostly send email blasts to the list of organizations and agencies I have developed over the years.   Also, our resources are featured in the USDA's Team Nutrition, WIC Works, Farm to School, and Agriculture in the Classroom websites, and in cooperative extension sites and programs.
In these tough economic times, do you think small publishers can make their mark on literature and the book selling market?  How best can small presses accomplish their goals?

            I really believe that finding that niche and understanding that market and what they need is the key.   My background was in education, health and human services so I knew the market and who it was that made purchases of books like mine. 

Online reviewers, such as book bloggers, have gained additional recognition at Book Expo America and with publishers and PR staff. Has your publishing company tapped this market of reviewers to spread the word about its books and how formal or informal and/or important are these relationships?

            Yes, I have used a legion of Mom Bloggers to give away and talk about my books.  The relationships can have great promise if you cultivate them, and keep them up-to-date about what is going on in your business.  I recommend the use of blogs for everyone.

If you could give new one piece of advice about finding a publisher, particularly a small press, to publish their work, what would that be and why?

            Know what it is they publish and only approach them if the fit is very good.  There is nothing worse than receiving a manuscript from someone who clearly was shooting in the dark.  It’s a waste of time and resources.  Who can do that these days?

What should an author know about their publisher’s distribution sources?
            Authors should always ask questions about marketing, distribution, editorial and other services during the contract negotiation process.  In addition, the author should understand that there may be editorial changes suggested during the process between acceptance of the manuscript and prepress.  I bring this up because I have found some authors are so wed to their choice of words or syntax that they won’t accept critique.  I had this issue with one author over a single phrase that simply wasn’t appropriate.  It was a shame because the project was quite good overall.

Can books usually be purchased from the publisher?  If not, why would this not speak well or that publisher?

            Of course – this should always be available to authors.  I always suggest that they bring a quantity to sell at workshops and presentations.   If they purchase books at 40% off from the publisher, and sell them for full price, they make significantly more than they would through royalties.  For example:  if the retail price is, say, $10.00, and they purchase them for $6.00, then they make $4.00 for each book they sell.  That would be $3.00 more than a 10% royalty ($1.00) they would otherwise accrue.
What considerations should be given to the book’s cover art?

I am of the mind that the author should know in advance – and as early as possible- what the cover will look.  I had a situation with a large publisher whose art department clearly missed the focus of my book.  It was about parents in the Head Start program and the art department clearly had only children on their mind – not parents.  The cover art consisted of pictures of crayons with children’s handwriting.   I insisted that the cover be changed as it didn’t fit at all.  They obliged, but this is highly unusual, as most publishers don’t allow this.

What should an author know about royalties?

They shouldn’t expect to earn a lot of money – that is just the reality.  We don’t hardcover books, so if we offer a 10% royalty on sales, they may make .69 cents for each book sold.  They need to realize that the blockbuster authors may earn millions but that is only a handful of authors each year.

Should books be distributed to various reviewers, newspapers, bookstore owners, retailers, and radio stations? Why?

            Authors should be interested and prepared to undertake the promotion of their own book, locally as well as anywhere they may travel to, have contacts in, etc.  They need to put out as many feelers as possible to try to get a write-up, interview, book signing, etc.  It’s a very competitive business – so take advantage of every opportunity you can think of, including telling all your friends that you have a book coming out.