Dr. John S. Hutton: Creating Meaningful, Enduring Books for Children

Dr. John S. Hutton is a pediatrician and researcher at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Reading and Literacy Discovery Center, owner of blue manatee children's bookstore, founder of blue manatee press and SpokesDoctor for the national campaign Read Aloud 15 Minutes. His research uses functional MRI to explore the effects of home reading environments and shared reading on brain development and was the first to find proof of and document these effects prior to kindergarten. "Dr. John" is passionate about better understanding the rising influence of electronic media on young children and the importance of a solid foundation in language, human connection and creative play. He lives with his family, dogs, cat, rabbit, fish and a whole bunch of bees, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Blue manatee press's mission is to create meaningful, enduring books that bring grown-ups and children together. How did this become a mission for you?

I was fortunate to grow up in a family household that valued reading. Books were everywhere, and I always loved the tradition of the bedtime story, a tradition I have continued with my own daughters. All of these experiences reinforced a ritual that created that special parent-child bond through reading moments. Later, as a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, it became clear that books can serve as a catalyst for bringing parents and children together, which has been shown to impact social-emotional development, stress reduction and cognitive development. So, blue manatee press was created with the intention of creating quality books that families can read together.

How has your literacy development and role as a practicing pediatrician driven the mission and focus behind the press?

Around 10 years ago, I refocused my time to spend more of it in the bookstore--I was becoming more aware of the importance of early childhood reading and I saw the connection between parents and children every day in the store as they read books together. At the same time, I was also seeing the rise of screen-time, which seemed to be interrupting that connection.

This was the inspiration for my Baby Unplugged series, which encourages limiting screen-time and focusing on experiences that lead to learning through imaginative play and exploring the real world. In my medical residency, we were to create an advocacy project meant to educate families on a health issue, and I chose limiting screen time. Because of my connection to books and the bookstore, I decided to get the message across in books rather than the standard brochure. The first three books in the series--Pets, Yard and Blanket--were well received, but we had a limited market. So, through a grass-roots effort by reaching out to other independent stores like blue manatee and eventually partnering with IPG for national distribution, we were able to bring a more positive, accessible health message to families through children's books.

Blue manatee's books are conceptually driven and often created based on research findings. Could you tell us a little bit more about the concepts behind your books?

We published a study through Cincinnati Children's in 2015 that showed, through the use of FMRI, the connection between early reading exposure in the home environment and how this impacted brain development, particularly in the regions of imagination and connecting words with images. It also suggested that the frequency of how often a child reads or is read to is important. This led to concepts in our early childhood board books, like Read Baby, Every Day, that provide the reminder that children should be read to early and often.

What does it mean to/for you and to/for the press that blue manatee is also a children's bookstore?

For me, as the former buyer for the bookstore, I am very much aware of how finicky bookstore buyers are and how they expect the highest quality. This experience has enhanced our ability to understand what would appeal to book buyers. Furthermore, our own high standards for what we carry in the bookstore have informed the types of books we publish--we are always striving to publish books that have the potential to endure as favorites. We are proudly both an independent press as well as an independent bookstore, so we know the joy and struggle of running an independent bookstore and feel strongly connected with our fellow indies.

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