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At Nomad Press, It’s All About Fun in Education

  • Nomad Press publisher Alex Kahan pages through a book at his company’s office in Hartford this week. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Nomad Press publisher Alex Kahan pages through a book at his company’s office in Hartford this week. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Designer Abby Clark and Senior Vice President Mark Schiffman work on an advertisement at Nomad Communications. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Designer Abby Clark and Senior Vice President Mark Schiffman work on an advertisement at Nomad Communications. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nomad Press designer Abby Clark looks through a proof of one of the publisher’s books to make corrections. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Nomad Press designer Abby Clark looks through a proof of one of the publisher’s books to make corrections. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nomad Press publisher Alex Kahan pages through a book at his company’s office in Hartford this week. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Designer Abby Clark and Senior Vice President Mark Schiffman work on an advertisement at Nomad Communications. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Nomad Press designer Abby Clark looks through a proof of one of the publisher’s books to make corrections. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Nomad Press, on Route 5 in White River Junction, publishes illustrated books for children that explore, through hands-on learning, the engineering of canals and dams, backyard biology, the cultures of the Inca, Maya, Greeks and Romans, the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci and kitchen chemistry, among hundreds of subjects.

You could call the books entertaining, and the experiments inexpensive and easy to construct. But if you call them educational, Alex Kahan, one of the publishers, winces slightly.

“In some regards we’re labeled as an educational publisher,” Kahan said. “Yawn, yawn. The best way we’ve learned, or our kids have learned, is through doing. Activity-based books (are) something we think we can do well.”

Kahan is thinking like a child, not an adult, and the word “educational” is the equivalent of plonking a 21st-century kid in front of a screen showing 1950s black-and-white film strips on hygiene. If a teacher, Kahan said, wants to drain intellectual curiosity out of her students, tell little Johnny and Jane they’re going to read a book about the Industrial Revolution, and watch their faces drop. Kahan obligingly demonstrates, brow furrowing and lips curling.

“But if a teacher says, today we’re going to learn about steam shovels, that gets a kid’s attention.” Kahan said. “Mom, today I learned how to use steam shovels, and did you know they were used to build the Coulee Dam?”

“I think sometimes it’s hard for parents to understand that fun doesn’t negate learning,” he said.

And that, in a nutshell, is the philosophy of Nomad Press, which was founded in 2002 by Kahan, who focuses on the marketing side, and his wife Susan Hale Kahan, who is managing editor.

Book publishing was an offshoot of Nomad Communications, an advertising firm, which the Kahans started in Vermont in 1994, and which is the other arm of the business. Kahan had come out of advertising in Boston, and Hale, a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, was an editor at McGraw Hill when they decided to ditch city life in 1987 and move to the Upper Valley.

The press started in the late ’90s as a book packager for such big houses as McGraw Hill and Simon and Schuster, putting together books on sports and guides for parents on coaching and other topics. After building a good track record, said Kahan, the lightbulb went off. “Jeez, we’re pretty good at this and we’re handing off to other publishers.We can do this better ourselves, which is a bold statement.”

For a publisher, the idealism of falling in love with a writer or a project does not, alas, always translate into sales that can sustain a business. Kahan said that when they began the press, they had solid experience as both packagers and marketers, which helped them be realistic about what they could do, and what they couldn’t.

The staff might love an idea, but if there’s no market for it, they steer clear. “We were pretty conscientious in knowing what we knew and what we didn’t know. I think we had our eyes wide open.”

Eleven years later, Nomad Press has a full-time staff of eight, a freelance roster of 30 writers, illustrators and editors, and a backlist of about 250 titles, most of which are designed for use in the classroom or at home. (They also publish coffee-table books on a variety of subjects.)

The series includes books on endangered ecosystems, Colonial America, building it yourself, exploring your world, discovery, investigating materials and international soccer. Their books have been translated into at least 30 languages, which tells them, Kahan said, that there’s “a universal appeal of presenting this information this way.”

The press has a straightforward editorial standard for deciding whether to publish a book: “Do we like it? Can we make it fun? And does it align with national curriculum standards?” Kahan said.

Between the implementation in public schools of the Common Core curriculum and the growing emphasis on both STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) and STEAM (the same as STEM, but with the arts included), the kind of books that Nomad does are reaching a wide audience through adoption by schools and libraries.

One of their most successful books, Kahan said, was on garbage. The idea was to show “how a teacher could use the concept of garbage and apply that to a fifth-grade science unit on environmental studies,” Kahan said.

Children using the books learn basic principles of physics, engineering or math by performing simple experiments. In Canals and Dams: Investigate Feats of Engineering with 25 Projects, kids explore how the locks of a canal work by assembling a small one in in a tub; build a timber dam; and simulate a tsunami in a small basin. One experiment on density asks you to compare what raisins will do when they’re dropped into a glass of carbonated water versus dropping them into flat water.

In an editorial meeting, four of the staff are throwing out ideas for possible books. Rockets. Money. Big numbers. The American Revolution. The Aztecs. Bridge engineering.

Susan Hale Kahan poses a question: “How can we address STEAM?”

“Is that an off-shoot of STEM?” her husband asks. “Would 500 middle school teachers know what STEAM is?”

“More and more do,” Hale said.

Rachel Benoit, who wears both marketing and production hats, interjects that they don’t want to omit subjects in the language arts area because it’s part of the Common Core. Ditto the subject of climate change, which is finding its way into science classes in some parts of the country. This is something that Nomad Press can do well, Benoit said. “We’re able to take a common or timely topic and put it into our books.”

E-books are an increasing part of their business, Kahan said, and the press is contemplating how to make books interactive, by embedding audio or video. An e-book on engineering might include the grainy video of an old engine or steam shovel or the voice of an engineer. The idea would be use technology to enhance a book, but not detract from the simple, improvised experiments that make the books work.

Even so, those kinds of interactive features are “an expensive undertaking,” Kahan said.

And if there’s one truism about the publishing industry, it’s that nobody has really figured out how to make money in an era of Amazon, piracy, dwindling royalties, huge author advances, and the plague of book returns to publishers by bookstores, which undercuts profits all the way down the line.

“Publishing is an archaic business,” Kahan said. “What other business do you know where in six months you can say, I’m done with it. Here, take it back. It’s not a part of the industry we want to be a part of and we don’t want to be using our books to heat our home in February.”

So, although an attitude prevails of Hey Kids, Let’s Publish a Book About Tectonic Plates, Kahan’s “greatest fear is we’ll end up on that remainder table at the Dartmouth Bookstore. We can’t publish just on a whim.”

And although a kid’s time is carved up into increasingly wide slices of school, extracurricular activities and the electronic black hole of iPods, iPads and video games, a good book can still lay claim to a child’s attention, Kahan said. “Make it fun and engaging and you’ve got a shot.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.