Children’s Authors Thriving in the Buckeye State (And Four You Didn’t Know Were From Ohio)

In 2022, global book publishing revenue reached $129 billion, with more than 24% of this generated from the United States alone. Furthermore, over a third of all books sold in the U.S. are children’s books. Despite its industry dominance, children’s literature is often brushed to the wayside — but Ohio is flipping the script. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

“I have everything here that I need.”

Will Hillenbrand has been writing and illustrating children’s books for over 33 years. His bibliography, which includes the beloved Bear and Mole series, is 75 books long and counting. But while many literary careers lead authors to coastal publishing hubs, Hillenbrand has done it all from right here in Ohio.

“When I was very young reading books, I could be right in my own shoes and be anywhere and go anywhere, even travel through time,” Hillenbrand said. “I find that when I’m creating my work, I’m able to do that. But I’m always happy to know that when I fill my shoes, [when] I’m back and in my own house, that I’m satisfied with what that is, and it has everything that I need and more.”

Hillenbrand is one of many children’s authors who find Ohio a particularly supportive place for their career. From author networks to library collections, from book festivals to literary awards, the Buckeye State has created a unique hub for children’s authors to flourish.

Children’s literature is a thriving sector of the publishing industry. In 2022, global book publishing revenue reached $129 billion, with more than 24% of this generated from the United States alone. While over a third of all books sold in the U.S. are children’s books, the children’s literary scene is not always given the celebration that it deserves.

“There’s frequently an attitude in the publishing industry that the kids’ stuff isn’t quite as important or as prestigious as the adult,” Kathryn Powers, assistant director of the Ohioana Library Association and regional advisor for the Central and Southern Ohio chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, said. “Ohio is very, very good about making it so that those are celebrated just as much.”

Powers attributes this positivity to the active community relationship among children’s authors in the state, fostered in part by the SCBWI. With two Ohio chapters, SCBWI provides resources and support while offering children’s authors and illustrators the chance to connect through regional conferences and events. According to Powers, this encourages a community of authors seeking to raise each other up in the industry, rather than competing for opportunities.

“In the ‘kidlit’ community, it seems like very much the attitude that there’s room for all books on the shelf,” Powers said. “And if there’s not, we just need to build a bigger shelf.”

For Hillenbrand, part of this ethos comes from valuing a range of new voices and perspectives in children’s literature. 

“I see many more people creating works for children,” Hillenbrand said. “People with diverse backgrounds and people that have seen the world in their own unique way. … It’s like a gem that, when light hits, it reflects many different colors. And having more voices being able to do that allows for [our] audience, young children, to be able to understand this at a fundamentally important time in their life.”

SCBWI field trip, 2023. Image courtesy of Kathryn Powers.

Powers is an aspiring children’s author and illustrator herself, and says that the author community is one of the things that has kept her going on the long road. And a long road it is — even children’s literature giants like J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss faced numerous rejections before being picked up by a publisher. 

The road continues winding even after an author hits the publication jackpot: According to WordsRated, 54% of full-time authors earned less than $13,000 from their writing in 2017.

“A lot of people don’t realize just how hard the industry is to get into, and how very, very long that it does take to get published,” Powers said. “I would have given up a long time ago on the publishing industry if I didn’t have such a supportive group.”

Will Hillenbrand sharing stories. Image courtesy of Will Hillenbrand.

Hillenbrand also finds camaraderie in the children’s literature community in Ohio. In particular, he sees book events as spaces for reunion among Ohio authors who look forward to catching up.

“When I know one of my colleagues I haven’t seen in a while will be doing a book event at an independent bookstore, I’ll make haste to go there,” Hillenbrand said. “They’re usually swamped, but it’s just a smile in the background and [to] say, ‘I’m here for you.’”

The Buckeye Book Fair has promoted the children’s literature industry by hosting an annual literary fair in Wooster, Ohio since 1987. Its executive director, Kimberly Jarvis, sees it as an opportunity to watch Ohio children’s authors thrive. 

“They’ll start with an idea one year and come into the book fair, and then the next year they may be having two or three books be signed with Simon and Schuster,” Jarvis said. “It’s very exciting to see that progression.”

According to Jarvis, their November 2023 fair saw a total of 112 authors gathered for stalls, presentations and panels. Nearly 4,000 books were sold, and a further 500 were given to children for free.

Ohioana Book Festival, 2023. Image courtesy of Kathryn Powers.

Donating books and hosting book fairs are just some of the ways that organizations in Ohio support the children’s author community. SCBWI is constantly trying to find ways to get more authors involved, such as making its programs more accessible.

“For our chapter, we don’t require anybody to be a paid member in order to attend our online programming,” Powers said. “We just make it free for anybody in the hopes that we’ll be able to reach some voices that maybe wouldn’t have been able to find us before — and then maybe get inspired to show their unique voices and stories and viewpoints with the young readers of today.”

Another way that Ohio organizations open doors in the children’s literature industry is by welcoming authors from all publishing streams. According to Powers, a lot of book festivals don’t accept self-published books, which cuts out many creators from engaging in the community. 

“The self-publishing industry is huge right now, and I think in a lot of ways that is frequently looked down on,” Powers said. “But Ohio, particularly Ohioana, has been really good about being welcoming of those books and accepting that it’s just a different way of publishing — it’s still great literature. So I think that has made a big difference as well in growing the community.”

Both Powers and Jarvis agreed that the pandemic was a turning point in the growth of Ohio’s author community. While it brought unsteady business for the industry — such as unpredictable peaks and troughs in book sales — it also meant that organizations were able to reach previously excluded groups of children’s authors.

“We did move a lot of our programming online, which we had never done before,” Powers said, “[and] which turned out to be a really great way to connect with people around our region, especially like the Appalachian communities who had never been able to actually attend things in person before, since those were usually in the main cities.”

Ohioana Virtual Book Festival, 2022. Image courtesy of Kathryn Powers.

The pandemic was also a turning point for the authors themselves.

“During the pandemic, there were authors who had their books shelved, or their manuscripts were shelved by their publishers,” Jarvis said. “And it changed them, because they got a lot more tenacious about getting their content out.” 

Since the pandemic, Jarvis reports a large increase in different forms of publishing, such as self-published authors, authors signing with independent publishers and “crossover authors” who publish their books with both small and large presses.

Ohio authors have long been innovating ways to succeed as authors. Jarvis particularly admires Hillenbrand for the ways he goes above and beyond for his young readers at events. 

“When people come to the book fair, they like to spend time at his table because he does a couple of things: One, he remembers people … he also makes customized illustrations for people,” Jarvis said.

Will Hillenbrand at a book-signing table. Image courtesy of Will Hillenbrand.

“It’s a breathtaking journey,” Hillenbrand said about generations of families coming back to buy his books. “You just never know [the] journey once you release a book from your desk. When you’re working on it in solitude, you don’t know. You hope that it’ll have a life outside — these are affirmations that it does.”

Jarvis recalled her own memories of the impact that meeting authors can have on a child’s reading experience.

“I loved books, and my parents were very supportive and always making sure that I was able to get books at the book fair,” Jarvis said. “But the thing that made the difference with that book is that I got to meet the author.”

According to Jarvis, the thriving children’s author scene is already attracting authors from out of state — as far as San Diego — to relocate to Ohio within recent years.

“We’re reflective of just a very strong industry,” Powers said. “Even when book sales are declining for some other age groups and genres, it seems like the children’s literature [sector] is always robust … while everything else shrinks, that one continues to grow.”

But there is still more work to be done. Now, organizations and authors alike are thinking of ways to continue building a bigger shelf for the children’s literature scene in Ohio. This includes developing literary award categories to represent the breadth of children’s literature more thoroughly, along with increasing newsletter campaigns to spread children’s literature news further.

“You can meet and connect with people from Ohio, but whenever I connect with a book, it’s deeply personal,” Hillenbrand said. “And in some way, when you do meet [the author], you feel like you’ve known them all along.”


Along with a host of local creators, Ohio has produced some globally acclaimed authors in children’s literature, including the writers listed below. Although you’ve likely heard their names or their books, you may not know of their Buckeye roots.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress Life via Wikimedia Commons. 

Dav Pilkey 

Dav Pilkey is best known for his children’s graphic novel series “The Adventures of Captain Underpants” and “Dog Man.” With the first book of the “Captain Underpants” series published in 1997, and with novels still being published today, his comedy comics have captivated girls and boys alike for over 20 years. The “Captain Underpants” series was so popular that they inspired a TV show and a movie, and have sold more than 70 million copies, with an extra 60 million sales for the ongoing “Dog Man” books. 

He now lives in Washington, but Pilkey was born and raised in Cleveland. At school, he struggled with disruptive ADD which led to him being sent to a desk in the hallway — where he would end up creating his famous Captain Underpants character in scribbled comic books. So inspired was Pilkey by his home state that he even set “Captain Underpants” in the small town of Piqua, Ohio. He also stayed local for college, attending Kent State University.

Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons. 

R.L. Stine

“Goosebumps” and “Fear Street” comprise two of the horror book series that made R.L. Stine a globally acclaimed children’s author. The 1990s “Goosebumps” books were so popular that they have been translated in 35 languages, and inspired TV shows and movies of the same name. With over 400 million books sold, Stine ranks among the best-selling fiction authors of all time. Part of this success may be attributed to his prolific bibliography: While the 1990s “Goosebumps” series had 62 books, his additional spin-offs and series have skyrocketed his total to 330 and counting.

Lesser known than his blockbuster titles are Stine’s deep Ohio roots. Stine was born and raised in Columbus and credits his working-class childhood in 1940s and ‘50s Ohio as the catalyst for his staying at home and writing. He later attended Ohio State University, where was the editor of the school’s humor magazine — a tone which still seeps into his writing today. Although he moved to New York to pursue his career as an author, his early passion for writing was kindled in the Buckeye State.

Image courtesy of Jennifer Fisher via nancydrewsleuth.com.

Mildred Benson

“Nancy Drew” is a household detective name. Fighting crime from 1930 to 2003, the teenager starred in a mystery book series that was a literary classic for almost a century, selling over 70 million copies and inspiring various media adaptations. Although you may be familiar with the author ‘Carolyn Keene’, you may not know that this is a collective pseudonym for a handful of ghostwriters — one of which included Mildred Benson, who wrote 23 of the 30 original books. 

While Benson was born in Iowa, she moved to Ohio in her early adulthood, first to Cleveland then Toledo, where she passed away in 2002. Benson found a long-term home in Ohio, where she continued ghostwriting alongside a journalism career that lasted 58 years in the Toledo news industry. As one of the area’s first female reporters hired during World War II, Benson firmly left her mark on Toledo. 

Image courtesy of Kalamazoo Public Library via Wikimedia Commons. 

Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson is one of the most critically acclaimed children’s authors of today. She has served as the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate, garnered numerous prestigious awards and held the position of the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for the Library of Congress. Her works span from poetry and picture books to middle-grade and young adult readers, and she has authored more than 30 books since publishing her first in 1990.

Though her childhood was spent moving between the South and the East Coast, Woodson was actually born in the Midwest — Columbus, Ohio, specifically. Her early experiences in Ohio, South Carolina and New York inspired her to write “Brown Girl Dreaming,” her most popular work yet, which explores what it was like to grow up Black in the ‘60s and ‘70s United States. She also spent time in Nelsonville, Ohio, where she says her grandfather’s family was the only Black family in the city at the time.

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