Pubcos ready a bevy of kidlit spin-off hopefuls

From its beginning, Hollywood has looked to pubcos to provide source material for the next great kids film or TV franchise, a practice that publishers say has intensified in the last year. Harry Potter notwithstanding, the lack of current hit TV...
May 1, 2001

From its beginning, Hollywood has looked to pubcos to provide source material for the next great kids film or TV franchise, a practice that publishers say has intensified in the last year. Harry Potter notwithstanding, the lack of current hit TV and film properties has studios stepping up their efforts to uncover the next breakout book that they can take to the big or the small screen, says Angus Killick, VP and director of marketing at Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers.

Hoping to alleviate studio developmental departments of the burden of reading every new kids book released in 2001, here’s a rundown of spin-off hopefuls topping pubcos’ spring and summer lists.

Not surprisingly, the presence of the bespectacled boy wizard looms largely over the titles pubcos are releasing. Translation: Fantasy is still hot.

‘There is a new generation of kids who are picking up books and reading, and I totally credit this phenomenon to Harry Potter,’ says Penguin’s Killick. To help feed that audience, Penguin Putnam is planning to launch an as-yet-unnamed YA fantasy imprint in spring 2002 that will offer books for teens who grew up reading Potter and are now hungry for fantasy titles that speak to their age group.

Random House Children’s Books has also upped its focus on fantasy books and is spending more on marketing its existing stable of fantasy authors-like Carol Hughes, for instance, says Kate Klimo, VP and publisher of Random House Books for Young Readers. In September, Random will release Hughes’s latest book, Toots Underground (US$15.95), about a little girl who shrinks herself and travels to an upside-down world populated by pixies. She has to figure out a way to solve the problems afflicting the world’s inhabitants, which are also causing unrest in her reality. Klimo says the book-targeted to readers ages eight to 13 and the second in the Toots series-has strong option potential because story lines involving shrinking have always been popular in Hollywood. ‘It’s Gulliver’s Travels, essentially,’ says Klimo.

Also orbiting within the otherworldly realm is sci-fi offering Baloney, Henry P. Published under Penguin’s Viking imprint, the book tells the story of a young alien who is constantly late for school and concocts a fantastic fib for his teacher to explain his tardiness. Aimed at readers ages four to eight, the book is also slyly educational. In relaying his tall tale, Henry uses a string of seemingly nonsensical words, forcing the reader to figure out what he’s talking about by analyzing the context of the book’s pictures. It’s the same way people learn a new language, says Killick. (The back of the book features a glossary of the words, which are actually culled from several different languages.)

Henry P. is the creation of the author-illustrator team of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, whose skewed approach to kidlit includes The Stinky Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and The Time Warp Trio, which was recently optioned by WGBH Boston. Killick says that Henry would make a great cartoon because he’s an instantly recognizable character. ‘You immediately fall in love with him, in the same way you do with Simon & Schuster’s Olivia,’ says Killick. For launch this month, Penguin Putnam will offer consumers who buy the book (US$15.95) a gift-with-purchase CD-ROM featuring Henry P. screensavers, games, wallpaper and a video from Scieszka and Smith.

More Parts (US$15.95) from Penguin also features a lead character with an overactive imagination. A picture book geared to readers four to eight, More Parts is the sequel to last year’s Parts and picks up on the neurotic musings of a young bug-eyed boy who interprets literally figures of speech concerning parts of the body. In the book, author-illustrator Tedd Arnold depicts the unnamed every-child as he considers the literal implications of phrases like ‘hold your tongue,’ or ‘scream your lungs out’ to comic effect. The humor of Parts would make for a great animated TV series, Killick says, because the boy is a character type that has rarely been seen in kids entertainment. ‘He’s a total hypochondriac,’ says Killick. In support of the book’s retail launch in September, Penguin will mail out an interactive poster with movable parts to retailers, schools and libraries.

Turning the page to books that target an older demo, publishers are readying to launch a slew of new titles for YA readers that trade in the proven material of teen alienation and relationship woes. In HarperCollins’ The Black Book: [Diary of a Teenage Stud], the main character and narrator, lovelorn high-schooler Jonah Black, constructs an identity through his diaries of a lothario who never fails to score. Unfortunately, Jonah’s fantasy

couldn’t be further from the truth.

‘Black is like the Bridget Jones’s Diary for boys,’ says Julia Richardson, executive editor of HarperCollins’ Children’s Books, though she thinks that the core readership will be girls. The books, which are all penned by Jonah Black (the pen name of a veteran YA writer whose identity HarperCollins is keeping a secret), alternate between Jonah’s idealized version of himself and the reality that is his life. The first book, [Diary of a Teenage Stud] Vol. 1: Girls, Girls, Girls (US$4.99), will be released in September, followed by three other bimonthly releases.

According to industry sources, the Fox Network has optioned the series, but its development remains at a standstill until the WGA writers strike is resolved. In the fall, HarperCollins is planning to launch a viral marketing campaign with teen apparel retailer, whose publishing arm 17th Street Productions packaged the Black series.

In James Howe’s novel Misfits (Simon & Schuster), the need for love is the furthest thing from the minds of the protagonists; tolerance, though, would be nice. Aimed at kids ages 10 to 14, the book (US$16.99) follows a group of kids who are treated as outcasts at their school. ‘It’s a book about trying to cope with the tortures of being picked on,’ says Carol Roeder, VP of licensing and international marketing at Simon & Schuster.

The ostracized students find a non-violent way to resolve the problems they’re having with bullies, which, Roeder believes, makes it ideal fodder for TV considering the recent rash of school shootings at U.S. high schools. In support of the title’s October release, Simon & Schuster is considering distributing Misfit buttons via retailers and at the American Library Association’s annual conference, featuring an epithet like Dweeb or Loser, for example, with a line crossed through it.

Troubled teens is the subject du jour in Scholastic’s new adventure trilogy called Island. The books, which are written by Gordon Korman (Nose Pickers From Outerspace), center on a group of delinquent kids who are sent to work on a ship to learn the about the values of teamwork and discipline. Early on, they find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island in the South Pacific and soon discover that their new home also doubles as a way-station for gunrunners.

Throughout the three books (US$4.50 each)-the first of which hits retail this month, followed by releases in June and July-the kids must find a way to get off the island without being detected by the criminals. Craig Walker, VP and editorial director of Scholastic Paperbacks, thinks the Island trilogy would work well as a live-action TV show because it’s reminiscent of Survivor, plus there’s plenty of tension with the kids trying to evade capture.

Teens-with-gnarly-powers also continues to be a thematic gold mine, as evidenced by T*Witches, a new series from Scholastic about twin teen girls who are separated at birth. The twins reunite in adolescence and discover that they’re both powerful witches.

Described by Walker as a cross between Charmed and the The Parent Trap, T*Witches was co-authored by H.P. Gilmour and Randi Reisfeld, who have both penned celebrity bios and TV tie-in titles. As such, T*Witches has a clipped writing style and features a lot of dialogue, lending itself to TV adaptation, says Walker. Scholastic will release the first book this month, following up with single-title quarterly releases starting in August.

Scholastic is including both T*Witches and Island in its Blast-Off summer reading promotion, which will be comprised of book giveaways at various events such as teen mall fashion shows and beach parties, as well as a separate gift-with-purchase music CD and makeup kit initiative.

For more educational fare, Scholastic is coming out with an American version of the hit Brit publishing property Horrible Histories. Entitled America’s Horrible Histories, the non-fiction series takes a humorous stab at U.S. history. In it, the Edward R. Murrow-like cockroach narrator-who has been around since the Earth first cooled-interviews key figures and creatures throughout America’s different epochs. Walker thinks the book would be ideal for TV ‘because there’s nothing on TV for kids that’s historical and educational, in addition to being funny.’

The first two books, Who Are You Calling a Wooly Mammoth? and Awesome Ancient Ancestors! (US$4.99 each), examine pre-Columbian life in America and will hit booksellers in August. Scholastic will release the next two installments, which look at Colonial life and Western expansion, in February.

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