Searching out inspirational source material is a year-round job. You never know when or where you’ll find a book that seems to cry out for a wider audience in film or TV. But spring is a particularly good time of year to spot these winners because publishers are churning out their first catalogues of the year, and most of the big hitters are preparing to bring their wares to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy. With the mid-April event just around the corner, the time seems ripe to take a look at what trends and titles are blooming in the kids book biz.
Last year, the Young Adult category picked up some major steam as many publishers launched new imprints to expand their reach into the upper end of the kids demographic. And this year, they’re keeping that momentum going by recruiting heavily from the adult fiction talent pool. Driving the trend is the belief that parents may be more inclined to buy their kids books written by authors whose names they recognize, perhaps propelling these titles higher up the bestsellers list.
Kids publishing has traditionally been a welcoming playground for adult authors interested in trying out new styles, but it’s never been as potent a marketing tool for publishers as it is today. ‘You’re going to see more and more of this, I have no doubt,’ says Doug Whiteman, president of the Penguin Young Readers Group.
The success of Penguin’s Travel Team, a 2004 title by sports columnist and adult author Mike Lupica, underscores the effectiveness of the strategy. The book sold more than 150,000 hardcover copies and sat on the New York Times bestseller list for 17 weeks last year, hitting the top spot twice. These kinds of stats are also critical when it comes to attracting TV and film producers, says Whiteman. ‘There are so many more series and book products available [today],’ he says. ‘The studios have to be choosier.’
Penguin’s Hank Zipzer series by actor Henry Winkler and producer Lin Oliver has been on shelves for less than two years, but it has already surpassed the million-copy sales mark and is in consideration at Nickelodeon as a TV concept.
From Little, Brown comes James Patterson’s Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment, a bizarre action-adventure yarn about six kids with bird genes in their DNA. They’re set free after spending most of their lives in cages, but as luck would have it, one of them is promptly kidnapped by evil half-wolf creatures. The book’s 400,000-copy print run indicates that LB’s expectations for it are running high.
In addition to borrowing talent from older-skewing genres, YA is also more sensitive to adult fiction trends than other kids publishing categories. Hot themes generally take 18 months to two years to trickle down to YA, and chick-lit modeled after the global hit Bridget Jones’s Diary is all the rage right now.
Fox has already optioned Random House’s Bras & Broomsticks, and Beverly Horowitz, VP and publisher of the publisher’s Bantam/Delacorte/Dell group, points to two books in the same vein that are brimming with big-screen potential. Flip-flopping between heartfelt and funny, The Boyfriend List is about a teen girl whose therapist suggests she put together a list of past boyfriends and delve into the good, the bad and the ugly of each relationship. Jailbait, meanwhile, may prove to be a bit more controversial. The story revolves around Andi, a teenage girl who has recently moved to the ‘burbs with her family. Bored to tears by the slower pace of her new environment and looking to shake things up a bit, Andi ends up dating a much older man.
Fans of The Da Vinci Code won’t be surprised to hear that supernatural mysteries are starting to creep into kids publishing territory. And to take advantage of this trend, Penguin is launching 10 titles in a branded mystery line this summer. The Sleuth range comprises a broad mix of paperback and hardcover titles for middle-grade to YA readers, but a unified cover style will tie them all together so they stand out on-shelf. One of the first books to roll out will be Suzi Wizowaty’s A Tour of Evil, about a young runaway who finally finds a home she likes. Unfortunately, it’s a huge cathedral with a crypt full of human remains, plenty of hidden recesses for spooky things to hide in, and secrets of its own that Alma must take pains not to fall victim to.
Craig Walker, VP and editorial director for the trade paperback division of Scholastic Books, says the fantasy and adventure genres are evolving to encompass more mystery elements, and the Gatekeepers series is a good example.
The first of five planned titles, Raven’s Gate, will roll out in June with a 75,000-copy print run. The book has a creepy undertone that would make Stephen King proud, and its target audience of tween boys should eat it up. Main character Matt is sent away to live with a new foster mother in the middle of nowhere as punishment for a crime he witnessed but didn’t commit. The story takes a frightening turn when Matt realizes his new guardian is involved in the occult, and everyone he goes to for help ends up disappearing or dying.
While YA continues to sizzle, traditional picture books are having a harder time finding purchase in the market. Penguin’s Whiteman attributes the category’s softer sales to school budget cutbacks and buying patterns that seem to indicate parents aren’t picking up as many books for their second and third children.
Whiteman is quick to add that the slide is not steep, and it isn’t likely to impact an overall growth in kids publishing. But it does explain why fewer picture books are being published this year. Random House’s Horowitz says that titles by well-known writers and illustrators still tend to perform well at retail, so it’s largely the middle range of picture books that are suffering. Her colleague Nancy Hinkel, publisher for RH’s Knopf & Crown imprint, sees this dip as part of a cyclical ebb and flow in the picture book market, and she believes a sales rebound is right around the corner.
But that’s not to say that picture books are out of the picture entirely. Besides its striking new entry Russell the Sheep (see ‘Multimedia legwork,’ page 119), HarperCollins has committed a massive print run of 350,000 copies to Bears. Illustrated by the much-loved Maurice Sendak, this book is about a little boy who encounters a wacky troupe of bears everywhere he goes.
Meanwhile, HarperCollins’ The Four-Carrot School Day features a charming little boy named Tucker who struggles with the idea of going to school, but ends up having a great time. Rosen hints that Tucker is already drawing interest from studios.
And rounding out HarperCollins’ catalogue is NASTYbook, a collection of unique stories by Barry Yourgrau that’s expected to thrill tweens with its irreverence and humor. The book is set in a weird world where parents dump their uncool offspring, talented imaginary friends abandon their boring creators, and popstars regularly get turned into rodents, just for kicks.