A new crop of kids book properties are ripe for the picking as the publishing world preps for the release of its fall lineup, and many of them have strong potential to exist outside of their pages. Pottermania has had a transforming impact on the children’s publishing industry, especially in the fantasy category, which has expanded to reach an audience far beyond its kid-targeted base and opened up new channels of distribution for future releases.
Suzanne Murphy, VP and publisher at Scholastic, has watched this gradual coup develop from the front lines. ‘It’s not as hard as it maybe once was to get the crossover market because adults are perfectly comfortable going into a kids section for a book that they’ve heard wonderful things about and buying it,’ she says. ‘Crossover just isn’t a dream anymore – it’s a reality of what’s out there in the marketplace.’
And Murphy is banking on The Hunger Games to be the next crossover hit. Penned by bestselling author Suzanne Collins (The Underland Chronicles), this trilogy for readers eight to 12 centers around Katniss Everdeen, a teen living in a future North America where kids are pitted against each other to fight to the death. The series is infused with equal parts sci-fi, fantasy, adventure and romance, and Murphy says the cinematic pacing of Collins’ prose (a skill she picked up writing for TV earlier in her career) and a broad range of good and evil characters in the plotlines make the concept well-suited for a big- or small-screen translation.
On the lighter side of Scholastic’s fall catalogue, Murphy likes the adaptation potential of new comedy series Schooling Around. The second kid-targeted offering from Australian author Andy Griffiths, best known for his wacky Butt books (The Day My Butt Went Psycho, Zombie Butts from Uranus, etc.), this new paperback offering is about fifth-grader Henry McThrottle and his strangely magical adventures at Northwest Southeast Central School. Its calling card is silly kid-based humor, with chapter titles like ‘How to Make Friends with a Banana’ and a whole lot of puns (for example, the school librarian’s name is Mr. Shush).
The first book hits retail in August, and Scholastic has signed on for six titles, with plans to keep the series going beyond that initial commitment. Because Murphy feels the property is more school-friendly than Griffiths’ Butt books, she sees it having consumer products traction in back-to-school categories like backpacks and school supplies.
It’s worth noting that Griffiths has got some game when it comes to writing books with entertainment chops; his Butts franchise is currently in development as a 26 x half-hour series at Scholastic Media.
Overseas at HarperCollins Children’s Books UK, brand and properties director Claire Harding is busy prepping Lola Love for the British girls market. Created and written by teen mag columnist Lisa Clark, Lola empowers insecure young girls with inspirational messages in the world of skinny celebrities. And because the issue plagues eight- to 13-year-olds everywhere, Harding firmly believes there’s a place for Lola in the global market.
To help launch the property, Harper-Collins has teamed up with MyKindaPlace.com, a UK portal for teen girls that boasts more than 600,000 unique users. The teams worked together on Lolasland.com, which launched in all its pink and sparkly glory this past April, offering games, fashion and beauty tips and inspirational real-girl stories that promote positive thinking and self-image.
Lola’s first books are sassy non-fiction advice guides and style bibles called Think Pink and Beauty*licious, covering everything from how to feel great about your body and personality, to how to protect your friendships from disputes over boys. Harding sees growth in the teen girl fiction sector, so she’s working towards moving Lola into that space with stories about her posse of pals, the Pink Ladies.
HarperCollins is actively seeking production partners for the project, and has recruited Airlie Lawson as head of content development to facilitate the search. Merch-wise, Harding has identified apparel, nightwear, giftware, personal care, stationery and greeting cards as priority categories.
Over at Random House UK, meanwhile, Princess Poppy is seated comfortably on her throne. The company launched a first batch of 8×8 picture books featuring the sweet and curious little princess in March 2006, and come July, sales are poised to hit the million-unit mark. Poppy is on shelves in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Turkey and Israel, and Random House plans to take the line into even more territories. The property recently made a splash at retail with bin promotions at WHSmith and in Tesco’s activity and gift section. Random House has expanded the book range to include other formats, including an aged-up fiction series for the six and older crowd, as well as books with audio CDs, and activity, gift and novelty formats.
Licensing director Mary Vacher says little girls embrace Poppy because she’s just like them in that she makes mistakes and has to fix them. In one story, she tries on a wedding dress with her friend and accidentally rips it. She frets over what to do, and in the end, decides to fess up. The dress is easily repaired, and the wedding goes on as planned.
UK agency The Copyrights Group has acquired L&M rights to the book series and is developing a program targeting girls three to eight that plays on family values, friendship and confidence. Stationery from Robert Frederick hits retail this summer, and Vacher would like to see plush, ragdolls, apparel, greeting cards and other publishing formats round out the product offering. TV rights to Poppy are still available, and Random House is on the hunt for production partners.
It’s just the opposite over at Studio Espinosa in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Laura and Leo Espinosa have already sold the TV rights to Otis and Rae to The Magic Store, run by the creators of Yo Gabba Gabba! What drew the husband-and-wife team to the lean studio were its similarities to their own small operation. As expected from the dudes at The Magic Store, music will definitely be a key element in the series. The Espinosas (the brains behind Sushi Pack, which was picked up by American Greetings Properties) couldn’t say anything about when the show might be ready to air, but they do plan on having a sizzle reel ready for Licensing Show and will be taking the property to MIPCOM this fall.
Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk, published by Houghton-Mifflin, made its retail debut last month. The book concept stemmed from a conversation the Espinosas had one night about the animals living around their old house in New York. Laura was trying to say, ‘Do you remember that grumpy old skunk?’ But it came out jumbled as ‘grumbling splunk.’ When they stopped laughing, they realized they’d stumbled onto a story for their Otis and Rae characters, which had been sitting on the backburner for a few years. Two days later, they had come up with a graphic novel-esque treatment about the two young protagonists camping for the first time and encountering a Grumbling Splunk – the grumbling, as it turns out, is just the poor creature’s empty belly, so they share their peanut butter and banana sandwiches with him.
On the merchandising front, the Espinosas are open to developing a specialty line of plush and stationery. ‘The property has a certain sophistication to it,’ says Laura. ‘It’s quirky, charming and cute, but it’s not sticky sweet.’ She also feels that there’s a void in the market for properties that focus on boys and girls, and that product would appeal to both gender groups. The Espinosas have a second Otis and Rae book in the works that they hope to complete this fall, encompassing the same virtues of independence, exploration, creativity and working together.
Penguin Young Readers Group is putting a big promotional push behind its quirky and imaginative New York Times bestselling Skippyjon Jones series this fall. The books center around an adorable Siamese cat with a head and ears that are too big for his body, and director of consumer products Diane Cain is in the early stages of developing a licensing program that matches the character’s innate spunk.
In the five years since his 2003 publishing debut, Skippyjon has sold more than a million units in varying formats, including four hardcovers, a book and plush set and four board books; these will be joined by two sticker storybooks and some novelty items this year. The whole line targets preschoolers three to six, but can skew a little older because of the bilingual (Spanish) and educational components in its stories.
The cat’s creation was a fortunate accident. Judy Schachner was corresponding with her editor about her latest project back in 1999, and had sketched a funny drawing of a Siamese cat on a card. The editor came back to her about that character, and eventually, Skippyjon Jones came to life.
Each story in the series begins with Skippy’s mother, Mama Junebug Jones, sending her energetic son to his room so he can reflect on bad behavior such as digging up bones in the neighbor’s yard like a dog, or sleeping in a nest like the birds. But when he enters his closet, the gateway to Skippyjon’s imagination, all sorts of adventures ensue – from going on an archaeological dig, to meeting a band of Chihuahuas in Mexico.
Skippy is currently available in North America only, but Cain is looking for consumer products partners that can introduce him to the global market through toys, games, plush, apparel and interactive for Q3 2009. Though she sees the property eventually crossing over into mass since it’s currently selling in Target’s book section, she says the licensing program will more than likely start in book chains. This property is ripe for the picking on the entertainment side of things, with TV rights still unassigned.