Boys 'n' Books

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Publishers and retailers are tapping into older boys' renewed interest in reading.

While boys and girls generally share equal interest in reading at the preschool level, boys between the ages of 6 and 11 typically are regarded as reluctant readers, according to publishers. Today, however, thanks to Harry Potter, Star Wars, and other licensed fantasy titles, publishers and retailers alike attest to a renewed interest in reading among older children, particularly boys.

"Harry Potter broke the stereotype that boys don't read," says a spokesperson from Barnes & Noble bookstores, where Harry Potter has been a No. 1 seller. "It has a fantasy, science-fiction feel that appeals to boys. These are lengthy books, but kids can't seem to have enough."

"Harry Potter has changed perceptions about reading," concurs Clarisse Cowdery, book buyer, Learning Express retail stores. "Previously, books were on the sideline to toys and games. Now you will see a kid in the store reading to pass the time."

While no statistics are available on the exact number of books boys ages 6 to 11 read per year, sources believe there's no denying it's a market with huge potential. According to the Census 2000 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, there currently are nearly 11 billion boys in the relevant age group in the U.S., each one a potential book customer. The challenge for publishers is finding the story lines that will appeal to them and ultimately have those titles flying off retail shelves.

Attention Getters

Learning Express' Cowdery believes the best reading formula for older boys is a continuing saga written in a way that challenges the child, yet gives him the opportunity to master the subject matter without the help of others. She notes that while boys generally are interested in the scientific and mechanical, such subjects can complicate early reading. Lemony Snicket's (a pen name for author Daniel Handler) account of the adventures of three orphans in "A Series of Unfortunate Events" (Harper Collins) has been a strong sell with boys, she says. "They see the events as an adventure rather than a catastrophe and can master the stories without becoming frustrated." Nickelodeon will release a movie based on the eight-book series for holiday 2003. Cowdery notes that Learning Express does a strong business in the early readers category. However, the chain carries a limited number of licensed titles in this category, among them CINAR's Caillou and HIT Entertainment's Bob the Builder.

"Boys are willing to read if they are interested in the story line," says Craig Walker, editorial director, Scholastic media and trade paperbacks. "In the past, reading material for boys was all fact and nonfiction, often focused on sports. Today, we are approaching boys as fiction readers. With a license, we look for a good narrative framework-a built-in story formula that will allow us to write many stories."

This year, Scholastic's Star Wars Boba Fett continuing book series (suggested retail, $9.95), a tie-in with LucasFilm's Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones movie release, became a New York Times best-seller. The series targets readers ages 8 and older. Additional titles are planned for upcoming fall and spring seasons. Scholastic is taking strong aim at boys with three new licenses: Fisher Price's Rescue Heroes, Hasbro's G.I. Joe, and LEGO's Bionicle characters. In December, Scholastic will launch its first Rescue Heroes collection of readers and novelty titles targeting boys ages 4 to 8 (suggested retails, $3.50 to $5.99). For G.I. Joe, Scholastic will target boys ages 4 to 12 with coloring, chapter, and handbooks for spring 2003 (suggested retails, $2.99 to $5.99). "Handbooks are ideal for boys," notes Scholastic's Walker. "They are like baseball cards in a book. We take the individual characters and explain their powers, names, vital facts, and characters in a factual manner boys can relate to." Chapter books and handbooks illustrating the story of Bionicle characters are scheduled for summer 2003 (suggested retails, $4.50 to $5.99). Also scheduled for fall 2003 are activity books featuring Dragon Ball characters (Funimation Productions) and additional titles from longtime license Scooby-Doo (Warner Bros. Consumer Products).

Adventures and Heroes

D.K. Publishing is targeting boys ages 8 and older with "Ultimate Guide" titles that profile action-adventure heroes in a nonfiction manner. Currently available in Ultimate Guide titles: D.C. Comics' Batman and Superman and Marvel Enterprise's Spider-Man. Coming in November is "The Ultimate Guide to the Justice League of America" featuring all Justice League characters (suggested retail, $19.99). For younger readers D.K. Publishing recently launched Spider-Man sticker books (Marvel Enterprises) and debuted a Superman (D.C. Comics) sticker book in August.

At Hasbro, the first Transformers comic book titles (licensed to Dreamwaves) launched in April and by May was the No. 1 selling comic in North America. Comic book titles for the latest series, Transformers Armada, shipped in July. Further, Transformers Armada debuted on Cartoon Network in August. Readers Digest Children's Books will launch two Transformers chapter books in fall 2002, targeting boys reading at the third- to fifth-grade levels.

For Hasbro's G.I. Joe, comic book licensee Devils Due recently introduced two special editions called Battlefile-an interview-type profile that introduces readers to an assortment of characters. The comic book industry is on an uptrend, says Tom Klusaritz, Hasbro vice president, global publishing and new business development. "True fans are very passionate and knowledgeable about the characters. We want content that is true to the characters and creates a story that is interesting and unique for the reader."

Attracting boys with high-interest topics from their world, Grosset & Dunlap last year launched the Jackie Chan Adventures chapter books featuring famous martial artist and actor Jackie Chan (suggested retail, $4.99). According to Debra Dorfman of Grosset & Dunlap, an imprint of the Penguin Putnam Group, new titles from Grosset & Dunlap for this month include a boxed set of the first four Jackie Chan Adventures series (suggested retail, $14.99) and the first Roller Coaster Tycoon titles derived from a CD-ROM game by Infogrames.

A Laughing Matter

Retailers and publishers alike report a strong boy audience (from preschool to ages 7 to 12) for laugh-out-loud adventures. At Nickelodeon, the Rocket Power action adventure titles and the more quirky adventures of SpongeBob SquarePants; Rugrats; and Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius resonate with both boys and girls. "With Jimmy Neutron, we had strong success with the movie tie-in books from last December," says Robin Corey, executive vice president and publisher, novelty and media tie-ins, Simon and Schuster. "Come January 2003, we will launch titles that tie in with the TV series, which debuts this month." For Rugrats, the Get Caught Reading Program with the Association of American Publishers featured the popular characters. "The license generally drives the purchase, especially in younger children," says Jill Hall, book buyer, Toys "R" Us. "It often helps if the book has interactive features such as lift the flaps, pop ups, and pull tabs." At Golden Books/Random House Children's Books, toys that fit with the story line often are blistered into book titles. "We look at the boys' play pattern and create things that will interest them," explains Amy Jarashow, associate publisher at Golden Books. Licensed titles include Nickelodeon characters and HIT Entertainment's Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine (HIT Entertainment recently acquired Gullane Entertainment and its properties, including Thomas the Tank Engine). Bob the Builder titles for spring 2002 include "Fix It With Bob" featuring toy wrenches/screwdrivers (suggested retail, $9.99).

Upcoming Titles

At Golden Books/Random House Children's Books, upcoming titles for Nickelodeon's Jimmy Neutron and Disney/Pixar's Toy Story characters will include tattoo markers safe for paper coloring and decorating a child's body, and Sesame Street's Oscar in "Oscar Stinky Day" will be featured in scented sticker books that promise to appeal to younger boys. This year, Random House launched its Spanish component "Random Para Ni{l" which included titles from Thomas the Tank Engine. New Thomas the Tank titles for fall 2002 will include Feliz Cumplea-Tomas (Happy Birthday, Thomas) with a suggested retail of $3.99.

Price Stern Sloan, an imprint of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, recently launched the first four titles based on Porchlight Entertainment's Jay Jay the Jet Plane characters. Fall 2002 titles to come include a Christmas hardcover Jay Jay's Christmas Adventure (suggested retail, $9.99), and touch-and-feel board books with features such as a spinning propeller (suggested retail, $7.99).

This fall, Scholastic will release Tonka titles in the new Tonka Town format in which Chuck My Talkin' Tonka Truck interacts with various characters in Tonka Town- including Gary the Garage (suggested retail, $3.99). Over the last two-and-half years, there have been more than 60 classic Tonka titles. The new Scholastic titles emphasize teamwork and interaction among the characters. Other Tonka licensees include Publications International for electronic sound books and Modern Publishing for color activity books.

Meanwhile, Scholastic is gearing up for the 40th anniversary of in-house property Clifford, with plans to introduce a special edition high-end flock-cover storybook reminiscent of Clifford's red coat (suggested retail, $14.99). For fall 2002, Scholastic also will introduce a Clifford phonics series (suggested retail, $12.99) targeting children ages 4 and older.

Despite the appeal of licensed characters, publishers maintain that careful selection is key. "The consumer is looking for less hype and more originality," says Kate Klimo, vice president, publisher of the Random House/Golden Books Young Readers Group. "With licensing we look for the X Factor-something unlike anything we have seen. We anticipate what [our readers] might choose, find what we like, and trust our readers will share our taste."

Play-Doh Pals

For years, children have squeezed Play-Doh to make imaginary characters. Hasbro now has created official Play-Doh characters-Pete, Patty, and pals-and seeks partners for publishing programs, including coloring, activity, board, and novelty books, and book-plus options that will include Play-Doh product, and other lifestyle categories that will encourage hands-on, imaginative play. Hasbro expects to announce the first publishing deal by 2003. Toys, games, and other entertainment programs will follow.

New Material

Viz Communications, a U.S. producer of Japanese animation (anime) and comics (manga), has partnered with Japan-based Shueisha Inc. to launch a comic-oriented boy magazine for the mass market. Viz will produce and distribute a U.S. version of Shonen Jump (a weekly magazine in Japan) beginning November 2002. The monthly magazine will feature approximately 250 pages of manga from popular anime titles in the U.S., including Dragon Ball Z (Cartoon Network) and Yu-Gi-Oh (WB Kids); advertising; and information on fashion, music, movies, and video games (suggested retails, $4 to $5).

"The magazine is meant to define and reflect anime and manga lifestyle," explains Seiji Horibuchi, founder and president of Viz Communications. "It will define what is cool."

Targeted U.S. distribution for Shonen Jump includes Musicland, Diamond, and independent comic book retailers. Viz will release a sample or "zero issue" of Shonen Jump prior to the scheduled November launch.

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