CMA Event: Through an Editor’s Eyes – The Joys of Keeping Classic Brands Fresh

Classic brands are classic for a reason: they’re fresh for generation after generation of readers. But how do they get that way?

CMA put together a panel to find out!

On Thursday June 12, CMA brought Diane Muldrow (Random House, Little Golden Books), Alice Jonaitis (Random House, Seuss), and Karen Halpenny (Sesame Digital) together to talk about just that. Lynn Kestin Sessler (Random House, Digital) moderated the panel – and jumped in on occasion.

Diane walked us through the world of Little Golden Books, exposing us to classics both old (Poky the Puppy) and new (How to Be a Superhero). That’s right: there are new Little Golden Books.  There are different kinds of new ones, too – “How To,” “How Do,” (like How Do Lions Say I Love You) and “I’m A,” all of which teach different things.  There’s even a new Richard Scarry book!

Classic Brands--LGB--Pirate Remember: pirates = awesome

Surprisingly, Little Golden Books are a great place for rookie writers – provided they can nail the style. There’s a feel and flavor to them that’s classic, but Diane stresses that they’re unapologetically “books of today.” In order to achieve that quality Diane and the team choose the subject matter carefully, asking if it’ll stay fresh for a long time and not become easily dated (like so many unfortunate titles from the 70s). As a friend put it, “You do trade books. They’re just Little Golden Books.”

Diane even wrote a Little Golden Book, she’s such a fan. No, really: she’d collected piles and piles of captions under her desk for years until she was forced to do something about them. The best thing about writing Everything I Learned I Learned from Little Golden Books was that it put attention back on Little Golden Books.

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 She’s a bit of a Brand Ambassador, as you can see.

BIG TAKEAWAY – “Little Golden Books are an adult property. Everyone grew up with them. Stop thinking of them as a kids’ property!” Diane asserts.  And she’s right.

Alice has worked with Random House for her entire career and considers it an immense privilege to work on the Seuss franchise: “[It’s] unbelievable. It really is a dream come true… most of the time,” Alice says. It’s really a challenge to make work that Ted Geisel himself would be proud of, and the Seuss estate has really high standards… and so does her team. They’re very careful with the characters and the brand, and try a few different tactics to keep the brands fresh.

One method they use is perusing eBay for old magazine stories published by Ted. Yes, really: they’ve found 4 unpublished books that way, compiled them, re-colored them, got a Seuss scholar to do an introduction, and put out their first collection. The second one is coming out in Fall 2015!

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And OF COURSE there’s more The Cat in the Hat

Another is looking at existing books and finding new ways to format them – like flapped board book adaptations of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, drawn by an artist who can mimic Ted’s style really well. Alice’s team doesn’t add anything new to the material; they simply make it available to younger readers.

The Cat in the Hat is the most iconic character Alice’s team is trying to keep alive.  He’s been around since 1957, in everything from dictionaries to Spanish and French language books to songbooks and drawing books. The latest format for The Cat is “The Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library,” a series of nonfiction books born from Ted’s love of astronomy and natural history. Those books even led to a television series: “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That.”

Best of all, there’s a rhymed Spanish language edition of The Cat in the Hat coming out in Fall 2014 to address the needs of a growing Latino population. Because bilingual speakers want rhyming books, too.

CitH en Espanol

Mirarlo! Muy bueno!

Karen pointed out that rather than working for a publisher, she worked for a brand – meaning ALL of her work was Sesame Street. She shared all of the fun stuff Sesame was doing that she didn’t have a hand in: Research, where curriculum, show segments, and all digital properties are tested with kids; Relevance, where production, publishing, marketing, PR, and social media teams keep the brand fresh (including an HILARIOUS Twitter exchange between Grover and Will Wheaton) – and draw an audience that might otherwise miss them.

Grover at End of Tweet

#TEAMGROVER4LIFE

Lastly, there’s Reinventing Stuff, where the YouTube channel (almost 1 million subscribers!), website, comics, and mission-driven apps (topical ones like incarceration and military deployment to one helping a 2-year-old during a tantrum) live.  They’ve got 60+ e-book titles on every platform, too, and 15 book-based apps. In short, Sesame harnesses the curriculum research to come up with new content for every platform they can create for. So they can reach different audience segments.

After all that, the panelists discussed how television has affected their properties. Alice responded that it’s done really well by Seuss, since the Chuck Jones How the Grinch Stole Christmas special is part of our collective Christmas experience, and “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That” has generated new books.  Lynn added that books have inspired television episodes that inspired apps, so it’s all one big circle of content creation.

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 Here they are, chatting about it for Sesame!

That question led to a larger discussion of how brands utilize technology and the different formats therein. While Little Golden Books has apps, Diane shared that they’re not huge yet because people are still so attached to the print format – even though they look great as e-books, too.  Alice chimed in on that, sharing that the Seuss backlist came out as e-books less than a year ago and it was a very big deal. They read each of the 66 books 6 times each, in order to make sure they were accurate. They even fixed the pages so the text never moved away from the art, in order to keep them the way Ted drew them.  It would never be a substitution for the original book, Alice stated, but it was a nice supplement.

Karen shared that print sales of The Monster at the End of This Book went UP after the app came out, and made a fantastic point: digital formats are great reminders. Digital is “in addition to, as opposed to ‘in place of,’” she said.  Children’s books took a while to come to digital because the pictures were so difficult to incorporate, and even now they’re still completely different reading experiences. That’s why print books are still the preferred medium for children’s books.

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And who doesn’t want to open this right now and read it?

Lynn ran with this discussion, asking the panel about the future of kids reading. Karen shed some light on the differences in demographics, saying that tweens and teens have much higher conversions to digital. To them, digital’s easy, cool, accessible, and has instant gratification. Lynn agreed, adding that teenagers will buy the digital book then the print one as a trophy. Everyone found that encouraging.

And “rhyming rocks,” as Alice put it. Diane jumped all over this, saying that she gets lots of questions at SCBWI conferences about it. She suspects that one editor said, “We don’t publish rhyming books,” and has been refuting it ever since because Little Golden Books does! “Rhyming is good for the brain!” she adds.  It’ll always be a teaching tool – and Alice added that most beginner books rhyme because it helps early readers learn. Karen chimed in that rhyming is really hard to both make flow AND tell the story.

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That’s why those books are particularly well-regarded.

The panel talked about lots of other fun stuff, too (what beloved brands of today will become classics of tomorrow?  How do you keep Seuss current and classic? What’s the story behind the gold binding on Little Golden Books?), so check out the CMA YouTube Page for all of that goodness.

In the end, the panel agreed that print books will never go away, and will be most important for the youngest readers. It’s up to the media makers to keep them interesting. And they’re doing just that.

So keep reading!