What Makes a Picture Book Mega-Hit?
It’s not that it’s impossible to predict the “next big thing” in children’s literature, but it’s also not exactly a hard science. Indeed, whenever a publisher starts spending beaucoup de bucks on a given title (hardcover f&gs, a serious marketing campaign for a debut author, etc.) I cringe a bit. They’ve made their bets and they’re willing to bank on them. I, on the other hand, make my own kinds of bets. As a Materials Specialist it’s my job to figure out how many copies of any given title should be added to my library system. Sometimes it’s a no brainer. And sometimes I’m far off the mark.
Now picture book blockbuster hits, for whatever the reason, are where I fall down the hardest. It’s not just that I can’t see them coming. It’s often that I’m blind to whatever esoteric elements are in play, making those books big time hits. With that in mind, today I’m going to talk about some of the top picture book blockbusters to come out in the last ten years. Please note that I’m avoiding picture books with TV or other media tie-ins. These are the folks who got where they are on their own merits.
The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak – It’s not the first time someone did this idea (the Elephant and Piggie title We Are In a Book does something very similar to what Novak does here) but I’ll admit that I haven’t ever seen anything exactly, precisely like this. With that in mind I bought a reasonable number of copies for my library system. Then it took off like gangbusters. Folks who’ve never even heard of Novak were pulling it from the shelves. I’m not going to say it’s the most successful celebrity picture book of all time, but it sure comes close. Wowzah.
The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers – Though it’s by no means as pro-union as Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, one does wonder what the anti-union folks out there think about Daywalt’s smash success. Definitely didn’t see this one coming. I figured it was a bit wordy and long for total and complete New York Times bestseller domination but about the time it was on the list for 4+ months I knew we had a genuine blockbuster on our hands.
Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glaser – You know, it’s very cool in some circles to disparage FN, but as crazy huge hits go, I’m a fan. It’s a lot smarter than folks give it credit for. You can trace its initial popularity to its sheer untold gobs of pink fanciness, but it sustains its hold on the marketplace in large part because of the writing.
Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld – No idea. None. We see fun construction equipment picture books all the time. And we see popular subjects mixed with the bedtime book genre all the time too. Robots go to bed. Dinosaurs. But for whatever reason, this hit all the right buttons. I can’t account for it. Consider me broadsided by its success.
Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry – I don’t think I realized, until this very moment, that the illustrator of the book is the same woman behind Kathi Appelt’s lovely 2015 title When Otis Courted Mama. Huh! In any case, this is a case of a book that’s a huge hit everywhere in the country except NYC. I only know about it because it’s always on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list.
Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin, illustrated by James Dean – This is one picture book that can credit its massive success to its creators’ self-promotion. It’s also one of the rare self-published books to go mainstream and then blockbuster success. Doesn’t hurt matters any that there’s a catchy little YouTube song that goes with it. Other books have tried to replicate its success. So far, no takers.
Pinkalicious by Victoria & Elizabeth Kann – Originally when I wrote this piece I quoting a legend that said that this book happened when the editor heard about Fergilicious and suggested a pink alternative. Turns out, it’s far from true. Editor Maria Modugno set me straight on the matter:
“Pinkalicious was signed up before Fancy Nancy and publishing schedules being what they are, it came out after and benefited from that built -in market. The book came unsolicited when Victoria Kann brought in an illustrated dummy of a story written with her sister Elizabeth that was based on an experience with one of their daughters. I loved that the story was based in reality but then catapulted into fantasy. We worked together on the book to get it ready for publication.
I’m the original editor of Pinkalicious and I don’t think I could tell you who Fergie is.”
Press Here by Herve Tullet – Rarer than the self-published picture book that becomes a massive success? The imported picture book. Translations don’t usually yield the kind of crazy popularity enjoyed by Tullet’s best known title. Still, the King of Preschool Books managed to make his sense of humor, style, and originality work here in the States. No small feat.
Now what did I miss?
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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