Insufficient Nostalgia Milking, or, Why The Three Investigators Aren’t Voltron
A couple weeks ago I was asked to interview screenwriter and podcaster John August at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago. John has a new middle grade fantasy series coming out called Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire which is basically Boy Scouts plus magic. It’s not half bad, actually.
Since John is best known for his podcast Scriptnotes he decided that venturing out as a children’s author presented a perfect opportunity to podcast the entire process. And podcast he does! On Launch he goes places you might expect (talking to his editor, his agent, fellow screenwriters-turned-authors, etc.) and places you might not (an extensive discussion of fonts or a visit to a factory in West Virginia where they actually print the books). Our discussion, as it happens, appeared on the episode “Questions and Answers”. You can hear me discuss a question with him, though he may call me “Betsy Beers” at the beginning (you’ll have to judge that one for yourself).
In the course of our conversation we got a bit sidetracked. I recalled that he had once briefly mentioned on his podcast his ever abiding love for The Three Investigators series. It’s always a pleasure to meet a fellow fan of the books, and with no prodding whatsoever John launched into a description of the series (as I like to think of it, the rich man’s alternative to The Hardy Boys) for the audience. While he did so (and you won’t hear it on his podcast, for the record) I found myself thinking about the hold that certain children’s books and children’s book series hold over people of my generation. A hold that, insofar as I can tell, publishers are ignoring far too often.
You see, I’m a Child of the 80s. As such, most of the pop culture I consumed as a kid has come back tenfold. Television cartoons like Transformers, Care Bears, and even Strawberry Shortcake crop up in new forms constantly. The same can be said for old movies. Would you like a remake of Karate Kid? More Star Wars? A new Ghostbusters? It’s all there.
And yet there is an exception to all this. For whatever reason, publishers have failed to capitalize properly on many of the popular children’s books of my youth. I’m not talking about Curious George or Clifford or anything like that. I mean true series like The Three Investigators or The Baby-Sitters Club or Sweet Valley High. Is it not interesting how so many book series have been left alone over the years?
Now this could just be because books are a different beastie entirely. Indeed, there have been some half-hearted re-launches of old series. Remember the brouhaha that arose when they tried to rerelease Sweet Valley High, but they changed the girls’ clothing sizes to make them smaller (going from a “perfect size 6” to a “size 4”)? Or the new book jackets for Flowers in the Attic and all those other V.C. Andrews creep fests? In some ways, YA is more comfortable trying to appeal to folks’ nostalgia. When Lizzie Skurnick released her own line of republished YA titles, it was a cool idea in principle. The books were clearly aimed at adults too, with their incredibly new-looking-old dated book jackets. They just didn’t get a lot of attention generally, though. I mean, does anyone else remember this reprint of the Louise Fitzhugh classic that came out in 2016?
Lizzie’s imprint shuttered for any number of reasons, but perhaps one was that she was primarily looking at individual titles. What interests me are series. Specifically, children’s book series.
The Baby-Sitters Club books have seen new life in the form of graphic novels from Scholastic, absolutely. But I think that if they released the books with those original covers they’d sell like hotcakes. And not just from nostalgic adults that loved them (though old Baby-Sitters Club titles do get shout outs on TV shows like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). And what about Encyclopedia Brown? Since the death of Donald Sobol this household name hasn’t been in the public eye the way you might think.
While as a parent I am forced to watch the latest regurgitation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I pine for the books of my youth to receive similar press. Maybe it’s considered too much of a risk, as when Ig Publishing announced that the books on Lizzie Skurnick’s list, which targeted adult women who had come of age during the 1970s and 80s, weren’t selling well enough. But the art of nostalgia is a subjective one. I suspect that when done correctly, it yields big bonuses. Or maybe I’m just trying to get all those Baby-Sitters Club books back in print because kids honestly want to read them (seriously guys, they check out the fraying paperbacks from 1989 with their ancient covers and we don’t have anything to replace later books in the series with!).
Money on the table, my friends. Money on the table.
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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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