Give the gift of the printed word

December 1, 2005

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

What do Theodore Geisel, Alan Milne and Laura Wilder have in common? Who are they? What are they doing in a printing magazine column?

All are successful authors, with a devoted following in the children’s market that now spans all age groups. All have withstood the test of time and continue to increase steadily in popularity.

All are dead, but their alter egos Dr. Seuss, Winnie the Pooh and Laura Ingalls remain forever young and are in no danger of going out of print. The sum total of print these three disparate authors have generated is staggering.

It all began so simply. Long ago, each of these authors wrote a story. Editors recognized something good and published their works in book form. The public bought in droves. Pleased with their success, each author followed up with more books in the same vein. The sequels also were well received. That was the extent of it for the authors. Their publishers, however, were just getting warmed up.

The book biz

After the original editions came the repackaging: larger formats for younger children; boxed sets for gift giving; anniversary editions; anthologies, with multiple titles bound and sold as one book; board book versions for infants; abridgements for parents not patient enough to read their children the originals. The printing didn’t stop there. These commodities became so hot that more product was needed than the original authors could (or were willing to) churn out.

Random House formed Beginner Books, with dozens of authors cranking out Seusslike levity of varying quality. Even Dr. Seuss himself, who wrote much faster than he drew, was published extensively under the pseudonym Theo LeSieg, used whenever his text was teamed with someone else’s illustrations.

A.A. Milne tired of Pooh Bear much faster than the rest of us, calling it quits after four volumes. No matter: A more aggressive fellow named Walt Disney acquired the rights. Now Pooh graces thousands of titles. Most are insipid drivel and a disgrace to the original books; but never mind, they sell like hotcakes and haven’t diminished sales of the originals one bit.

Mrs. Wilder’s childhood memories amounted to eight volumes. Her incomplete ninth manuscript was published posthumously, and a writer was hired to create a tenth volume. What next? An entirely new batch of books with Wilder’s daughter as the heroine. It didn’t match the sales or quality of the original series, but diehard fans bought enough to make the effort a success.

A third series of books now chronicles the childhood of Wilder’s mother, “Ma” in the original series.

Rather eat than read? Cat in the Hat, Pooh and Laura all have their own cookbooks. Like to sing? Buy a Pooh or a Cat songbook. Can’t read music? Go directly for the MP3 or DVD. Choose between animated and live-action shorts or feature-length films created for television, theaters and home video markets.

For a few pennies you can download Pooh’s theme song as a cellular ringtone. Ironically, Mr. Milne wouldn’t recognize it. His characters didn’t get their own theme music until long after his death.

Gift suggestions

Most “Johnson’s World” readers have young folks on their holiday gift lists. Let someone else buy them the trendy stuff that will be broken or forgotten by New Year’s Day. Buy a sure thing. Give something you loved as a child. Think the gift of print is just too old fashioned? Here are some hints for maximizing the delight of the youngest generation:

Promote literacy, promote print, and thrill a child as well. Happy holidays.