How high can Pigeon fly? Hyperion hopes that the arrival of the latest addition to Mo Willems’s picture book series next month will only add to Pigeon’s mischievous appeal. The new book, which boasts a 250,000-copy first printing, is currently referred to as The Pigeon Wants A...; the full title will not be revealed until the book’s April 1 pub date (even some Hyperion staffers have elected to find out with the rest of the world on that day).
Also to be revealed April 1 is the winner of a contest, in which children were invited to submit their guesses about what Pigeon wants. Hyperion received nearly 13,000 entries for the contest, with guesses ranging from an iPod, to money to a tropical vacation. The winner will receive a school visit by Willems, as well as two signed sets of the author’s books—one for the winner and one his or her school. One hundred first prize winners will receive a signed copy of the new book.
Pigeon, and his staff at Hyperion,wrangle
“We’ve hired extra staff to manage the entries,” says Alessandra Balzer, executive editor at Hyperion Books for Children and Willems’s editor, who came up with the idea along with the author as a way to connect readers with the story in a unique, participatory way. “This is by far the craziest contest I’ve seen. Kids aren’t just sending in single entries. There are teachers coordinating entire classes.” Nellie Kurtzman, Disney’s director of marketing for North America, notes that while the publisher have previously held writing contests for books for older readers, having readers submit their ideas and artwork is a first. “This is exciting on a different level. The drawings we are getting are incredible. You really get into the psyche of the age group.”
One entry guesses that Pigeon
has musical aspirations.
The response to the contest is the latest milestone for a series that hit the ground running five years ago. “I laughed so hard. I thought it felt so fresh and original,” recalls Balzer of her first reaction to Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, when she first saw a sketch dummy in 2001. She acquired the book and published it in April 2003; it subsequently won a Caldecott Honor and appeared on Publishers Weekly’s and the New York Times’s bestseller lists.
“The independents got around it, librarians got around it—[the book] was something totally different,” says Balzer. “Sales figures were good, but the Caldecott Honor gives you such a gift. It went completely mainstream after that.” Balzer believes that her company’s early efforts to focus on Willems as a brand have paid off for the Pigeon series as it has grown, as well as for his other books. “We pitched him as a storyteller and that really worked,” she says. “Because people recognized his name, it enabled us to build his audience in a stronger way than if we’d pitched one book at a time.”
Willems followed Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! with two picture books, The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! (2004) and Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! (2006), and two board books, The Pigeon Has Feelings Too! and The Pigeon Loves Things That Go! (2005). Currently, over one million Pigeon titles have sold in the U.S. alone, and the books have been published in 13 countries. But despite the books’ strong sales, Hyperion and Willems have been careful not to over-publish. “It would be easy to put 10 Pigeon books out there at once, but they wouldn’t necessarily be as strong,” Balzer says.
'Pigeon' creator Willems.
Willems has instead turned to other books, including two Knuffle Bunny titles, Edwina the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct and the Elephant & Piggie early reader series. “Pigeon works his way into these other works,” says Balzer. “In Edwina there’s more than one, and kids know to look for him. It’s another great way for Pigeon to be a part of all those books.”
Because of the series’ success, Hyperion has had the financial freedom to try out more ambitious marketing plans, including a large custom-made Pigeon puppet (“You don’t get to do that for a lot of books,” Kurtzman notes) and the development of pigeonpresents.com, an online home for Willems’s books, with games, character information (including birthdays—each of them has one), videos, and more. The Web site “was a big initiative for us, both in terms of man hours and [because] it’s costly to have a fully developed site with animations,” says Kurtzman.
Willems toured for his previous Pigeon books, and he’ll be embarking on a 12-city tour for the latest title beginning April 1 in New York City’s Bryant Park. Jon Scieszka, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, will serve as MC for the event, which not only reveals the book’s title and the contest winner, but serves as a celebration of Pigeon’s fifth birthday. Activities tying into that unnamed title will also take place. “Mo very much believes his books are not just to be read but to be played with, and the events will reflect that,” Kurtzman says, adding they expect a strong turnout for the kickoff. “Luckily the tent doesn’t have walls.”
The tour will be divided into two legs—Willems will visit Raleigh, Atlanta, two cities in Florida, Houston, Austin and Dallas in early April; at the end of the month, he’ll travel to Vancouver, Seattle, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Chicago. Noteworthy stops on his tour include a hotdog and pajama party at BookPeople in Austin and an appearance at the Dallas Museum of Art.
Kurtzman believes that Willems’s availability has been key to the success of the series. “He’s always on the road meeting kids and booksellers, and getting more and more popular with each subsequent book,” she says. “I get at least 10 requests a day for Mo, from ‘We have a book group...’ to an entire school saying, ‘Please, please bring Mo our way.’ ”
The Pigeon Wants a... by Mo Willems. Hyperion, $14.99, 978-1-4231-0960-0 ages 2-6