Even before Steve Ross became president and publisher of HarperCollins's Collins division, he had to look no further than his own home to see the potential that U.K. bestseller The Dangerous Book for Boys had in the U.S. market. Ross bought his copy at a local bookstore, not knowing he'd be joining the company in a few months' time. Ross's 10-year-old son, a “prodigious reader,” asked to borrow it. “When he came out of his room after half an hour, he said, 'Dad, I'm keeping this book.' And I thought, 'Wow, they must really be onto something.' ”
Since not all boys read as voraciously as Ross's son, attracting them has traditionally been difficult for publishers. In a 2006 Scholastic/Yankelovich study, 14% of boys interviewed characterized pleasure reading as “not at all” important, three times the number of girls who answered the same. The study also found that reading drops off dramatically as children get older: 44% of children ages 5—8 said they read daily, compared to only 16% at ages 15—17.
Harry Potter famously crossed gender boundaries to hook boys and girls—and now a number of houses are trying to keep them each reading, issuing separate, gender-specific titles that promise to teach everything from how to tie a multitude of knots, groom a horse or wrap a sari. What is it about good old-fashioned know-how that's grabbing boys, girls and their parents alike?
With 20 weeks on the New York Times list and a companion title for girls arriving later this month, The Dangerous Book for Boys is the genre's standout title. Collins started with a 60,000-copy first printing, which “reflects the fact that the book's success in the U.K. was going to translate in some degree here,” Ross said. “But I don't think there's anyone who can, with a straight face, proclaim they knew we'd be here now with 1.4 million in print after 15 printings.”
Collins's success has not gone unnoticed, and other publishers have readied their own gender-specific compendiums of how-to and derring-do. Last month Scholastic published two books, also British imports: The Boys' Book and The Girls' Book (each bears the subtitle How to Be the Best at Everything), which both hit the Times list; 150,000 copies of each title are in print. Holtzbrinck's Feiwel and Friends imprint is crashing the paper-over-board For Boys Only: The Biggest, Baddest, Best Book Ever by Marc Aronson and H.P. Newquist onto its list for November, with an announced 100,000-copy first printing. And Penguin has two forthcoming titles: The Curious Boy's Book of Adventure by Sam Martin, from Razorbill, and 211 Things a Bright Boy Can Do by Tom Cutler from Perigee, though the latter is aimed squarely at adult readers.
Some likely see this as the latest example of copycat publishing, but more factors may be at work. “There are publishers who are trying to more directly mimic the success we've backed into,” said Ross, “but [we all] recognize that there's a social and cultural moment here that can be effectively addressed.”
Teresa Pagano, a children's buyer at Barnes & Noble, says that several titles preceded this current crop of books, with varying degrees of success. She cites The Big Book of Boy Stuff by Bart King (Gibbs Smith, 2004) as a perennially strong seller, adding that sales have been “significantly higher” on the book's 2006 companion, The Big Book of Girl Stuff. Sales for both titles this year have exceeded last year's figures, she said, suggesting a boost from renewed interest in the genre.
Citing Dick and Jane's return to print in 2003, Heather Doss, children's books buyer at Bookazine, agreed that “retro reads” had already been making a bit of a comeback in the market. “I think [books like The Dangerous Book for Boys] are going to stick around,” she predicted. “They have a very classic appeal.”
Nostalgia and More
Booksellers and publishing insiders share the notion that adults (parents or not) are largely behind this sales spike—and not just because they want to educate their kids. Some retailers note that The Dangerous Book for Boys has cross-generational appeal. For Marcella Phillips, children's buyer at Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore in Los Angeles, the question is “Do I buy it for my 22-year-old son, or for my husband?”
Collins's Ross points to increased urbanization, hectic family lives and nostalgic baby boomers as additional factors. “Populations that grew up playing in safe yards are now overly protective parents,” he said, “[and they] continue to be hungry for activities to do with their kids besides driving them to soccer practice.”
Ross believes that political unrest and global uncertainty also play a part. “The fact is, this is a more dangerous world than we grew up in. The idea of safe activities—even if they're called dangerous—that parents can do [with their kids] is wholesome,” Ross said, noting that most of the activities in the books pose no real danger to kids.
Several booksellers see the books' almanac-style content as an attractive selling point, both among young male readers and book-buying adults. Faith Hochhalter, children's books buyer at Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz., thinks that boys gravitate to these titles because they're informational, but don't take themselves too seriously. “It's not like a novel—you can take little bits and pieces,” she said.
For the upcoming For Boys Only, Jean Feiwel, senior v-p and publisher at Feiwel and Friends, aimed to create a book she describes as a combination of The Guinness Book of World Records, the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbooks, Schott's Miscellanies, Ripley's Believe It or Not and others. When Feiwel was in England two years ago, she saw TheDangerous Book for Boys everywhere. “It was very adult-oriented and very British,” she said. “My concept was to make a kid-oriented, American, more home-grown book.” Feiwel returned to the States and sought out Aronson and Newquist for the project, largely because of their nonfiction credentials, and decided on a contemporary aesthetic for the title.
Boys vs. Girls
But what about the girls? Are they being ignored altogether? Hardly. Because publishers believe that girls will devour this type of book as eagerly as boys, companion books with girl-specific content are being readied or are hitting shelves now. Scholastic's The Girls' Book went on sale in September, Collins's The Daring Book for Girls arrives at the end of the month, and For Girls Only: Everything Great About Being a Girl by Laura Dower is on deck from Feiwel and Friends next August.
For Feiwel, the divergent interests between genders is a (slightly less-than-satisfying) fact of the business. “Anyone who's been in the children's book business for a while knows that readers really depart and divide around [age] seven or eight,” she said. “As much as I wanted to believe, as a parent, that there's less differentiation, it just ain't so. I think that boys have particular kinds of interests at certain ages that are consistent, and the idea of putting them all in one place is very smart.”
Few booksellers have seen customer resistance to the idea of these titles labeling certain activities as “for” boys or girls. “I've only had one customer comment on it,” said Holly Myers, children's books buyer at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. “No one has said, 'Too bad it's just for boys' or 'Oh, it's so sexist.' ” Phillips at Dutton's concurred: “We're a pretty progressive area here. People will just buy [The Dangerous Book for Boys] for girls anyway.”
Collins is betting big this month, issuing half a million copies of The Daring Book for Girls—a dramatic departure from The Dangerous Book for Boys' much more conservative first printing. “We're guardedly optimistic,” Ross said. “We've been surprised by the longevity of Dangerous Book for Boys and think it's only going to continue as Daring Book for Girls gets out there. We know and hear over and over that girls buy more books than boys, so the sky's the limit.”