At first blush, it seems like a counterintuitive marketing move. Last month, Little, Brown sent out 3,300 copies of the ARC of an early summer middle-grade novel, the cover of which made no mention of the book’s title or the name of the author, whose adult and young-adult novels have sold more than 210 million copies worldwide. Instead, the galley’s cover announced that the publisher “is breaking all the rules!” Though that blurb applies to the unconventional pre-pub mailing, it is also germane to the plot of the novel, which is written in the voice of a sixth grader. Dealing with a bully and failing grades at school and turbulence at home, Rafe sets out to break every rule of his middle school’s code of conduct. So what’s the book and who’s the author?
Entitled Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, the novel is written by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts and is illustrated by Laura Park. Aimed at readers 8 to 12, a younger audience than Patterson’s earlier fiction, the book has a one-day laydown of June 27, 2011. “Jim is an exceptionally prolific and successful writer in many categories,” says Megan Tingley, senior v-p and publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “Since this novel was a major departure for him, instantly we knew we wanted to do something special to make sure the book stood out.”
Strategically, the publisher opted to do that by keeping Patterson’s identity under wraps to avoid early readers’ misassumptions about what they might find in his new novel. “Readers familiar with Jim’s work would likely be expecting another suspenseful action-adventure story,” Tingley observes, “but the voice and tone in Middle School are so completely different than his other series. While it does have his trademark compelling plot and cliffhanger chapter endings, it is also his funniest and most emotional book yet.”
Tingley adds that with the ARC mailing, “we wanted to recreate the feeling that many of us had when we first read it. If Jim’s name hadn’t been on the manuscript, we would never have guessed he wrote it. It almost feels like the debut of a whole new author, and that’s how we wanted to treat it. We wanted people to have that same ‘wow!’ moment of surprise.”
The publisher remarks that she was especially impressed, in Middle School, with Patterson’s “ability to capture the sometimes illogical but ultimately endearing thought process of an 11-year-old boy. The indelible and incredibly authentic voice of Rafe was the first thing I just adored about this book. I realized that readers were just going to love this kid, and they were going to relate to his experiences, to his feelings, and to his sense of humor.”
Patterson says he did not have to search far to find inspiration for Rafe’s voice. “I have a 12-year-old son, and like a lot of kids that age, everything is intensely good or intensely bad,” he says. “I get to see the world through his eyes, and he’s very articulate and humorous. When we talk about what happened during the day, if I dig a little deeper I get all the dirt about what really went on. That was a significant piece of where this book came from—as well as reaching back to my own self at that age.” As a result, Rafe’s voice, says Patterson, “spilled out quite easily.”
Having penned successful series for teenagers, including Maximum Ride, Daniel X, and Witch & Wizard, Patterson didn’t find that writing for a middle-school audience posed a different challenge. “I don’t really think that way,” he says. “These readers may not have as much experience as teens or adults, but they certainly are very bright. I’ve never condescended to kids in anything I’ve written.” Most important, he reflects, is to “get kids reading by giving them books that they love,” a conviction that he notes is behind his founding of [his online reading initiative] www.ReadKiddoRead.com, dedicated to making children lifelong readers.
Patterson says he liked the idea of keeping his name off Little, Brown’s pre-pub ARC mailing, which has garnered enthusiastic feedback from booksellers, educators, librarians, and young readers. Of the response cards already returned, 88 percent have had ratings of four or five stars out of a possible five.
The novel received an all-star rating from Keri Holmes of Cornerstone Cottage in Hampton, Iowa, who reports that she could strongly identify with Rafe. “I think everyone feels like a freak at this age,” she says. “I’m glad that Rafe’s actions had consequences, yet things still worked out positively for him in the end.” The bookseller, who learned the author’s identity from the publisher after reading the ARC, is glad she didn’t know beforehand. “If I’d known it was by Patterson, I would have read the book differently,” she says. “I feel as though I gave it more of a fair reading and had no preconceived notions. I think Little, Brown’s marketing strategy was perfect.”
Jan Owens, owner of Millrace Books in Farmington, Conn., also says that the publisher’s marketing ploy was successful and piqued her interest. She was especially taken by the understanding nature of Rafe’s teacher. “She appreciated that Rafe was a talented boy and realized that there are many types of learning and many ways to create,” she observes. Owens looks forward to handselling the book to “intelligent teachers and intelligent parents.”
Also giving Middle School high kudos is Jackson Bond, sales associate at Chapters Book Shop in Galax, Va., who was drawn to the ARC by the unusual cover presentation and took it home to read on his day off. “I found Rafe a very believable character,” he observes. “I felt like I was reading parts of my own life at times. I think a lot of kids will relate to it.” When the galley arrived, Bond immediately went online in a vain attempt to discover who wrote the book. “I’ve since learned that James Patterson cowrote this, and that surprised me,” he said. “But the fact that I didn’t find out earlier made it all the more interesting to read. And I look forward to selling it as well.”
Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, illus. by Laura Park. Little, Brown, $15.99 June 2011 ISBN 978-0-316-10187-5