Since making her debut in 2005 in Bad Kitty, a picture book published by Roaring Brook’s Neal Porter Books, Nick Bruel’s feisty feline has caused additional trouble in two subsequent picture books, 2007’s Poor Puppy and A Bad Kitty Christmas, released last September. Bad Kitty has also proved her mischievous mettle in four early chapter books, the success of which have helped boost the in-print tally of the Bad Kitty series to almost four million copies. And there’s more mayhem on the way: this character runs for president of the Neighborhood Cat Coalition in Bad Kitty for President, a chapter book due on January 17.
Bad Kitty took a rather unorthodox trajectory with her leap from picture books to chapter books in 2008’s Bad Kitty Takes a Bath. “Normally, when you have an established picture-book character you stay within that age level,” notes Mark von Bargen, Macmillan’s director of children’s sales. “But there is a sophistication and humor to Bad Kitty that skews up easily. We saw an immediate impact on sales with Bad Kitty Takes a Bath. And it also helped tremendously that we had an accelerated publication schedule for the chapter books. At this level, it’s important to build up critical mass to let kids move on to the next book quickly, so we’ve been publishing on a nine-month cycle rather than waiting a full year between books.”
Strong sales in the book clubs and fairs have driven the success of both the Bad Kitty picture books and chapter books. According to von Bargen, sales through these channels have outweighed trade sales. He attributes some of Bad Kitty’s popularity in book fairs to the fact that the character has been featured prominently in posters that Scholastic creates and provides to schools to promote its fairs. “That has helped kids recognize Bad Kitty when they attend the fairs and has definitely helped sales,” he notes.
“We pride ourselves in being a promotional partner with publishers, in addition to being a means of selling books,” says David Allender, editorial director of Scholastic Book Clubs. “We have tremendous resources we can bring to bear to promote authors and books in schools, and we create ancillary materials – such as posters or videos of author interviews – to help teachers build awareness of books and reading.”
Allender likens the appeal of the Bad Kitty series to that of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants books – yet for a younger reader. “Nick Bruel’s books provide kids who are just becoming independent readers with a very different kind of book than they’re used to,” he observes. “The Bad Kitty books are heavily illustrated, with a nice amount of text per page, but not enough to overwhelm readers. They are immediately appealing to kids who are less likely to pick up a book, but also have tremendous appeal to avid readers. They are fresh, funny, and pitch-perfect to a child’s world and concerns.”
A Bad Kitty Christmas, described by von Bargen as the strongest selling title in the series to date, testifies to the character’s enduring life as a picture book heroine. “We had talked about doing a Christmas-themed Bad Kitty picture book before the chapter books had really exploded,” he says. “It’s very gratifying to see that a character that started out in picture books and moved over to chapter books can come back to a picture book and have such tremendous success.”
Though he observes that the book’s holiday handle was a big plus, von Bargen emphasizes the importance of “the great partnership we have with our accounts, and the stores’ promotion, placement, and reordering of the book.” Books of Wonder in New York City – where Bruel was once a bookseller – hosted the author at a signing in early December, and included A Bad Kitty Christmas in its holiday catalogue and in a section of the store devoted to holiday-themed books. Jonathan Drucker, the store’s marketing and Web manager, notes, “The Bad Kitty books always do well for us, especially since there are picture books as well as chapter books, so they appeal to a number of age groups. They’re playful, colorful, and humorous – and after all, kids realize that it’s fun to be a little bit bad sometimes.”
Bruel’s editor, Neal Porter, who is editorial director of Neal Porter Books, agrees that it was nice to welcome Bad Kitty back in picture book format with her Christmas caper. “She began her life in two picture books, and grew incredibly in popularity in chapter books. It was exciting to introduce Bad Kitty to slightly older readers while maintaining her loyal picture-book base of fans, but we thought it was time to go back to a picture-book format for A Bad Kitty Christmas.”
Bad Kitty on the Campaign Trail
Porter is equally happy about Bad Kitty’s next chapter book outing, Bad Kitty for President, which has a 125,000-copy first printing. “It’s definitely a timely book,” he observes. “Nick’s books are goofy, but they always have a kernel of solid nonfiction information in them. In this book, even though Bad Kitty is running for president of her local cat club, she’s a stand-in for a presidential candidate, and kids will learn how a presidential election works. In his own sly way, Nick includes info on things like political action committees and negative advertising. It’s a really clever book.” The paperback edition is slated for fall 2012 release – just in time for an even more brightly spotlighted election.
Win or lose her bid for presidency, what’s next on Bad Kitty’s agenda? Porter has just finished editing Bruel’s next chapter book, Bad Kitty’s School Daze, due out in January 2013, and says, “We are exploring other formats, possibly leveled early readers, sticker books, or an app.” As to Bad Kitty’s potential future as an animated character, Porter says that “it’s too early to say for certain, but she is engendering a lot of interest on the animation front.”
Bruel will stump for Bad Kitty on a six-city tour for Bad Kitty for President, which kicks off on January 17. Macmillan has updated its Bad Kitty costume to include a “Vote for Bad Kitty” sash and has created election-themed promotional materials, including buttons and “Bad Kitty Has My Vote” bumper stickers, to be distributed during the author’s tour and at conventions, and to booksellers and librarians via the Indie White Box. Also in place are consumer and trade advertising and online promotion on www.badkittyforpresident.com.
Discussing Bad Kitty’s popularity, Porter gives credit to Bruel’s 15 years as a bookseller for giving him insight into what appeals to kids. “Nick understands what kids respond to, and is also terrific with kids,” he says. “These are also great books for reluctant readers, since they are simple, profusely illustrated, and hysterically funny. And Bad Kitty is always getting in trouble – what kid can’t relate to that?”
Similarly referring to Bad Kitty as “the everychild who does what kids want to do – get in a bit of trouble and ultimately be forgiven,” von Bargen praises the “singular vision that Nick provides as both illustrator and author. The books are completely integrated, which is hugely important. Another thing that is great about Bad Kitty is that this is a branded character that is not based on a TV show. I know there are different schools of thought about licensed characters, but being in the book business, I find it very gratifying to see a character working so successfully that is strictly a book character.”
Bad Kitty for President by Nick Bruel. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter Books, $13.99 Jan. ISBN 978-1-59643-699-5