The pyramids of Egypt, the canals of Venice, and the Great Wall of China are some of the sites visited by a spirited family of meerkats in a search-and-find picture book that has caught the fancy of young readers in the U.K. Released there last year by Michael O’Mara Books, Where’s the Meerkat? by Jen Wainwright and illustrated by Paul Moran, Steve Wiltshire, and Simon Ecob, has sold more than 500,000 copies. The book was cited by BBC News as the third bestselling book in Great Britain during the holiday season (behind chef Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Great Britain and Guinness World Records 2012). The title arrives on these shores this month, when Barron’s releases an American edition.
Where’s the Meerkat? was the brainchild of Wainwright, an editor at Michael O’Mara, who wrote the text for the Where’s Waldo?-like book. "All credit has to go to Jen," says Moran of the book’s genesis. "I was called in as a pen for hire to visualize a concept that she came up with. The team at O’Mara has worked with me before on several projects, and they felt my style would fit well with this book." Wiltshire and Ecob assisted Moran with the illustrations, and O’Mara staffers Angie Allison and Zoe Quayle designed the book.
Moran observes that the notion of having readers find 10 meerkats in each scene (rather than a single character) enhances the book’s appeal—for both kids and illustrator. "Having a family of meerkats to spot makes each spread more of a challenge," he says. "It also meant there was more of an opportunity to draw the meerkats wearing funny costumes. Meerkats in dresses are always a winner."
The choice of meerkats as a species to spotlight was a natural for the project, according to the artist. "They are cute little critters who are inquisitively intelligent, and the fact that they stand upright gives them a vaguely human posture," Moran says. "It’s easy to see that they have real personality."
Angela Tartaro at Barron’s, who edited the American edition of Where’s the Meerkat?, believes that the anthropomorphized meerkats, who are introduced individually at the start of the book, enhances its concept. "Assigning personalities to these family members makes it much more interesting for kids, and makes this more than just a search-and-find book," she says. "It becomes the story of a family with qualities that kids can relate to."
Tartaro also emphasizes the educational value of the book, which includes factual information about each destination featured. The book’s visual accuracy was also a priority, says Moran. "Luckily, I have been to several of the places in the book, so that helped to visualize the feel of the spreads," he explains. "Google Earth was also very helpful to get an overview of places that static photos sometimes don’t give."
Of Where’s the Meerkat?’s breakout success in the U.K., Moran says, “I was obviously very pleased and surprised—all bundled into one happy package! Let’s hope American readers like the little furballs, too.”
The meerkats have further adventures in store. "They aren’t going back to their burrow just yet," says Moran. "There are two new Where’s the Meerkat? titles coming out in the U.K. later this year. The family is on their holidays in one, and in the other they’re on a time-travel adventure. I also have another project involving animal behavior coming out later in the years, so there’s lots of scribbling going on."
Barron’s marketing campaign for Where’s the Meerkat?, includes the creation of a widget that will be used to promote the book via social media, bloggers, and various Web sites; trade and consumer print ads featuring a QR code that will link to the widget; and promotion through parenting and educational blogs emphasizing the book’s value in the areas of visual occupational and physical therapy for children.
Where’s the Meerkat? by Jen Wainwright, illus. by Paul Moran, Steve Wiltshire, and Simon Ecob. Barron’s, $9.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-7641-6522-1