As the release date nears for the print edition of Jess Brallier’s Tess’s Tree (HarperCollins, Aug. 25), illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, two questions remain: can a picture book with an online following succeed in print? And can lightning strike twice for a book originally “published” at FunBrain.com? (Hint: Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid already showed that a series of graphic novels can successfully make the transition.)
“You can engage with a book online and on the page,” maintains author Jess Brallier, the man behind the Grossology series and publisher and general manager of FunBrain.com, a part of Pearson’s Family Education Network. “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books prove one doesn’t have to think of the Internet being a threat. It’s reaching out to a bunch of kids whose parents may not be in a bookstore habit.”
When Brallier was first casting about for children’s books to “publish” at FunBrain.com that would also appeal to teachers and parents, he turned inward and asked FEN editorial director Jeff Kinney.Once Kinney’s comics went live on the site, Brallier looked for more manuscripts, but found it hard. Most authors are locked into contracts, he says. So once again he looked to another FEN staffer: himself.
Tess’s Tree, Brallier’s 30th, was inspired by a friend’s daughter, Tess, who held a funeral for a tree that had to be taken out of her yard. “It was a period of my life where the previous generation was starting to pass,” says Brallier, who was excited by the idea of celebrating life, especially the life of a tree. “I think it’s difficult for kids to deal with loss,” he says. “It can be scary and lonely. They watch trusted adults being sad. I thought a tree was a softer way to explore that.”
Illustrator Reynolds, too, was moved by the story of loss—and its eco component, remembering a tree. On his Stellar Cafe blog he calls it a “gem about dealing with grief and in these eco-aware times, the theme packs a two-fer.” Reynolds not only offered to do the illustrations for Tess’s Tree but created a TeleFable, his company Fablevision’s signature online book format, to post the book on FunBrain.com.
Although their online picture book didn’t get quite as much attention as Kinney’s graphic novels, which received between 60,000 and 80,000 hits a day, it has had as many as 49,000 reads. And within a month of its being online, Brenda Bowen, then publisher of an eponymous imprint at HarperCollins, offered Brallier and Reynolds a book contract.
Although Harper didn’t change a single word of the text, says Brallier—a company first—at 60 pages, the FunBrain version was too long. Reynolds condensed it to 17 pages and completely reillustrated the book.
The book has an announced first printing of 75,000 copies. Inspired by Reynolds’s new art, which he says “really made Tess come alive,” Brallier is working on additional story lines featuring the nine-year, two-month-old Tess.
Tess's Tree by Jess M. Brallier, illus. by Peter H. Reynolds. HarperCollins, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-06-168752-5