Three time zones meet at the intersection of the borders of Norway, Finland, and Russia, and someone taking a step from Russia into Norway in wintertime will find it’s four hours earlier there. This is one of the many fun facts Ken Jennings packs into Maps and Geography, one of two volumes, along with Greek Mythology, that launch his Junior Genius Guides from S&S/Little Simon on February 4. Jennings is known to game-show fans for his 74-game winning streak on Jeopardy! in 2004, which earned him the title of most-winning contestant in the show’s history. Author of several fact-filled books for adults, including Brainiac, Maphead, and Because I Said So, Jennings makes his children’s book debut with this new series.
Jennings’s fascination with trivia goes way back, and he is aiming his series at like-minded readers. “This is a book for kids who are obsessive sponges for facts,” he said. “I know they exist, because – though it might be shocking to hear – I used to be one of those kids.” He explained that as a child, he shared a bunk bed with his brother, and slept in the top bunk, where he had a stash of “ratty old paperbacks,” including Ripley’s Believe it or Not and The Book of Lists. “I read them for hours,” he recalled. “The world is such a wide and crazy place, and these books took me there. I loved feeling at age eight or nine that I was an expert on something, and that I knew something my parents didn’t know.”
Jennings’s most recent adult books have been published by S&S imprint Scribner, and his solid reputation in-house as well as propitious timing led to the creation of Junior Genius Guides, said Little Simon editorial director Sonali Fry. “This project was a natural for us, since so many of us here had read Ken’s books and loved them,” she said. “He’s obviously a huge trivia buff, and that enthusiasm really comes through in his writing. Also, we were looking to dive into nonfiction at Little Simon, since we’ve heard from many teachers that there’s a need for more books in that area. We pitched the series idea to Ken’s agent, Jud Laghi, and Ken was really excited about doing it.”
The author found inspiration for the series under his own roof. His son, Dylan, now 11, has evidently inherited his father’s keen curiosity. (Jennings also has a daughter, Caitlin, who is seven.) “Dylan was nine when I began the series, and was turning into the same kind of kid I had been,” said Jennings. “He was always running into the room saying things like, ‘Did you know that a giant squid has an eye the size of a volleyball?’ And he always wanted to watch Jeopardy!, which drove me nuts because I get stressed whenever I hear the show’s theme music – it makes me feel like I’m back on stage. So I thought, what kind of book would he like?”
Setting the Tone
Jennings decided that trivia fan Dylan would like his facts delivered with a light touch. Junior Genius Guides feature a breezy writing style and comedic line art by Mike Lowery. “Having a nine-year-old boy at the time, I knew how hard it is to get kids to listen,” he said. “It helps if you add some jokes – and maybe somehow try to involve bodily functions! Those things make the medicine go down. And Mike Lowery’s illustrations are really fun. We’ve all had boring teachers and funny teachers, and we all know that funny teachers are better.”
The author’s memories of his own childhood interests guided his selection of topics for the series, which continues in May with U.S. Presidents. Outer Space is on Little Simon’s fall 2014 list, and The Human Body is scheduled for spring 2015 release. “I thought I should write about things that I was obsessive about as a kid,” said Jennings. “I actually remembered some of my favorite trivia from childhood, and I also spent many hours in the library researching. I read lots of nonfiction books and found they had the same recycled facts over and over. I also did quite a bit of research on line, looking for the weirdest possible stuff to include in the guides: things that are stranger than fiction that would have made me say, ‘Whoa!’ when I was a kid.”
Fry anticipates that Junior Genius Guides could extend beyond the fifth installment. “We’d love to expand the series, especially since sales reps and buyers have been so enthusiastic about it,” she said. The series will have added support, she said, from its online component: “At the end of each book, kids take a Junior Genius Test based on the facts they’ve read, and can go to the series Web site to download a certificate of achievement.” Jennings will write periodic blog posts for the site.
The books will be published in simultaneous hardcover and paperback versions; the first two paperback editions, of Maps and Geography and Greek Mythology, will each have a 75,000-copy first printing. Jennings kicks off a national tour on February 3 with an appearance on CBS This Morning. The publisher’s marketing campaign also includes consumer and trade advertising, social media promotion, and a Junior Genius Guides eight-copy carton pack. Outreach to the library and educational markets features a giveaway of one million promotional bookmarks and a teacher’s guide.
Jennings, a former software programmer who has been writing full-time since his Jeopardy! bonanza, is now completing The Human Body, and said he hopes there will be many more Junior Genius Guides to come. “I don’t see the series as limited to subjects that seem academic,” he said. “I could focus on lots of things, like maybe pirates and weird foods. I like the thought that maybe I can create a whole shelf of books in this series – kind of like the shelf full of books I had by my bunk bed when I was a kid.”
Junior Genius Guides: Maps and Geography by Ken Jennings, illus. by Mike Lowery. S&S/Little Simon, $18.99 Feb. ISBN 978-1-4424-9848-8; $7.99 trade paper ISBN 978-1-4424-7328-7.
Junior Genius Guides: Greek Mythology by Ken Jennings, illus. by Mike Lowery. S&S/Little Simon, $18.99 Feb. ISBN 978-1-4424-9849-5; $7.99 trade paper ISBN 978-1-4424-7330-0.