Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ernest Shackleton, Nelson Mandela, and Abigail Adams are among the individuals profiled in recent volumes of Grosset & Dunlap’s Who Was? series of biographies. Curious kids, and their teachers and parents, have rallied around the series, which (combined with its spinoffs, What Was? and the Spanish-language Quien fue?) has sold close to 11.6 million copies. Who Was? is approaching a significant milestone – the release of its 100th title in summer 2015 – and the publisher is asking readers to cast their votes to determine the subject of that volume.
Launched in 2002, Who Was? originated with Jane O’Connor, v-p and editor-at-large for Grosset & Dunlap, who recognized a need for biographies for early middle graders. “I felt that there were a lot of beginning reader books on famous people, and a lot of thick books for older kids, but there seemed to be a hole in that 7-to-10 age level,” she said. “I wanted to publish a series of books that are over 100 pages [Who Was? titles have 112] so that they’d be eligible for book reports. And I was an obsessive reader of biographies as a child, so that was also part of the inspiration for the series.”
Ideas for the subjects of Who Was? titles, which are written by various authors, spring from a variety of sources, O’Connor explained. On school visits, she asks kids whom they’d like to read about, and writers sometimes contact the publisher with suggestions. “When anyone famous dies, or does something truly outstanding, we’ll put them on the list of possible subjects,” she said. “We certainly are widening the net – we’ve got biographies of Jesus and Michael Jackson in the works.”
Sometimes titles fall into place by chance, as with Who Was Pete Seeger? Last year, the editor received a query from Noel MacCarry, a school librarian in Danbury, Conn., who uses the series with his students. “He proposed writing a biography of Pete Seeger, and sent in some sample chapters,” said O’Connor. “We thought it would be a worthy addition to the series – and as it happened, Seeger died just after that.” The book’s pub date is not yet set.
From the start, O’Connor had a distinct vision for the look of the series. Inspired by the caricatures that often accompanied cover reviews of biographies in the New York Times Book Review at the time, she opted to use that style of art on Who Was? covers. “I think the covers jump out at you, and are instantly recognizable,” she said. Another distinctive feature of the biographies is the inclusion of sidebars to provide historical context about the era in which the individual lived.
The editor noted that sales of Who Was? and the spinoff series have “exploded” in the last five years, with numbers growing each successive year. To date, 2014 sales have already reached 800,000 copies. “At the beginning, there was more of a school and library market for the series, but trade sales have boomed,” said O’Connor, crediting the Penguin sales force for “really getting behind the series.” The size of the What Was? list is also expanding: 30 new titles are due out in 2014, up significantly from the past annual average of nine. What Was? will add six titles this year.
By Popular Demand
Grosset & Dunlap publisher Francesco Sedita came up with the concept of holding a contest to let readers select the subject of the 100th Who Was? title, and the idea gained widespread support at Penguin’s sales conference last November. Up until June 1, readers can cast their votes on the newly launched series website. Last month, Penguin shipped ballot boxes to stores, schools, and libraries interested in setting up contest polling sites. (According to O’Connor, stuffing the ballot boxes is permitted!) The winning title will be announced on July 1.
The new website also features a leaderboard listing contest’s frontrunners, so voters can keep tabs on how their candidates are faring. Who’s currently leading the pack? Mother Teresa, Shirley Temple, and Walter Payton.