When Penguin Group USA president Susan Petersen Kennedy spent three days in South Africa last fall visiting schools, bookstores and other cultural institutions, she found herself hearing about Spud: A Wickedly Funny Novel by John van de Ruit (a comic actor of local renown) wherever she went. In Spud, the 13-year-old narrator attends a South African boarding school for boys, just as Apartheid is crumbling.
“After a while it was like, 'I've really have to meet this person,” said Kennedy. She never did get the chance to meet van de Ruit, but she did take home a copy of Spud, published by Penguin South Africa, hoping to find the right editor inhouse for U.S. publication.
John van de Ruit
To date, Spud has sold about 85,000 copies in South Africa; it is the fastest-selling novel by a South African in South African history and has spent two years at the top of the bestseller list. A sequel, Spud—The Madness Continues, came out in April and ranks just behind its predecessor at #2 in the country, with more than 75,000 copies in print.
When she returned to New York, Kennedy gave a copy of Spud to Ben Schrank, who had recently joined the company as publisher of Razorbill, a YA imprint. Since Penguin South Africa does not have a YA division, it was published as an adult book there.
Giving the book to Schrank, Kennedy explained, “was not a decision to not publish it as an adult book; it was much more the decision about the energy Ben had and that he could bring to the book and the excitement it could receive on his list.” Razorbill will publish Spud in October, followed by the sequel next fall.
Schrank said he thought Spud could have gone either YA or adult, and added that the house is hoping for a lot of cross-over readers, à la Harry Potter. (Who in YA publishing these days doesn't hope for that?) After the fall sales conference, Razorbill upped the first printing from 50,000 to 75,000 on Spud, which Alexander McCall Smith dubbed the “South African Catcher in the Rye”; the printing was increased because of the enthusiastic reception from reps.
Cathy Berner, children's literature specialist at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Tex., believes that Spud has real crossover potential, though she thinks the cover skews a little young and male. “But the level of sophistication in the writing of Spud will make it of interest to adults,” she added.
At Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C., children's department manager and buyer Carol Moyer said she'd recommend the book to adult book groups. As for the cover, she is happy to have it skew male because, she said, girls will read “boy” books but boys won't read “girl” books.
In the South African edition, the boy on the cover of Spud is even younger than the model used for U.S. publication. “We wanted to do something very visually interesting,” said Schrank. “It was a hard cover to get right.” Razorbill is hoping American girls find the model attractive and pick up the book. Schrank said he thought the model's various expressions of emotions in a series of photo-booth like shots show the range of emotions in the story of Spud's boarding-school experience.
Several booksellers pointed out that a major difference between Spud (a locker room nickname that refers to his small genitalia) and Holden Caulfield is the former's ability to see hope and humor, especially during a very difficult time in South African history. The 13-year-olds of today were not even born when Apartheid ended, Berner noted. Of course comparison to Catcher raises the question of how J.D. Salinger's classic would be published if it were released today: YA or not YA? Publishers have come up with a variety of ways to handle contemporary works. Random House published Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep as adult; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak came from Knopf Books for Young Readers; while Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which was published in both adult and children's editions in the U.K., came out in the U.S. in an adult edition only.
Schrank believes the distinction often comes down to the point of view of the narrator. In Prep, the protagonist is looking back, telling the coming-of-age story from the perspective of having lived it, while in Spud the boy is in the midst of living the events and the reader experiences the growth along with him.
But will Spud's South African experience, complete with cricket-playing, translate for Americans? “I reckon a Spud is a Spud wherever you go,” van de Ruit said.