The best children's books have always had the power to transport readers to an imagined, often fantastic world. The magic of great books has long been a draw for Hollywood producers, too. Over the years, classic works like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Mary Poppins and The Outsiders have been brought to the big screen.
But during the past decade, a burgeoning population of children and parents thirsty for family entertainment has led an increasing number of film and television producers to seek out titles that will hopefully attract a large viewing audience. Hits like the Oscar-nominated Babe, Antz (Dreamworks), A Bug's Life and other Disney features have encouraged Hollywood honchos to join the family entertainment fray and option more children's books than ever. A-list stars such as Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey, Jim Carrey, Demi Moore and Glenn Close are routinely attaching themselves to children's projects as well (many of them providing voice talent for animation work), giving the kids'/family genre an ever-rising profile.
Naturally, this is good news for many publishers, and they are generally eager to cross-promote their titles with the films and TV programs that they spawn. Tie-in book covers, party kits for booksellers, shelf talkers and giveaways are among the most common items of the supporting marketing campaigns. Here, PW takes a look at the latest spate of children's books getting celebrity treatment.
The dog days of summer ushered in the release of a tail-wagging movie, Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season (July 2). The Warner Brothers film is based on Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's second book about a boy who saves a dog from its abusive owner. Naylor's first book about the pup, Shiloh,won the 1992 Newbery Medal and was adapted into a 1997 feature film. The movie sequel retains much of the cast from the first film, including Rod Steiger and Michael Moriarty.
Ted Hughes's novel The Iron Giant: A Story in Five Nights was first published in 1968, but several years ago the HarperCollins edition of the book went out of print. Last May, after securing the rights, Knopf released a 30th-anniversary hardcover reissue. On August 6, the story of the iron man with a taste for barbed wire who becomes an unlikely hero hit the big screen as The Iron Giant, an animated film from Warner Bros. featuring the voices of Jennifer Aniston and Harry Connick Jr. Knopf has just published a paperback edition of the book with art from the film on the cover and plans some cross-promotion with Warner Brothers.
The Twentieth Century-Fox teen flick Drive Me Crazy (October 1) starring Melissa Joan Hart (of Sabrina the Teenage Witch fame) has more than one connection to the children's book world. The movie is based on Todd Strasser's YA novel How I Created My Perfect Prom Date (S&S/Aladdin) with a screenplay by fellow S&S YA author and television writer and producer Rob Thomas. A strong marketing campaign is underway, including a tie-in paperback from Aladdin due out later this month, publicity in teen magazines, and heavy radio airplay for a song from the soundtrack (You Drive Me) Crazy by teen sensation Britney Spears. Spears's companion music video, featuring a cameo by Hart, is currently airing on MTV. In addition, Dell will publish Thomas's screenplay as a mass market paperback on October 5, offering a free movie soundtrack cassette sampler with purchase of the book. Dell is also doing a cross-promotion with the soundtrack's record label, Jive Records.
Among the splashiest film releases this fall is Stuart Little, an adaptation of E.B. White's tale about a mouse named Stuart who is raised by a human family, first published in 1945. Due from Columbia Pictures on December 10, the film features state-of-the-art computer technology and graphics from Sony Pictures Imageworks as well as a cast that includes Geena Davis, Hugh Laurie and the voices of Michael J. Fox (Stuart Little) and Gene Wilder (Snowball the cat).
How d s one make a live-action film starring a three-inch-high mouse? That challenge is probably what has prevented this classic story from being adapted before. According to co-producer Jason Clark, the technology for creating Stuart's character did not even exist a few years ago. "We're on the very front of the cutting edge with this,"he said. "We created this character out of thin air. Stuart looks photo-realistic; he wears clothes, he talks. To move beyond animatronics and make him look totally believable was a fantastic feeling."Clark recalls reading Stuart Little as a child and loving it. "Stuart is an indomitable character who never sees his limitations in a big, human world. He's got great savoir faire. When you have a great script and a team dedicated to real storytelling, the movie can transcend the technology. People won't be thinking about how we made Stuart when they're laughing and crying along with him."
HarperCollins, White's publisher, will release a line of movie tie-in picture books and storybooks aimed at three-to-eight-year-olds in November. Each of the seven titles will feature images from the film. And in October, a collectors' edition of Stuart Little, featuring the original black-and-white artwork by Garth Williams, newly colorized by Rosemary Wells, will hit bookstore shelves.
Wonder who's in Whoville these days? Jim Carrey, one of Hollywood's $20-million men, will star in a live-action version of Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (due out for holiday 2000) for Universal Studios. Ron Howard is directing; other cast members include Molly Shannon of Saturday Night Live, who plays Betty Lou Who (Cindy Lou Who's mom), a character not found in Seuss's original work.
William Steig's Shrek! (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is nearing completion as a computer-animated film from Dreamworks. Featuring an all-star cast of voice talent, this adaptation d s not yet have a release date.
And the Shooting Gallery has wrapped production on The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, adapted from Robert Cormier's novel. No release date has been announced for this movie starring Rachael Leigh Cook and Elijah Wood.
On the Small Screen
This fall children's books are coming to prime-time network series television for the first time -- and in a very big way. The YA book series Roswell High, developed by Pocket Books and penned by Melinda Metz, will debut October 6 on The WB network as Roswell, a weekly one-hour drama. The series has a most-coveted time slot, following The WB's hit Dawson's Creek. According to series producer Kevin Brown, the Roswell High books made "probably the fastest move ever into production."Brown optioned the books from the William Morris Agency in April 1998, using his own money, via Kevin Brown Productions Inc. "William Morris sent the books out to various companies and there was an immediate feeding frenzy," Brown recalled. He found the Roswell High premise "truly original,"adding, "It was very high-concept, kind of like The X-Files meets Beverly Hills 90210. You could instantly see all the possibilities there. But what put it over the top for me was that the books were so well written."
Brown subsequently beat out five competitors, including Regency Television (a new company created by Fox TV), best known for its successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer show. "After we won the rights, Regency was one of many production companies that came a-calling,"Brown said. By May 1998 Brown (along with his business partner, actor Jonathan Frakes) and Regency struck a deal -- Regency would produce Roswell as a mid-season replacement show for Fox. Roswell was green-lighted by September 1998 and went into production in January of this year.
The pilot was written and created by executive producer Jason Katims, who has worked on such acclaimed shows as Relativity and My So-Called Life. But things hit a snag when Fox wanted to tinker with the show. "Fox developed the series but wasn't willing to air it 'as is,' "Brown said. "The only way they could lose it was if another network came along with an amazing offer."And that's exactly what happened. "The WB just 'got' the show and didn't want to change a thing. They put an unprecedented offer on the table, committing to a full 22-episode season and guaranteeing us their best time slot. There was no way we would turn that down."As a further sign of support, The WB will air all original Roswell episodes, with no repeats or pre-emptions, from October 6 until Christmas. To coincide with the TV launch, Pocket will be reissuing the entire Roswell High series with tie-in covers.
As for taking on future projects, Brown noted that "Roswell changed everything -- it's certainly changed how studios look at books. I'll be keeping an ear to the ground."He also expressed great enthusiasm about the news that Francine Pascal's teen action series, Fearless (also Pocket Books), has been optioned by Columbia TriStar Television.
In the larger-than-life category, Hallmark Entertainment is producing a six-hour miniseries for ABC-TV based on the first two of James Gurney's bestselling Dinotopia dinosaur fantasy-adventure books. The miniseries is slated for May 2001 with a potential budget of $50 million. In October 1999, HarperCollins will publish Dinotopia: First Flight, the third installment in Gurney's series.
CBS plans to air a TV movie this fall inspired by Christopher Paul Curtis's Newbery Honor-winning The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963 (Delacorte). LeVar Burton is executive producing and directing, with a cast that includes Whoopi Goldberg and Alfre Woodard.
A second project for CBS, due next year (no air date available yet), is The Ballad of Lucy Whipple (HarperCollins), starring Glenn Close and Jena Malone. Close also serves as an executive producer on the Craig Anderson Production based on the middle-grade novel by Newbery Medalist Karen Cushman.
Bruce Coville's new book series I Was a Sixth Grade Alien has just been published by Minstrel Books, and a live-action television series based on the books is already in the works. Canada's Alliance Atlantis Communications is producing the show for YTV in its home country and Fox Family Channel here in the States. The show spotlights the adventures of a sixth-grader named Pleskit, an alien kid who hails from the planet Hevi Hevi and travels to Earth with his dad, an alien diplomat.
Fox Family Channel is also where viewers will find Brambly Hedge, an animated series about the exploits of a mouse based on the books by British author Jill Barklem. The first four episodes began airing in the States earlier this year and four more episodes will debut in fall 1999. This October, Atheneum will reissue the first four of eight existing Brambly Hedge books and will release the remainder in winter 2000. Barklem is working on some new Brambly Hedge titles as well.
Deborah Hautzig's Little Witch book series has inspired an animated home video from Sony Wonder as well as a Little Witch Halloween special, which will air this fall on the Fox Family Channel. Sony Wonder is currently developing a 26-episode TV series starring the bewitching character.
In television news for the younger set, PBS and Nelvana, the powerhouse producer of kids' animated programming based in Toronto, have just announced that they will team up to produce six series based on children's books. The shows will fill PBS's new Saturday morning program block scheduled to debut in fall 2000. At least two of the series will then be selected to become part of PBS's daily lineup, creating a potential merchandise bonanza a la the continuing PBS hits Barney & Friends and Arthur. The six titles upon which the television series will be based are: Seven Little Monsters by Maurice Sendak, George Shrinks by William Joyce, Corduroy by Don Freeman, Junior Kroll by Michael and Betty Paraskevas, Timothy G s to School by Rosemary Wells and Elliot Moose by Andrea Beck. The deal is worth approximately $40 million, which Nelvana will finance with co-production partners, international sales and other agreements.
Nickelodeon's Nick Jr. is home to with such hit book-based series as Franklin, Maisy, Little Bear, The Busy World of Richard Scarry and Kipper. Happily for publishers, these TV series consistently drive sales of the print properties that inspired them. Harcourt Brace recently launched a major publishing campaign in support of Kipper's TV debut, and according to Margo Raport, v-p of communications for Nelvana (producers of Franklin and Little Bear), 4.3 million copies of Franklin books were sold during the first four months of 1999, far outpacing the books' pre-television sales pattern. The reverse is also true, she commented. "Franklin has been a popular book character for many years and that brand awareness has translated into viewers."
Next up on Nickelodeon, for slightly older kids, comes the Little Bill series based on Bill Cosby's early-reader books published by Scholastic's Cartwheel imprint. The weekly half-hour animated program is set to debut on November 7 at 8 PM and features the voices of Phylicia Rashad, Gregory Hines, Ruby Dee and Madeline Kahn.
The Discovery Channel has discovered children's books, too. The cable channel and King World productions have joined forces to create Doodlezoo, a half-hour series scheduled to air in spring 2000. This nature series blends wildlife footage and animation and is based on the Doodlezoo series of books by Keith Potter, illustrated by Potter and Jana Leo. The initial two Doodlezoo books, Cat Nap and Seven Weeks on an Iceberg, contain nature photography and computer illustration and were published by Chronicle in June.
This holiday season brings the animated special Olive, the Other Reindeer, adapted from the Chronicle book by J.otto Siebold and Vivian Walsh. The program will air on Fox in November.
The Disney Channel is scheduled to launch a 26-episode series (as yet untitled) this September, inspired by Gordon Korman's Monday Night Football Club series for Hyperion. In the books, kids try on a magic football jersey and join the action of Monday Night Football with their favorite NFL stars.
An animated version of the first title in Brian Jacques's fantasy-adventure Redwall series is currently airing as a 13-episode series in Canada and France (and soon, the U.K., where the books originated). Nelvana, which produced the show, is talking with several companies eager to air the show in the U.S. Jacques had much input on the production and it is said to be the first TV treatment of his work (of the many ideas that have been pitched to him) he has approved in more than 10 years.
With the relaunch earlier this year of its sister channel HBO Family, HBO has been coming on strong as a source of book-based family entertainment. George and Martha, an animated series based on James Marshall's books about two hippo friends, kicked off on HBO Family in April. The daily half-hour series was produced by Nelvana, with Maurice Sendak, renowned author-illustrator and a close friend of the late James Marshall, serving as executive producer. On the live-action side, HBO has to date aired three of six half-hour installments of Dear America (Scholastic), based on the historical fiction series. In July, Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch (Candlewick; Avon/Camelot) made its HBO and HBO Family debut. The series chronicles the adventures and mishaps of Mildred, a young student at Miss Cackle's Academy for witches. HBO is committed to air 26 episodes of the show that were shot in England and Canada and have previously aired in Britain.
This fall, HBO Family will air Goodnight Moon, a mixed-media special about bedtime, which will feature animated versions of Margaret Wise Brown's classic (published by HarperCollins) as well as There's a Nightmare in My Closet (Dial)by Mercer Mayer and Tar Beach (Crown) by Faith Ringgold.
And just in time to celebrate Madeline's 60th birthday comes the direct-to-video release of Madeline: Lost in Paris from Buena Vista Home Video. It's the newest title in a line of videos inspired by Ludwig Bemelmans's beloved French schoolgirl character. Christopher Plummer and Jason Alexander provide voice talent. Viking is already participating in anniversary promotions with several Madeline licensees and has a Madeline birthday party kit available to booksellers.Not surprisingly, the mega-selling Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic) have cast their spell on Hollywood as well. The first two titles in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, have been optioned by Heyday Films in conjunction with Warner Bros. In a recently published interview, David Heyman of Heyday Films reported that a Harry Potter script was nearly finished and that the feature film could be in theaters in 18 months. He also suggested that a television series could follow.
Eloise, the irrepressible young denizen of the Plaza Hotel who stars in the classic picture books by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight, will now become a star of both the big and small screens. In a fierce 15-week auction, the itsy bitsy Entertainment Company won the motion picture and allied rights to the four Eloise titles -- Eloise, Eloise in Paris, Eloise in Moscow and Eloise at Christmastime (all reissued by Simon & Schuster). Plans are to develop a feature film with Di Novi Pictures and to eventually create a prime-time television series.
It's clear from the vast number of projects in the works that young readers -- as well as young TV viewers and movieg rs -- won't run out of entertainment anytime soon. And it's also apparent that the relationship between Hollywood and children's publishing is growing stronger -- a rosy development for both industries.
And Currently In Development...
Holes by Louis Sachar (FSG/Foster), in development by producer/director Andrew Davis
Tom Hanks will produce a live-action/computer-generated version of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are for Universal
The Hank the Cowdog series by John R. Erickson, being developed by Nickelodeon
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White (HarperCollins), as a feature for Columbia TriStar, due in November 2000
The Betsy-Tacy series (HarperCollins) as a TV series produced by Big Hill Pictures
Fenwick's Suit by David Small (FSG), under option at Fox
The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister (North-South), sold to Sony for animation
How Georgie Radburn Saved Baseball (Scholastic) by David Shannon, sold to Dreamworks
George Washington's Socks (Scholastic) by Elvira Woodruff, optioned by Shelly Fabares and Jane Windsor
The Time Warp Trio early reader series (Viking) by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith, optioned by WGBH-TV (producer of PBS's Arthur series)
The Stinky Cheese Man (Viking), also by Scieszka and Smith, in development at Universal Studios
Rosemary Wells's characters Max and Ruby (Dial), who will star in a TV series being co-produced by Nelvana and Silver Lining Productions
A series based on Babette Cole's Princess Smartypants (Putnam), also produced by Silver Lining
The Grossology series by Sylvia Branzei (Planet Dexter), developed by Nickelodeon
The BFG (Viking/Puffin) by Roald Dahl, optioned by Paramount as a live-action motion picture
Chain Letter 2 (aka The Ancient Evil) by Christopher Pike (Pocket), sold to Film Roman for development as a TV series
Christopher Pike's Spooksville series, being developed by Jim Henson Productions for The WB network
Blood & Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause (Delacorte), optioned by MGM
The White Fox Chronicles by Gary Paulsen (not yet published by Delacorte), sold to Columbia TriStar
Marilyn Kaye's Replica series (Bantam), optioned by Columbia TriStar and Storyline Entertainment.