A boy comes of age during the turbulent Cultural Revolution in Communist China. Another finds perilous adventure on a New England whaling ship. The experiences of both of these young heroes were initially chronicled in bestselling books for adults, which perceptive editors realized had intrinsic appeal to a younger audience as well. Now pared down and reshaped for kids, these titles exemplify what seems to be the burgeoning practice of adapting adult books for the children's market.
In order to explore some of the factors fueling this fashion--and to spotlight some specific titles that have made a smooth transition into children's formats--PW spoke to a dozen or so publishers and editors about their recent and upcoming adaptations.
More often than not, the adult imprints of their own houses provide children's publishers with the raw material for their adaptations. And the venture, obviously, becomes all the more tempting if a book has garnered impressive sales and publicity. Such was the case with Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, a 2000 Viking hardcover (reprinted in 2001 by Penguin) that was a National Book Award winner and longtime New York Times bestseller. Focusing on cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, the book had potential interest to middle-graders, decided Nancy Paulsen, president and publisher of G.P. Putnam's Sons and Dial Books for Young Readers. Due out next fall is Revenge of the Whale, which she and editor John Rudolph shaped from the original narrative by Philbrick, who reviewed the revised narrative at every step. "We were able to cut about half of the text quite easily," explained Paulsen. "Surrounding Nickerson's journals in the adult book is a great deal of description of the setting and lots of information about whaling. We decided to cut to the chase and follow the human story, though of course we kept the details that we felt were necessary. And we brought the vocabulary down a bit, since the original writing was quite sophisticated."
A recent adaptation of another bestselling Penguin title (originally published in hardcover by Walker) presented a greater challenge, Paulsen reported, since it entailed transforming a hefty nonfiction book into a 48-page picture book. This is Mark Kurlansky's The Cod's Tale (adapted from Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World), which Putnam released this fall. "This was definitely a bit trickier, since we made this book into a completely different art form," observed Paulsen, who with editor Victoria Wells (who has since moved to Bloomsbury USA) rewrote and edited drafts of each of Kurlansky's original chapters, submitting the new manuscript to him so that he could "smooth over the edges." Paulsen signed on S.D. Schindler to create art for the new version, which she noted is selling swimmingly, not only on the Atlantic coast--home of the historic cod--but throughout the country.
Having sold more than 600,000 copies for Little, Brown's adult division, Life: Our Century in Pictures, edited by Richard B. Stolley, was a natural candidate for adaptation by the company's children's division, according to John Keller, currently v-p and publisher of children's books. Both the text and the photographs, Keller said, "were edited extensively, so as to make it a smaller book, appropriate for the audience. We also added an introduction that included contributions from a handful of well-known children's authors." Though he reflected that the book, released in October 2000, "might have, in hindsight, done better if it was out there at the actual turning of the century," it surely was no slouch in sales, having grossed slightly more than 100,000 copies.
More disappointing were the results of another Little, Brown adaptation, that of James Redfield's phenomenally successful The Celestine Prophesy. The author teamed up with Dee Lillegard to write The Song of Celestine, a picture book illustrated by Dean Morrissey. Conspiring against this 1998 adaptation, Keller reasoned, were some children's booksellers' resistance to the book ("They just didn't approve of the original material") and the timing of the book's release ("We just caught the end of the Celestine Prophesy wave and, though we sold it in fairly well, it did not move as well as we had hoped").
Following firmly in the bestselling tradition of its predecessor are the young adult and children's spinoffs from Bruce Wilkinson's The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life, which has sold close to nine million copies for Multnomah since its April 2000 publication. The author then joined forces with David Kopp, a senior editor for Multnomah, to create The Prayer of Jabez for Teens, which boasts sales approaching 900,000 copies after just five months in print.
Kopp credited the teen adaptation's success to Wilkinson's ability to adjust his voice for a younger audience. "To make sure that teens were reading the prayer in a way that would have most significance for them, Bruce got out from behind his teaching podium and took off his tie," observed Kopp. "He swapped some of the anecdotes that connected with adults for stories about his life as a teenager. He did not try to sound like a hip kid, but he did change his tone and it worked."
Also flying off booksellers' shelves are a quartet of Jabez adaptations for younger kids, published by Tommy Nelson between July and October. Ranging in format from The Prayer of Jabez for Kids, aimed at middle-graders, to The Prayer of Jabez for Little Ones, a board book, these titles have a combined in-print figure of more than 1.4 million copies. Next summer, Tommy Nelson will release four children's adaptations of Secrets of the Vine, Wilkinson's latest adult title from Multnomah (which will adapt the book for teens).
Tapping Into Young Perspectives
Similar in title and theme to the Little, Brown retrospective, The Century for Young People by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster was a successful adaptation for Doubleday. Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher of Bantam, Doubleday, Dell and Knopf/Crown Books for Young Readers, noted that this reworking of Jennings's The Century (which has sold an impressive 1.5 million copies for Doubleday's adult division) "came out of in-house discussions that this would be an ideal book for young readers," she said. "We were aware that many of the first-person accounts of events from early in the century were actually told from a young person's perspective, since the elderly people looking back on their childhoods were kids at the time the events occurred. So we thought this would have appeal to young readers today." The adaptation's in-print total now exceeds 300,000 copies.
Two other adaptations of adult books, both released under the Delacorte imprint, also have intrinsic interest to the children's market given their focus on each author's younger years, remarked Horowitz: Adeline Yen Mah's Chinese Cinderella, titled Falling Leaves in its original incarnation, has 203,000 copies in print in hardcover and paperback; and Da Chen's China's Son: Growing Up in the Cultural Revolution (adapted from Colors of the Mountain) has 15,500 hardcover copies in print. Flags of Our Fathers: Heroes of Iwo Jima by James Bradley with Ron Powers, another Delacorte title, also stars some young heroes. Said Horowitz, "When I read this book, I was struck by the fact that many of these soldiers were teenagers at the time. What happened to these individuals at a young age greatly impacted the rest of their lives, which we thought was something that young adults would want to read about." The adaptation, which was penned by Michael French, has 40,000 copies in print since its May release in hardcover.
The fact that they feature young people's voices and views made three Pocket Books titles ideal candidates for adaptation into Archway editions, commented Anne Greenberg, executive editor of Aladdin Paperbacks and Simon Pulse. These are Melba Pattillo Beals's Warriors Don't Cry: The Dramatic True Story of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High School (which has sold 204,000 copies since its 1995 release); Dreaming in Color, Living in Black and White: Our Own Stories of Growing Up Black in America, edited by Laurel Holliday, a 2000 title with sales of 18,000 copies; and Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo by Kenn Harper, which has sold 13,000 copies since its release earlier this year. In Greenberg's words, "All of these are really powerful, even gut-wrenching stories about articulate young people in amazing situations. These are not people who grew up to be famous--these are ordinary people whom young readers can identify with." Greenberg also edited another well-received adaptation, Holliday's Why Do They Hate Me?: Young Lives Caught in the Conflict. Culled from three earlier adult anthologies, this volume has sold 71,000 copies since its release two years ago.
Also for Aladdin, former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has whittled his The Book of Virtues into The Book of Virtues for Young People, which has sold 130,000 copies; and his Our Sacred Honor was the basis for Our Country's Founders: A Book of Advice for Young People, sales of which total 74,000 copies. Released in 1997 and 1998 respectively, these volumes have become solid backlist sellers, reported David Gale, editorial director of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. "These books have the advantage of appealing to both kids and the adults who are buying them for children," he noted. Gale, who edited both titles, added that, in the case of Our Country's Founders, the book's subject relates so well to school curriculum that it is a popular choice for classroom use.
Exceptions to the Norm
Although the vast majority of the adult books publishers choose to adapt for kids are nonfiction, this is not always the case. A letter Clive Cussler received from a fan of his bestselling adventure novels starring Dirk Pitt was the catalyst for Archway's adaptations of three of his novels, Iceberg, Inca Gold and Shockwave, originally released in hardcover by S&S and in paper by Pocket Books. According to Patricia MacDonald, currently v-p and editorial director of paperbacks at S&S's children's publishing division, the letter came from a woman who wrote that her 13-year-old son was bored by many of the books published for kids his age, but she knew he would love reading about Dirk Pitt's heroic exploits. She suggested that Cussler trim down his stories for middle-graders and the idea caught the author's fancy. MacDonald signed up Judy Gitenstein to adapt the novels, and Cussler reviewed and approved each manuscript. The fan's hunch that youngsters would warm to Cussler's brave hero proved correct: the three adaptations--which feature a young-looking Dirk Pitt on the covers--have sold a total of 329,000 copies.
Though most of the time a children's adaptation follows the adult version, this month Delacorte BFYR and Broadway Books published simultaneous children's and adult editions of Born to Fly: The Heroic Story of Downed U.S. Navy Pilot Lt. Shane Osborn, penned by Osborn with Malcolm McConnell. Michael French wrote the children's adaptation, the cover of which includes a photo of Osborn as a boy. In this case, editors from both the adult and children's imprints decided when acquiring the project together to release the book at the same time, realizing the strong appeal of the topic to readers in both markets and the advantage of having Osborn promote the two volumes simultaneously. (As it turns out, the author made several media appearances just after the book's pub date, but then had to ship out to the Middle East.) Broadway and Delacorte are coordinating their advertising campaigns for the two editions, which rolled out with printings of 96,000 and 20,000 copies, respectively.
In another departure from many publishers' modus operandi for adaptations, DK usually creates entirely new text for children's books that are inspired by adult titles. "We start from scratch with the new book," explained Andrew Burkhut, DK's v-p and publisher for children's books. "We either find a children's author to write a new text and do the editorial and design work in-house, or find a packager to do the whole process. We do reuse the art work from the adult books."
Among DK's most successful adaptations are Kids' New York and Kids' London (based on the Eyewitness Travel Guides), which have sold 30,000 and 20,000 copies, respectively, since their May 2000 debut. The publisher has also adapted several of its Smithsonian Field Guides for children and has culled from its Top Ten of Everything two books that zero in on specific data: Baseball Top 10, due in the spring; and Football Top 10, which will kick off next fall.
Asked whether he considered publishing adaptations of adult books a less risky business than publishing books with no track record, Burkhut responded in much the same way as the other publishers polled. "I don't think it is less risky at all," he stated, "since these books have to hold up in their own right and stand on their own merits." Gale at S&S mused, "With the right book, this is a great idea, since you're getting more juice from the same orange and you're able to bring the same material to a new audience that could not access the original. Yet you never really know how the book will do and you always run the risk of alienating an author if the adult book sells well but the children's book does not."
On that potential pitfall, Beverly Horowitz urged patience, noting, "It is not likely that you will see enormous sales, or sales close to those for the adult edition, with a children's hardcover. But if adaptations are done well--and if they avoid patronizing or writing down to kids, who can spot a fake a mile away--then they will be around for a long time and will have strong backlist sales in paperback. A new crop of readers comes along every few years and these books will always be rediscovered."
Though virtually all publishers commented that they are on the lookout for future candidates for adaptation, generally they articulated a relatively low-key approach. In Keller's words, "I am certainly not beating the bushes to find such book projects. I would much rather, as a point of pride, do something really wonderful that is uniquely children's."
Horowitz also emphasized this priority, leading one to conclude that children's lists are not likely to be overrun with adaptations any time soon. "Our list is certainly not going to be largely made up of adult books that we've put into a younger format," she asserted. "The bulk of our books will be those we publish originally for children. That is what we do best."