If you want kids to read a book, give them a good scare. That was the philosophy behind the phenomenally successfully children's book series Fear Street and Goosebumps by R.L. Stine. Though the conventional wisdom of the day said a horror books series wouldn't work, Parachute Press publisher Jane Stine and her partner Joan Waricha introduced FearStreet in 1989. The series worked without having a set of continuing characters, as The Baby-Sitters Club did. Instead, it was the place that was the common factor in all the books, and, as Stine says, "If you lived on Fear Street, there's a high percentage of bad things happening to you."
The partners were taken aback by the instant success of FearStreet. As Stine recalls, "it was a shock for us to discover that children wanted to read scary books with humor in them."
To keep that audience coming back for more, Stine and Waricha wanted to launch a series of horror books for middle grade readers. Stine's husband and star author, R.L. Stine, said he would do it only if he could think of a good title. That night he went home, picked up TV Guide and was inspired. "It's Goosebumps week on Channel 11," read the ad.
The year was 1992, and Goosebumps was the Harry Potter of its day. "It was simply beyond anyone's comprehension how it took off," says Stine. "You couldn't walk down the street without seeing kids carry the books."
Even more excited than the kids who were scooping up the books, published once a month, were booksellers, who bombarded R.L. Stine at industry conventions. "They said to him, 'Thank you for my new air conditioner, thank you for my kids' college education, thank you for my new carpet,'" Stine says. Another said, "On your tombstone, it should say, 'He got boys to read.' "
How Stine got boys—and girls—to read was by delivering a series of well-timed twists in his stories. Readers came to expect them; familiarity, in this case, bred loyalty. "Bob gives kids a very comfortable sense of knowing they're going to have a good time," Stine says. "He thinks setting up a good punch line is the same as setting up a good scare."
Of course, the Goosebumps books did not seduce all kids. In fact, one boy the Stines knew intimately—their son Matt—remained impervious to their narrative charms. "When he was in middle school, it was height of the Goosebumps craze. Matt's claim to fame was that he never read them," Stine says. She pauses, then adds, with a laugh, "Your kids will do anything to torture you."
Matt Stine is 25 now, and the Goosebumps series has sold an astounding 250 million copies (and you can throw in another 80 million for Fear Street). Still, despite this impressive legacy, R.L. Stine is set to introduce another children's series this fall. HarperCollins will publish Rotten School. For an author whose sales have already landed him in The Guinness Book of World Records, it may seem easy to rest on your laurels, but, as Stine says, "Bob has a very close connection with readers and they have been very loyal."