In February of this year, Neal Porter, editorial director of Neal Porter Books at Roaring Brook Press, was in an editorial meeting discussing various titles on the fall list when someone brought in the PW starred review of Z Is for Moose, a March 2012 picture book by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (Greenwillow). The book features an overzealous moose eager to jump into the alphabet lineup before his appropriate turn, and a very organized zebra who wants to keep things in order. “It was a great review,” Porter recalls. “And... it sounded sorta, kinda close to the premise of my book.”
Porter’s book, due out in October, is A Is for Musk Ox by Erin Cabatingan, illustrated by Matthew Myers. In it, rambunctious Musk Ox insists that he represents A (because he’s eaten the apple that A was supposed to stand for). Musk Ox goes on to claim more letters for himself, pushing his way into different letter scenes, while Zebra tries to help him get a grip.
Shortly after discovering the similarities, Porter called Virginia Duncan, v-p and publisher of Greenwillow Books. “We made a date for lunch to discuss our anarchic alphabet books,” Porter says. The pair had a laugh about the coincidence and batted around ideas for making hay out of the situation. As a result, Z Is for Moose and A Is for Musk Ox may be paired in a promotion at some point. “We may do something on our blogs,” says Duncan. “It presents opportunities for booksellers that could be terrific.”
A Double Take
Synchronicity in the industry can be expected when the anniversary of a historic event or the birthday of a famous figure rolls around, and many books on the subject from various publishers are often scheduled closely together. And because titles of books cannot be copyrighted, there have been a number of tales of confusion over similar or even identical titles. Porter, who publishes the Bad Kitty books by Nick Bruel, became concerned when he saw an ad back in 2006 for a HarperTeen novel by Michele Jaffe called Bad Kitty, shortly after the release of Bruel’s Bad Kitty. But, Porter says, “They are completely different genres, and luckily, our book did not suffer.”
More recently on the twisted title front, Ruta Sepetys’s 2011 YA novel Between Shades of Gray has been confused by some readers with the wildly popular adult erotica book Fifty Shades of Grey. Sepetys sees a silver lining to the situation in that it gave extra attention to her story about the plight of a Lithuanian girl exiled to Siberia during WWII. As she noted on NPR in May, “For me, the mixup is a victory. E.L. James has unwittingly created a bustier for geography and historical fiction; thanks to her, Lithuania has never looked so sexy.”
Works in the public domain, like fairy tales and folktales, are frequently retooled, and new interpretations have occasionally been published at the same time. Both Duncan and Porter cited the two versions of Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo that were published in fall 1996 as their most memorable instance of synchronicity. The Story of Babaji, illustrated by Fred Marcellino (HarperCollins), and Sam and the Tigers, retold by Julius Lester and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Dial), were certainly very different in style. But for two retellings to surface in the same season, of a story that no one had wanted to touch for years, from two illustrators of such renown, was very unusual.
One of the reasons that the Moose/Musk Ox parallel is so striking is “both books are distinctive and funny,” says Duncan. Porter agrees. When he first read the manuscript for A Is for Musk Ox, he says, “It was the freshest, funniest thing I’d ever seen.” He liked it so much that he signed up two additional books from the author: Musk Ox Counts (fall 2013) and a geography book, The World According to Musk Ox (fall 2014). Confident in the book’s special qualities, Porter never dreamed there could be another one like it.
Of course, Duncan had the same view of Z Is for Moose. According to her, Bingham and Zelinsky were “kind of thunderstruck” when they heard about Musk Ox. Bingham says, “I was shocked. My honest reaction is that I’m so glad our book came out first. Even though it’s a coincidence, there’s always a chance that someone will be accused of copying.”
What makes the coincidence even more surprising for the Moose author is its gestation period. “I sold that book eight years ago,” Bingham notes. “It had been sitting for a very long time.” She initially wrote the story for her then three-and-a-half-year-old son. “He was learning the alphabet and we had been through all the ABC books at the library until we were sick of them,” she recalls. “He said, ‘I want a funny one.’ I just couldn’t find any.”
Another inspiration came from her studies at Vermont College. “One of my professors was [author] M.T. Anderson,” Bingham says. “He used the example of the Sesame Street title The Monster at the End of This Book to talk about breaking boundaries in a book. That really stuck with me. And when my son asked for a funny ABC book it all came together.”
Zelinsky says he was relieved to discover that the two books “occupy different spaces. They seem much more the same in description than in reality. I felt better all the way around when I saw it.”
On the Flip Side
When first-time author Erin Cabatingan learned there was a recently published book similar to hers, she thought, “Well, I wish A Is for Musk Ox had been first. But I’ve gotten used to the idea and I’m just excited for mine to come out now.”
Her project began as an exercise. “I was thinking of ways I could write a unique alphabet book,” she says. “So I asked myself, what would happen if A stood for something that didn’t start with A, such is A is for zebra. Then I had to ask why A would stand for zebra.” Some Google searching revealed that there was already an alphabet book featuring a zebra, where the last letter of each word corresponds to the alphabet letter. So Cabatingan changed the zebra to a musk ox and “the idea grew from there.” Eventually, she noted, “I put the zebra back in, but in a different role. Originally, this whole thought process was just an exercise and I wasn’t planning on writing the book. But I fell in love with the idea and decided I had to write it.”
What did illustrator Myers think when he found out about the fluke? “I had already delivered the art by then,” he says. “I’m very glad I didn’t hear about it while I was still painting. It would have been hard to not be influenced by Z Is for Moose.” With broad themes like fairy tales and folktales, Myers says, “you are always going to have new twists. But with something like this, it’s already a specific twist, so the simultaneous, specific duplication is very unusual. Especially the idea of the zebra being the straight man. That’s just weird.”
Though all parties involved can agree that this most recent example is fairly extraordinary, several of the Moose/Musk Ox players have seen other instances of synchronicity firsthand. “I had signed up a book on Jimi Hendrix,” says Porter. “I thought his story was unusual enough. And then at ALA a year later I saw the proofs for a picture book biography illustrated by Javaka Steptoe”: Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix by Gary Golio (Clarion, 2010). The Steptoe title was named a 2011 Caldecott Honor Book; Porter’s title, Song for Jimi by Charles R. Smith, illustrated by Edel Rodriquez, is scheduled for 2014. Additionally, says Porter, “I have a book coming out this fall, Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words [by Leda Schubert, illustrated by Gérard DuBois], and I recently found out that a Kar-Ben biography of Marcel Marceau [Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime by Gloria Spielman] is also coming out this fall.”
Bingham describes a strange coincidence involving her first book, which was published in 2007. “I wrote Shark Girl [a novel about a girl surfer who loses her arm after a shark attack] over a two-year period,” she says. “Right after I finished writing [in 2003], Bethany Hamilton was in the news because she was attacked by a shark and had her arm amputated. I put that book away for years because I didn’t want to be accused of capitalizing on that tragedy. I still get letters asking, ‘Did you rip off Bethany Hamilton? Do you know her?’ ”
For his part, Zelinsky recalls a project from a number of years ago. “I had an idea to make The Wheels on the Bus as a moving parts book,” he says. “At that point there had been no book with the words to the song as text.” But Zelinsky was working on other things and couldn’t start the project right away. “During that while, I would hear of another Wheels on the Bus book and my heart would go into my stomach until I learned it was not a moving parts book. I wouldn’t want to put it out in the world if that niche is filled.”
Though there’s no definitive explanation for this kind of synchronicity, those in creative fields like publishing have learned to take it in stride. “We all get influenced by similar things. It happens in movies, books, music, all kinds of art forms,” Bingham says. “There are similar ideas but people execute them differently. You write the best story you can and don’t worry because you have no control over how it’s received.”
Porter postulates, “It’s not anything other than something in the zeitgeist that appeared to two very different people. It’s one of the things that make publishing so interesting. You never know what is coming around the bend.”