A screenshot from Poptropica.com.

At a time when many children's book publishers and authors are looking to connect with kids online to market their print books, two-year-old Poptropica is doing the reverse. It is engaging with children through a virtual world, where it publishes original stories and comics. As a result, it also generates interest in using that content in print books. Part of Pearson's Family Education Network, Poptropica was the brainchild of Jeff Kinney, creator of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and editorial director of both FEN and its Funbrain Web site. He wanted to create an online world where kids could learn seamlessly, unlike educational sites such as Funbrain that offer library-style bookshelves, where kids pull out virtual books to read.

Although they operate online, the people behind Poptropica see themselves as publishers, producing content for children. “We developed a virtual world so we could publish to kids on it,” said Poptropica and Funbrain publisher Jess Brallier, who also serves as general manager of FEN. “Now kids take their content with them like they do with their handhelds.” Poptropica recently made it onto Quantcast.com's list of top 300 sites; aimed primarily at children ages eight to 10, it draws close to 7.5 million kids a month from more than 70 countries. The site is free to users and generates its revenue from advertising and a virtual economy that was added last month, enabling kids to make add-on purchases for their characters. Book content and comics are hidden among the site's nine quests, or islands. Some islands, such as Nabooti Island, created in conjunction with the Choose Your Own Adventure series, and Big Nate Island, based on Lincoln Pierce's cartoon strip of the same name, have a direct connection to print. In fact, Big Nate's popularity on Poptropica recently led to a contract for three novelizations from HarperCollins, which will begin publication in summer 2010.

What distinguishes Poptropica from other sites for children, like Club Penguin or Webkinz, said Brallier, is that it will always be about kids and content, not entertainment or toys. “To my mind, none of the other sites are publishing to kids,” Brallier said, adding that traditional publishers are too busy doing their traditional publishing to create platforms like Poptropica. “To me, it's like we're inventing a Penguin or a Random House. You can engage with a book online and on the page. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books prove one doesn't have to think of the Internet as a threat.” (Both Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid 4 (Abrams/Amulet, Oct.) and Brallier's picture book Tess's Tree (HarperCollins, Aug.), illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, were successfully published on Funbrain before going into print.)

By year's end, Brallier, who founded the children's book imprint Planet Dexter in 1995, is planning to add two or three more islands to Poptropica, including Reality TV Island, which is due out later this summer. He's also looking into licensing—not just T-shirts and posters, which recently went on sale at the site, but a Poptropica book series. In addition, he's considering offering other publishers a chance to make excerpts of their books available through Poptropica's characters' virtual backpacks.