First released in 1966 by the school division of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, illustrated by Eric Carle, was written and published as a beginning reader. After receiving many letters from teachers requesting a trade edition of the book, the publisher released a picture-book version several years later. Sales of that edition soared, and subsequent picture books in the series -- Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, Panda Bear, Panda Bear What Do You See?, and Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See? -- followed. Now Holt is taking the original book back to its roots, and last month released a My First Reader edition of that title and of Polar Bear.
It makes perfect sense that Martin, a former educator who died in 2004, initially wrote Brown Bear as a beginning reader, says Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. “Inspiring others to learn to read was Bill’s passion, and that came from the fact that he didn’t really learn to read until he was in college,” she says. “When the first trade edition came out, with new pagination and word layout, in a format that made it more suitable for parent-child lap sharing, the book took off like wildfire.” Godwin estimates that there are some 14 million English-language copies of Brown Bear and its sequels in print.
Released with 100,000-copy first printings, the My First Reader editions revert back to Martin’s original pagination and layout of words, which include what Godwin calls “picture clues, which are exactly what every beginning reader wants.”
With a 6’ x 9’ trim size, the paper-over-board books also have a more sophisticated look, to appeal to the targeted 4-7 age group. “Learning to read is such a milestone for children, and at that point they don’t want to be seen walking around with a picture book, especially one they’ve likely had since they were babies,” Godwin says. “It doesn’t have that big-girl or big-boy association that they want as they’re becoming independent readers. So changing the trim size of the books symbolizes that it’s more grown-up and lets the books fit in with other beginning readers.”
This reformatting program continues next January, when Holt will release My First Reader editions of Panda Bear and Baby Bear. The My First Readers include introductions and supplementary material created by Laura Robb, an educator and reading specialist who Godwin notes was a colleague of Martin for many years. “The reading activities Robb includes are in keeping with Bill’s philosophy,” Godwin says. “They are very much about stimulating imagination, playfulness, and creativity.”
The publisher’s marketing campaign for the new My First Readers taps into both the trade and institutional markets. Trade components included a brochure delineating the differences between the picture-book and beginning-reader editions and online and print advertising.
Robb promoted the program at IRA and NCTE, where the brochure and samples of finished books were distributed. “We planned our marketing campaign to reach both the trade and institutional worlds,” said Joy Dallanegra-Sanger, senior v-p and director of marketing for Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. “It’s not often that you have a series that has such great popularity both in and out of the classroom. Our mission was to make our accounts, consumers, and educators aware of this exciting new program. We have the benefit of a beloved property, so our job has been to distinguish the My First Readers from the original books.”
Addressing the popularity of these Martin-Carle collaborations over more than four decades, Godwin observes that “Bill managed to capture the essence of a simple repetitive text that is catchy and sparks the imagination and lends itself to patterning, which encourages kids to make up their own rhymes.”
And of course there’s also the appeal of Carle’s simple, mesmerizing collages. Remarking that Martin “had not only a wonderfully artistic ear but an artistic eye,” Godwin tells how the author, while waiting in a doctor’s office, spotted a drawing of a lobster that Carle, who was then working in advertising, had created for a magazine ad.
“Bill knew nothing about Eric,” she says, “but he knew what that piece of art said to him. He trusted his instinct and said to himself, ‘This is my guy.’ ” Martin tracked down Carle and phoned him to ask if he’d illustrate Brown Bear. The artist agreed, which launched his children’s book career and, Godwin observes, “changed his life. Bill’s text was perfect, but its marriage with Eric’s graphics took their collaboration out of the ordinary and into the rare realm.”
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? My First Reader and Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? My First Reader by Bill Martin Jr., illus. by Eric Carle, $8.99 each July ISBN 978-0-8050-9244-9; -9245-5