Funny Boy, Dan Gutman’s superpower-lacking superhero who uses his sense of humor to defeat bad guys, will soon be back on his beat. Originally published as a three-book series by Hyperion in 1999 and 2000 and no longer in print, Funny Boy is being revived and expanded by digital publisher and distributor Open Road Integrated Media. On December 4, the publisher will release the original titles in Gutman’s series – Funny Boy Meets the Airsick Alien from Andromeda, Funny Boy Versus the Bubble-Brained Barbers from the Big Bang, and Funny Boy Takes on the Chit-Chatting Cheeses from Chattanooga – as well as a new installment, Funny Boy Meets the Dumbbell Dentist from Deimos (with Dangerous Dental Decay).

Gutman, who has published such series as My Weird School and The Genius Files since writing the Funny Boy books, explains that his agent, Liza Pulitzer Voges of the Eden Street agency, brokered the deal after approaching Open Road about reissuing some of his backlist titles as e-books. “I had written quite a few books before anyone had ever heard of me, and I feel that some of my best books never really found an audience,” he says. “The e-book revolution can give me, and other writers like me who were not overnight sensations, a way to finally get an audience for some of our books that may not have been popular first time around.”

Jane Friedman, Open Road’s cofounder and CEO, says she was impressed by Gutman’s enthusiasm for the Funny Boy series when the author met with company staffers. “Dan was clearly passionate about these books when we met to talk about what we might do together,” she recalls. “Open Road’s mandate has a lot to do with backlist, so we said that we’d like to do the first three Funny Boy books. And then I said, ‘Why don’t you continue the series?’ We look closely at what authors have written and whether we think their books’ content lends itself to electronic publishing. This was a no-brainer.” Open Road also released Gutman’s Election! A Kid’s Guide to Picking Our President in August.

To prepare for writing Funny Boy Meets the Dumbbell Dentist, Gutman – who estimates that he’s penned some 75 middle-grade novels since the Funny Boy books came out – says he revisited the earlier books in the series. “I had almost forgotten what the series was about, so I sat down and read the first three books, and took notes about who’s who.”

Once he reacquainted himself with the characters, Gutman found that the fourth Funny Boy book came to him quite easily. “It was really fun to write,” he says. “I like to think I’m a better writer now than I was 13 years ago, and I’d like not just to revive but maybe improve the series as well. These books are almost like literary anarchy – they remind me a bit of the Marx Brothers. Funny Boy is telling a story, but half the time he’s talking to the reader about crazy things that make no sense at all. It violates traditional story form, but kids don’t care about that. They want to read what makes them laugh.”

A Growing Audience for Middle-Grade E-books

Asked if she perceives middle-grade e-books as an expanding market, Friedman replies, “Absolutely. The number of children reading e-books is going to grow exponentially. When you read about the number of e-readers expected to be sold this holiday season, it’s staggering. I feel the middle-grade e-book audience is definitely improving, and then will expand further to picture-book readers, who I call digital natives.”

Open Road’s catalogue of children’s authors includes Caroline B. Cooney, Bette Greene, Virginia Hamilton, Peter Lerangis, and Gertrude Chandler Warner, and its commitment to growing the list is evident in the company’s staffing. Barbara Marcus, a longtime executive at Scholastic and currently president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books, began consulting for the company in fall 2010 and remains on its advisory board.

“Barbara did a yeoman’s job helping us enter the children’s market,” says Friedman. Now heading up Open Road’s young readers’ program is Tim Travaglini, director of children’s acquisitions, previously a bookseller and editor at several publishing houses. Samantha Streger is associate editor. “Tim and Samantha have made some solid acquisitions in the children’s area and are moving forward with a great deal of gusto,” Friedman says. “I think this area has tremendous potential.”

Based on his conversations with young readers, Gutman agrees, noting that he sees evidence of the growing number of kids who own e-readers on his frequent visits to schools. “I am astonished to see virtually every kid raise a hand when I ask who has an e-reader,” he says. “They are now well under $100, and it’s a great opportunity for authors to find new readers among this new generation.”

Gutman views reluctant readers as a prime audience for e-books, especially on the middle grade level. “I was a reluctant reader as a kid, and I write for reluctant readers,” he says. “Those kids tell me they find a book page full of text intimidating. They like to blow up the text on their e-readers so they can only see a few sentences at a time. It’s easier for them to read that way. I recently bought an e-reader and I also like to see small portions of text on the page. It seems to make reading more effortless.”

Acknowledging that the children’s e-book market “has not matured as yet the way the adult market is maturing, and there is obviously still a demand for print as well in the children’s area,” Friedman explains that Open Road will also do a small paperback print run of each of the Funny Boy titles, which will be distributed through Ingram. “But we are an e-book company, and our marketing attention is on the e-books,” she adds.

Gutman is impressed by Open Road’s aggressive online marketing initiatives for its e-books, which includes producing videos featuring authors that are available through social media, blogs, and authors’ Web sites. The publisher will launch its four Funny Boy titles with social media advertising and with promotion on Google, Facebook, StumbleUpon, and Everloop, and will also advertise the books on sites targeted to parents and book lovers, including A-List Moms and Book Reporter.

“It’s refreshing to see a company put so much energy into marketing and promoting books,” Gutman says. “I was astonished that Open Road sent a videographer and producer to my house for two days to shoot marketing videos. I got to do some silly stuff like ride a tricycle and throw a Frisbee! This entire e-book venture is very exciting. I’m grateful to be able to give some of my earlier work a chance to rise from the dead. And I’m happy to be continuing the Funny Boy series. I’d love to do the whole alphabet – right up to Funny Boy Meets the Zany Zamboni Driver from Another Zip Code.”

Funny Boy Meets the Airsick Alien from Andromeda by Dan Gutman. Open Road, $4.99 e-book (Dec.) ISBN 978-1-4532-5953-5; $5.99 paper ISBN 978-1-4532-9527-4

Funny Boy Versus the Bubble-Brained Barbers from the Big Bang by Dan Gutman. Open Road, $4.99 e-book (Dec.) ISBN 978-1-4532-5954-2; $5.99 paper ISBN 978-1-4532-9532-8

Funny Boy Takes on the Chit-Chatting Cheeses from Chattanooga by Dan Gutman. Open Road, $4.99 e-book (Dec.) ISBN 978-1-4532-5955-9; paper $5.99 ISBN 978-1-4532-9530-4

Funny Boy Meets the Dumbbell Dentist from Deimos (with Dangerous Dental Decay) by Dan Gutman. Open Road, $4.99 e-book (Dec.) ISBN 978-1-4532-6115-6; paper $5.99 ISBN 978-1-4532-7070-7