In the subway tunnels beneath Brooklyn, a brave mouse named Hopper becomes entangled in a battle between rival rat tribes in Mouseheart, the launch title of an animal fantasy series by Lisa Fielder. Due in May 2014 from Margaret K. McElderry Books, the novel will feature 15 interior illustrations and a map of the underground setting created by Vivienne To. With in-house enthusiasm for the book running high, the publisher is banking on its potential appeal to middle-grade readers, and has a 100,000-copy first printing and a $500,000 marketing campaign in the works.

Ruta Rimas, an editor for S&S’s McElderry and Atheneum imprints, acquired world and audio rights for the three-book series in a deal brokered by Fielder’s agents, Susan Cohen of Writers House and Madeleine Morel of 2M Communications.

Mouseheart is a departure for Fielder, who explained that in the past she mostly wrote “tween first crush-type novels” and contributed to series published under pseudonyms. “I decided I wanted to do a middle-grade adventure with some fantasy to it,” she said. “I wanted to flex my writing muscles. By an incredible stroke of luck, I connected with Ruta, who had worked with Madeleine Morel on another project. So she got us together, and we began brainstorming and bouncing ideas around in lots of conversations and e-mails. It was a very collaborative project; Ruta has a knack for suggesting something and letting me run with it.”

Fielder, who said that many of the books she loved as a child featured animal characters, knew from the start that she wanted her story to do likewise, since “writing animal characters is very liberating in a way. Your imagination is freed up.” With Rimas acting “as a sounding board, offering lots of advice,” Fielder came up with the notion of focusing on mouse and rat characters.

“I’m not really a rodent person by nature, but that’s all changed,” said the author. “I never thought I could adore a little mouse, but Hopper bloomed into a great character, with unexpected destiny and guts. Once I got their personalities straight in my head, he and the other characters took off. They did all the talking and knew where the story needed to go. They directed it.”

Fielder and Rimas also worked together to come up with Mouseheart’s setting. As they discussed options, the editor may well have tipped the scales in favor of subterranean Brooklyn. “The borough has been my home for 10 years, and I love living there,” Rimas said. “And it has had a resurgence in the popular media. The Barclay Center, below which the story takes place, was the site of this year’s MTV Music Awards. Brooklyn has also had a resurgence of popularity as both a place to live and as a tourist destination. And I think kids are fascinated with the transit system and the world below our world, where anything can happen. I remember seeing a rat scurry into a subway tunnel one day and I wondered, ‘Where is he going? What is his life like down there?’ ”

Building Momentum

Rimas explained that S&S staffers’ “infectious enthusiasm” after reading early ARCs of Mouseheart was extremely gratifying, and helped fuel the plan to support the book with extensive marketing and promotion. “We revealed the cover art for the first time at our summer 2014 launch meeting, and everyone in the room was captivated by itt,” she said. “It’s every editor’s dream to see that kind of reaction to a cover. We all agreed we wanted to get behind this series and generate early buzz among booksellers and readers.”

Plans for doing so include a Prepublication Dinner at Anderson’s Bookshops’ Aurora, Ill., warehouse on February 3, which Fiedler, educators, and 50–60 middle-grade readers will attend. To publicize such events, Anderson’s sends out e-mail blasts to educators and other individuals who have shown interest in attending the dinners in the past. Young readers who want to attend the dinner pick up ARCs beforehand. “This way, the kids attending these events will have read the complete novel before they arrive,” said Angie Gaul, Anderson’s authors and schools coordinator. “The authors circulate from table to table, and it’s awesome to see. The kids know how special it is to have access to a book before it’s published and to have a chance to have dinner with the author.” After the meal, Fielder will give a presentation and sign ARCs.

Other components of the Mouseheart marketing push include distribution of more than 5,000 ARCs to booksellers, bloggers, reviewers, and librarians; a dedicated Web site, which will contain games, excerpts, and character profiles; a gaming app; trade, consumer, and in-theater advertising; online promotion via pre-teen Web site; a retail floor display; and an author tour.

Fiedler says she is very much looking forward to getting her book into readers’ hands. “I can’t wait to have Mouseheart out there at last,” she said, “and I’m thrilled that Simon & Schuster is backing it in such a big way.”

Mouseheart by Lisa Fiedler, illustrated by Vivienne To. S&S/McElderry, $15.99 May 2014 ISBN 978-1-4424-8781-9