Ancient Egypt is at the heart of TombQuest, Scholastic’s latest multi-platform action adventure property pairing a middle-grade book series with an interactive online game in the tradition of The 39 Clues, Infinity Ring, and Spirit Animals. Departing from the model of its predecessors, the new five-book series will be written by a single author, Michael Northrop.

TombQuest debuts in February 2015 with Book of the Dead, which Scholastic will release simultaneously in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The novel introduces two modern-day friends who awaken the magic of long-ago Egypt and embark on a global quest to vanquish five evil ancients known as the Death Walkers. A second installment will follow in May.

The storylines and interactive elements of Scholastic’s multi-platform series have clearly snared readers; there are more than 22 million copies of the three existing series in print in the U.S. alone, and they have been translated into 28 languages. The integrated online game community has more than three million registered game users in all 50 states and 191 countries. Launching in December in beta format, the TombQuest viral game is built around the social and interactive concept of “create, play, and share,” as kids become “game masters,” designing their own ancient Egypt-themed maze games, complete with treasure, traps, and monsters, and challenging their friends to play.

“These multi-platform series transcend genre,” said David Levithan, Scholastic v-p, publisher, and editorial director. “It’s an entirely new way of publishing that has really taken hold, and we’ve taken hold of it. We’ve invested heavily in it with enormous returns, and we’ve seen it increasingly appealing to a broader range of readers. And we’ve seen an amazing cross-pollination online, since we’ve integrated the sites and message boards of each series. We’re constantly updating and refreshing the online material, adding to areas that are getting more traffic, and improving those that aren’t as popular.”

The Allure of Egypt

Searching for the next multi-platform series’ handle, Scholastic’s editorial team and game designers gravitated toward ancient times, and enhanced the interactive component. “Ancient Egypt has intrigued us for some time, and seemed a natural place for fun adventure in an Indiana Jones vein,” said Levithan. “We wanted the series to have a subversively educational element, like The 39 Clues. There are hieroglyphics, wordplay, puzzles, and clues integrated within the books, which will add something extra to the reading experience. And where in the online games for the previous series, we’ve given kids plenty to explore, here we give them a chance to create their own world.”

Levithan said he approached Northrop (whose previous books with Scholastic include Trapped, Plunked, and Surrounded by Sharks) “knowing that he gets the kid’s-eye view of things, can write adventure with an element of fun, and loves to do hands-on research.” The editor’s instincts were on target, as Northrop viewed the project as ideal for him. “The subject matter is something that interests me, and it’s a good fit with kids this age,” he said. “Combining the dark and mysterious, humor and adventure, is a very exciting opportunity for me.”

Researching TombQuest has been more of a treat than a task for the author, who was given “a big writing prompt,” which he then fleshed out into an overall arc for the series and plots for each installment. “It was not a huge sacrifice,” said the author of traveling to Berlin, Vienna, and London to research Egyptian artifacts in museums. He also conducted research online and read quite a few “very thick books” to find the focus of TombQuest, which he said involves ancient Egyptian architecture. “The architectural components – the tombs, the mummies – are living history, and I knew right away that those would be central to the series,” he said, “along with the adventure angle, of course.”

Scholastic’s marketing plans for Book of the Dead will extend across all of its distribution channels – trade, book fairs, and book clubs – and will kick off in October with a “Tombsday Is Coming” pre-pub buzz campaign. This fall, Northrop will attend various conventions and regional shows, where he’ll give away branded TombQuest Egyptian headdresses. In December, the publisher will distribute copies of Book of the Dead at screenings of Night at the Museum 3 in selected cities nationwide. At pub date, the author hits the road on a national tour, and Scholastic Book Fairs will host contests for schools to win Skype events with Northrop.

The author, who is “knee deep” into the second TombQuest novel, noted that he is gratified that the series has both brought him onto new creative turf and returned him to his roots as a reader, when the first stories he was drawn to were magical and mysterious. “My past books have been much more realistic, so this is a change for me as a writer,” he said. “And as a young reader, I really dragged my feet until I discovered novels like Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron, which turned me into a reader. I feel as though TombQuest is bringing me full circle. My hope is that this series will help bring reluctant readers to books.”

TombQuest #1: Book of the Dead by Michael Northrop. Scholastic, $12.99 Feb. 2015 ISBN 978-0-545-72338-1