It’s been 20 years – and more than 28 million copies sold worldwide – since Nutbrown Hare first hopped into the children’s book world via the picture book Guess How Much I Love You (Candlewick, 1995), and author Sam McBratney still isn’t entirely sure what sparked his tale of father-and-son hares expressing their love for each other. “It’s an interesting thing,” he says. “People forget that I had written a lot of longer books for young people before Guess.” He can recall various inspirations for many of those projects; “I got the idea for School Trip to the Stars (1990) when I saw an early star as I was looking out the window of my classroom,” the former teacher cites as one example. “But I have no idea how Guess How Much I Love You started.”

It did in fact start, as many books have, with a suggestion planted by an editor. “I had been to see my editor [Caroline Royds at Walker U.K.],” McBratney says, “and she said, ‘Sam, why don’t you try doing a picture book?’ I asked her, ‘Don’t you need to know an illustrator and all that? Do you want me to just send in a page, then?’ ” McBratney became enthused about trying a new tack when Royds impressed upon him, “What we don’t have is writers who can write a good story with hardly any words at all.” Feeling up to a challenge, McBratney recalls, “I told her, ‘Ok, I’ll have a go.’ But where the idea came from is one of those mysteries.”

After McBratney turned in his story, Walker found just the right illustrator. The job went to British artist Anita Jeram. (Jeram was not available to participate in this article.) “Walker was well-known and respected and could have fitted up that text with anyone,” says McBratney. “But by sheer coincidence they chose an illustrator that lives here in Northern Ireland, 30 miles away!” (Jeram is English, but her husband’s work took the couple to Northern Ireland at that time). Though they didn’t live far from each other, McBratney says he and Jeram did not meet during the creation of the book, often a typical scenario for picture book collaborators. He has nothing but praise for Jeram’s work. “The choreography of the words is echoed in the drawings, they complement each other so well,” says McBratney. “There was a good deal of thought put into the design of the book, too,” he says. “When you turn that first page and Big Nut and Little Nut are looking out at you, then they take off on their journey. It’s a little masterpiece in that way.”

The completed book was first published by Walker in the U.K. in 1994 and was published the following year by Candlewick Press, Walker’s U.S. counterpart, which launched in 1992. “I post-date the book,” says Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Candlewick, of her tenure at the publishing house. “But Guess How Much I Love You was the first Candlewick phenomenon, the first really big success story for the company. The woman who was head of field sales at the time told me that the sales team decided to make their mark with this title. They were determined to make it a breakout book.” To that end, Lotz says, Candlewick launched a major marketing push that included extensive touring for McBratney, displays, and point of purchase materials. “Sam’s wife keeps meticulous scrapbooks,” says Lotz, “and she made a map filled with pins marking all the places they visited in the U.S.”

Co-edition publishers were rapidly coming on board, and according to Walker Books, the title sold more than 150,000 copies in its first four months of publication. The book has since been released in more than 50 languages. “It was something I was very pleased with,” McBratney says of the story. “I believed it was something that adults would want to read and children would want to hear. But to think that 20 years later the hares would be talking to each other in 53 different languages – I would have said, ‘Don’t be silly.’ ”

Lotz believes the secret to the book’s staying power is its heart. “Every time someone loves someone new for the first time, they want to tell them,” she says. “There is so much ‘love publishing’ out there, but this is not saccharine, hackneyed, or trite. It’s lovely and fresh and so true to the emotion. It hits the heart and makes people think about what is really important to them.” For that reason, Guess How Much I Love You has become a gift frequently given on the occasion of welcoming a new baby, marriage, Mother’s Day, and many other life events. “To me, it’s a happy little story written for a big one to share with a little one,” says McBratney. “But the uses people make of the book are things I would not have imagined. Many people have told me it’s been useful to them in times of bereavement.”

A Global Approach

As more and more readers embraced the book, its ranking as a top performer was cemented. “The curious and magical thing about it is that it kept on as a bestseller,” notes McBratney. “All through the 1990s it stayed on the list.” Twenty years on, Lotz points out that 2014 was “a very healthy year” for sales and that Guess has shown “tremendous growth going into the anniversary.”

Lotz also stresses the book’s steadfast global appeal. “Fully one third of sales are foreign,” she says, “and in 2013–2014 we saw a 30% increase in overall worldwide sales.” This aspect of the story is a result of Candlewick’s focus on a global approach to marketing and licensing “We want to make sure we work with everyone to share news and keep communication going,” Lotz explains. “It has produced fantastic results. In this case, the title is still among the top 10 children’s book bestsellers in many territories.”

As recognition of their efforts, the various partner publishers of the world were invited to an elegant Candlewick dinner during last spring’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair to officially kick off a year-long 20th-birthday celebration for the book. “I had never had an experience like that at a publishing dinner. It was amazing,” says Lotz. “There were 70 people there [including McBratney] and it felt like we were at a wedding, it was so emotional. The restaurant was decorated and they served a meal in tune with the book. Throughout the evening, the stories kept coming and coming – even from publishers who took a chance on it when they were just starting up, or times were tough. Their passion was incredible. I was awestruck at this book’s power to touch and change so many people’s lives in so many countries. It makes you think, if children’s books can do this, why can’t we apply this to other problems in the world somehow?”

For his part, McBratney says he deeply enjoyed hearing those fond recollections and says he likes that people continually contact him. “This book can put you in touch with the thoughts and feelings of people you would never meet otherwise. And why else would you write?”

New Content, New Readers

Back Stateside, Candlewick prepared for a fall 2014 release of a 20th-anniversary edition of the book sporting a new jacket and containing notes from both McBratney and Jeram. The 20th-anniversary logo appears on “every single edition” of the book, says Lotz. Fans are encouraged to share their personal stories and appreciation for the title on social media using the hashtag #guesshowmuchiloveyou and in February, the new website will add content, acting as a hub for activities, puzzles, and other extras featuring the characters from the book. Candlewick is making an expanded activity kit and various giveaways including stickers and wearable Nutbrown Hare ears available to booksellers, librarians, and fans while supplies last. Giveaways of deluxe gift baskets containing books and licensed Guess products will take place at regional trade shows, publishing trade conferences, and consumer baby expos this spring as well.

Partnerships play a big role in the anniversary festivities too. Candlewick is donating copies of Guess How Much I Love You to fill a year’s worth of care packages from the Boxes of Love Project. The Portland, Ore.-based organization provides foster children with boxes containing clothes, blankets, shoes, and other essential items. In May, the publisher will join forces with the Children’s Book Council to send the Nutbrown Hare costumed character to bookstores across the country during Children’s Book Week. And Pizza Hut plans to feature the book in its Teachers with Spark program (part of the popular BookIT! rewards program), which reaches more than 30,000 classrooms nationwide.

McBratney will participate in additional promotional events this spring, but, he says, “I have to be careful enough. I’m no spring chicken any more.” And besides, he says he’s currently working on a few new stories about the Nutbrown Hares. “In one of them, Little Nutbrown finds a friend and the friend is a revelation to him. He takes a little step into the world. That’s my latest plan.”

With the anniversary celebration starting to hit its full stride, Lotz notes, “It’s an exciting milestone. You’ve reached a new generation and grandparents now remember it. That’s a big deal for a children’s book, to be not just still around, but truly thriving, after 20 years.”