Sleeping Bear Press, which launched in 1994 as a regional press, and morphed into a children’s book publisher in 2000, is once again moving in a new direction. The Ann Arbor-based company, best known for its illustrated alphabet book series, is expanding into chapter books for emerging readers, as well as YA novels.

The press, a division of Cengage Learning, doesn’t intend to increase output while expanding its list; the production of illustrated picture books will be curtailed, though only slightly. After all, its top bestseller of all time is H Is for Home Run: A Baseball Alphabet by Brad Herzog, illustrated by Melanie Rose, which has sold 250,000 copies since its 2004 release.

“It’s a natural progression,” explained Sleeping Bear publisher Heather Hughes. “Given the challenges of the marketplace, with less space given to picture books, we realized we needed to diversify.” In 2008, Sleeping Bear launched its I, Q. series by Roland Smith for middle-grade readers, which, to date, has sold more than 250,000 copies combined of the first two volumes, in hardcover and paper. And last spring Sleeping Bear introduced two new lines of board books: the theme of one line concerns U.S. states ($9.95 retail), the other sports ($7.95 retail). Each line has a 7,500-copy initial print run.

“We’ve reached a level of recognition as a publisher,” Hughes said,. “People are not surprised that we’re moving beyond picture books.”

This spring, Sleeping Bear will roll out the first two titles in a new series of 10 chapter books for beginning readers, about a gorilla and a monkey who are friends, in simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions. Tugg and Teeny by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Christopher Denise, will be released in March; Tugg and Teeny: Jungle Surprises will follow in May, with the third book due in September. The series will be released primarily in paper, with a 25,000-copy first print run each, though 3,000 hardcovers for the library market will be released simultaneously.

Also this spring, Sleeping Bear will release the first of two YA novels by Eve Bunting, author of more than 250 books, including two books previously published by Sleeping Bear (S Is for Shamrock: An

Ireland Alphabet and My Mom’s Wedding). Bunting’s YA novel, The Pirate Captain’s Daughter, will be released simultaneously in hardcover and paper in March with a 15,000-copy first print run. A sequel, as yet untitled, will be released in 2012 or 2013. Hughes disclosed that an e-book edition “will probably follow in three or four months, dependent on feedback from the marketplace.”

This isn’t the first time Sleeping Bear has published a YA novel. In July 2010, the press released Fat Boy Chronicles by Diane Lang and Michael Buchanan. Fat Boy Chronicles was originally self-published before being picked up by Sleeping Bear when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) school district needed 2,000 copies for its One Reads community-wide literacy initiative. Since releasing its limited-copy edition of Fat Boy Chronicles, Sleeping Bear has sold close to 25,000 copies and is going into a second printing; a movie version has been produced by Tin Roof Films.

In August 2011, Sleeping Bear will introduce another emerging reader series—written by Bunting. Frog and Friends is the title of the first book in an anticipated 10-book series, which Hughes said Bunting “wrote specifically for this format.”

Because Apple’s iPad and B&N’s Nook provide the color platforms that the Kindle lacks, Sleeping Bear is cautiously entering the e-picture book market. The 25 picture books released by the company in 2010 were recently converted into e-book formats, and made available for sale at the end of last year. The press is considering converting select backlist bestsellers into e-book formats as well, once contracts with authors and illustrators have been re-negotiated. Some titles, though, Hughes says, probably will never be converted into e-book formats. “I just don’t know if there’s a market for e-board books at all,” she said, for example. “And some of our regional titles are just too regional.”

While Sleeping Bear intends to release Fat Boy Chronicles and the I, Q. series in e-book formats, a schedule has not yet been set. Scholastic Book Clubs is set to release in e-book format this year a popular Sleeping Bear series of illustrated alphabet books as part of its new COOL (Club Online Ordering) program. The COOL program will be Sleeping Bear's first e-book project with Scholastic. "They've been great to work with," Hughes said.