Katherine Applegate and Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group are leveraging the theme of Crenshaw, the author’s first middle-grade novel since her 2013 Newbery-winning The One and Only Ivan, for a worthy cause. Due from Feiwel and Friends on September 22, Crenshaw introduces Jackson, a fifth grader whose family has fallen on hard times and is living in their minivan, with little money for food. The last time the family was homeless, Jackson was visited by Crenshaw, an imaginary friend who is an oversize, outspoken cat – who now comes back into his life. Launched this week with outreach to bookstores, the Nationwide Crenshaw Food Drive is galvanizing booksellers to sign on to host food drives in their stores to benefit local food pantries. The campaign also involves donations – of food and funds – on the part of the publisher.

The statistics are daunting, and underscore the truth of the food drive’s tagline: “Crenshaw is imaginary. Childhood hunger isn’t.” According to numbers provided by No Kid Hungry, a national campaign dedicated to making the eradication of childhood hunger a national priority, nearly one in five kids in America lives in a household that struggles to put food on the table, three-fifths of K-8 public school teachers report they regularly see students come to school hungry, and teachers of hungry kids spend, on average, about $37 monthly out of their own paychecks to buy food for students.

It was Applegate’s initial inspiration to use Crenshaw’s premise to build an anti-hunger campaign. “Hunger is so much a part of the novel,” she told PW, “and I hadn’t realized at first that the book’s September pub date coincided with Hunger Action Month, an initiative of the Feeding America network of food banks, which is really fortuitous timing. It occurred to me that a food drive would be a natural way to talk to kids about hunger, which so many of them simply aren’t aware of. But I wasn’t sure how to do it.”

After Macmillan got on board with the idea, Applegate said, “We decided that indie bookstores are the most obvious places to make it happen, since those booksellers are so in touch with their communities and could easily reach out to their local food pantries.” Applegate credits Mary Van Akin and her colleagues in the MCPG publicity team for orchestrating the Nationwide Crenshaw Food Drive “remarkably quickly and efficiently,” adding, “I am very touched and thrilled by their efforts.”

The Campaign Ramps Up

It was immediately evident that alleviating childhood hunger is a cause that independent booksellers are eager to rally around. MCPG launched the drive on August 11, and 20 bookstores signed on within a day. This gives the drive a healthy jumpstart, since for every bookstore participating, the publisher is donating $100 (up to $7,500) to No Kid Hungry. Macmillan is also holding a canned food drive at its home base, Manhattan’s iconic Flatiron Building, to benefit City Harvest, a nonprofit group that links the food industry and organizations, foundations, and corporations to help feed nearly two million hungry New Yorkers annually.

Jon Yaged, MCPG’s president, noted that the initiative combats childhood hunger on the national and local levels, and that he’s pleased that Applegate’s novel is serving as a springboard to accomplish both. “Fiction makes it a bit easier to address issues like hunger – it can take the hard edge off without sugar-coating,” he said. “In Crenshaw, hunger is almost another character, and we are so pleased to raise awareness of childhood hunger, to raise money for No Kid Hungry, and to help put food on people’s plates through consumer donations to food pantries.”

Booksellers who join the Nationwide Crenshaw Food Drive from now until October 15 on the book’s website will receive a digital toolkit to promote the initiative. In September, participating bookstores (which include all those on Applegate’s 10-city author tour for Crenshaw, which runs from September 22 to October 3) will receive a physical kit that contains giant stickers for donation boxes, “I Donated” stickers for customers who contribute canned goods, and bookplates. Visitors to the website can also view a map pinpointing bookstores involved in the drive.

MCPG is offering additional incentive for booksellers to climb aboard. The store collecting the most canned good items for its local food pantry during the month of October will receive a visit from Applegate, and three runners-up will win a Skype visit from the author.

An early and enthusiastic participant in the drive is Francine Lucidon, owner of the Voracious Reader in Larchmont, N.Y. The bookstore has partnered with the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Hunger Task Force, known locally as The Food Pantry. Lucidon has big plans to promote the drive with an in-store display that will include information on hunger, especially hunger in the suburbs, and will track the food drive contributions on the store’s Facebook page. “We’ll also highlight all the local helpers of the Food Pantry – churches and civic groups and the like – and we’ll reach out to local TV and radio stations to get the word out as well,” she said.

Noting that her store has set its sights on collecting enough canned food items to win that coveted personal visit from Applegate (“That would be amazing!”), Lucidon offered high praise for the novel that sparked the campaign. “From the moment I finished Crenshaw, I knew that this would be more than a novel – it will be a movement,” she said. “The author has written a beautiful and truly valuable book, and any opportunity to celebrate the novel and raise awareness of its issues is welcome. I am absolutely thrilled to be part of this campaign.”

From start to finish, Crenshaw and the food drive it spawned is a win-win package – from its benefit to young readers to its contribution to the cause of childhood hunger. “This is one of those great benefits that we have as publishers,” Yaged said. “First of all, we are able to connect kids with great books, and then take it another step and give back to the community and help those in need. It’s like the gravy – and we are so pleased to have this chance to do it.”

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. Feiwel and Friends, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-250-04323-8