In 1971, Random House published The Sesame Street Storybook, the first-ever licensed product tied to the now-classic TV show that premiered on November 10, 1969, on PBS. As Sesame Street heads into its 50th year, Random House continues as one of the property’s key licensees, releasing an average of eight to 10 board books, Little Golden Books, and titles in other formats tied to the show each year. Little Golden Books, under the purview of Western Publishing at the time, also released its first Sesame Street books in 1971.
All told, Sesame Workshop oversees about 100 new Sesame Street titles each year from 14 U.S. publishers; a number of its books have never been out of print.
“In 1969, we asked the question, ‘Can this new medium of television be used to teach as well as entertain?’ ” says Jennifer Perry, Sesame Workshop’s v-p and publisher, North America media products and publishing. “It turns out the answer was yes, and, 50 years later, we’re still supporting our mission of making kids smarter, stronger, kinder.”
This year’s Sesame Street list includes special titles to celebrate 50 years, reissues and refreshed editions of classic books, and new publishing initiatives. “One of our goals with our publishing plan for the anniversary was to honor our legacy as a fun and educational brand that began its licensing history with books,” Perry says.
Among the key titles is Sunny Day: A Celebration of Sesame Street, a Random House picture book that includes, for the first time in book form, the lyrics of the Sesame Street theme song. Each spread features art by a different children’s book illustrator, 18 in all, including cover artist Christian Robinson. In April, Random House is releasing Love the Fur You’re In: Monster Wit and Wisdom with Art from 50 Years of Sesame Street Books. And Sourcebooks, which joined the licensee roster in 2014, offers Love: from Sesame Street, an all-ages jacketed hardcover.
Mining the Backlist
Among the classic titles in the anniversary assortment is a new edition of the top-selling Sesame Street book ever, The Monster at the End of This Book. Western and Random House have sold more than 20 million copies of the title since its 1971 publication. This year, Readerlink’s Studio Fun imprint, a licensee since 2005 (when it was part of Reader’s Digest), is publishing a $14.99 version of the book that features an interactive element on every page.
Rosanne McManus, v-p and publisher of Studio Fun, reports that the property is her company’s strongest backlist brand. The imprint’s top-selling title overall for the past 10 years has been the Sesame Street Music Player Storybook, with more than one million copies in print to date, across various editions, while Guess Who, Elmo! has sold more than 600,000 copies since 2007. Studio Fun is redesigning its Guess Who series with more die-cuts and transferring all of its licenses to the updated style, “But Elmo is doing so well, both in the regular and the Easter version, that we’re just keeping them in the old format,” McManus says.
Though merchandise sales for almost all classic licenses go through cyclical hills and valleys over the decades, publishers and Sesame Workshop report that Sesame Street publishing performs relatively consistently year after year. Perry notes that any ups and downs have more to do with economic cycles, the merging of bookstore chains, and other external factors than to consumer demand, which has remained steady. “Publishing is a very solid revenue generator for us, and the books are a beloved ambassador of the brand for parents and preschoolers,” she says.
“It’s been very steady, maybe a slight dip here and there but not like most licenses that have their ups and downs,” McManus says. “It does well in the trade; it does hugely well in Walmart; it does well when we do a boxed set at Costco.”
Bendon signed Sesame Street as one of its first coloring and activity book licenses 15 years ago. Its anniversary tie-ins include an all-ages coloring and activity book and a value-driven format that gives dollar stores the opportunity to highlight the 50th. “Sesame Street is a mainstay for us,” says executive v-p Jenny Hastings. No matter what hot preschool licenses are competing for space, she notes, Sesame Street always sits alongside “the latest and greatest” in retailers’ assortments. “It’s just a strong, everyday brand.”
Like other publishers, Random House reports a lift in its Sesame Street program since HBO began carrying the show in 2017; longtime partner PBS is still on board as well, airing reruns of the HBO episodes as well as its older episodes. And the anniversary has provided a further boost. “Retailers are really excited about it,” says Chris Angelilli, v-p, editor-in-chief, and executive director of licensed publishing at Random House Children’s Books.
Among the 14 Sesame Street titles Random House is releasing in 2019 are a number of reissued and repurposed classics. “We’ve been a part of Sesame Street’s history almost since the beginning,” Angelilli notes. “The anniversary is a wonderful opportunity to delve into the backlist, and we’ve found many treasures there.” The company is bringing back classic Little Golden Books from the 1970s, such as Big Bird’s Red Book and Grover’s Own Alphabet, as well as How to Be a Grouch, a 1976 title by Caroll Spinney, the original voice of Oscar the Grouch.
Reaching Out to New Audiences
One of Sesame Workshop’s objectives for the anniversary year was to appeal to adults. It has been estimated that 86 million adults are “graduates” of Sesame Street, according to Perry. “They’re still Sesame Street kids at heart,” she says.
In addition to the anniversary books, many of which include adults among their target audience, Sesame Workshop recently partnered with Macmillan’s Imprint division for a Guide to Life series, starting with The Joy of Cookies: Cookie Monster’s Guide to Life in 2018, followed by The Pursuit of Grouchiness: Oscar the Grouch’s Guide to Life and The Importance of Being Ernie (and Bert): A Best Friends’ Guide to Life this year.
Sesame Workshop is also reaching out to adults through its digital platforms. All of its e-books to date have been for preschoolers, but it will publish a photo-driven celebration of 50 years of Sesame Street for adults this year.
Many of Random House’s relaunched classics appeal to adults as well. “There’s a huge adult collector following for the Little Golden Books, especially now that we’re releasing the 1970s titles for the anniversary,” Angelilli says. The company will introduce a boxed set of six classic Sesame Street Little Golden Books in September.
For parents of preschoolers, a noteworthy new title is Running Press’s Ready for School! A Parent’s Guide to Playful Learning for Children Ages 2 to 5, the first book to share Sesame Workshop’s whole-child curriculum framework. “We thought the 50th anniversary is the best time for us to share, with anyone working with children, everything we have learned about how to best reach and teach preschoolers,” Perry says. “We hope it will become an essential resource for families to prepare their kids for school.”
Sesame Workshop’s publishing program also helps support its social missions. For example, it offers books tied to its autism initiative, See Amazing in All Children, in both digital and physical form (the latter through Random House). The first was published in 2017, with two more planned for this year; all feature Sesame Street’s autistic character, Julia.
Beyond the Anniversary
Three brand-new licensees are introducing Sesame Street publishing programs in 2019, including Lerner (school and library nonfiction), Skyhorse (nonfiction and unique coloring/activity formats), and a yet-unnamed partner (for a new adult format).
Perry says that when considering areas of expansion, she and editorial director Karen Halpenny strategize about gaps in Sesame Workshop’s formats, curriculum, or retail presence and look to licensees for innovative concepts. “We know what our core formats are,” she adds. “They’re storybooks, board books, and coloring and activity, and the majority of titles are in those formats. Anything new has to be additive to our publishing plan, without cannibalizing. We’re not willy-nilly about it at all.”
That said, “it’s unbelievable how open their team is to hopping into a sandbox with us and just playing,” says Karen Shapiro, publishing manager of Sourcebooks Kids’ new imprint Wonderland. “Their willingness to experiment never ceases to amaze me.”
Sourcebooks is one of the existing licensees adding new products timed to the anniversary, launching a series called My First Big Storybook. The titles, which come in a landscape format that fits on a parent’s lap, feature Sourcebooks’ backlist storybooks in the center of each spread, with reading and activity guidelines for caregivers in the extended margins.
Some of the publishers’ newest efforts take their design cues from the 50th anniversary logo. Random House incorporated such design elements on the covers of its new board book series, Sesame Street Friends, which introduces the characters to babies and toddlers through bold photos and colorful type. “They’re very striking covers, and there’s nothing else like it on the market,” Angelilli says.
In addition to the companies mentioned here, the licensee roster for Sesame Street includes Kappa Books for novelty board, activity, bath, and educational workbooks; Kar-Ben for Shalom Sesame story and board books; Kids Preferred for cloth books; Phoenix International Publications for sound books, story treasuries, and look-and-find books; Sandvik Publishing for continuity series; and Shutterfly for personalized storybooks.
Sesame Street’s yearlong birthday “party with a purpose” officially kicked off on February 4, preceded by a Barnes & Noble event on February 2 as part of the annual commemoration of Elmo’s birthday. Highlights include a nationwide community-event road trip; a social media campaign, #ThisIsMyStreet; new licensed products and collaborations; and a prime-time special on HBO. The festivities will conclude with the launch of the new season of Sesame Street on November 10.