Ninja Life Hacks Kicks Up a Licensing Program

Mary Ninh, author of the fast-growing publishing franchise Ninja Life Hacks, has retained The Brand Liaison as her agency for a new licensing effort aimed at children 3–11, with a sweet spot of 3–8. Launched in November 2019, the humorous, self-published series of storybooks, which promotes emotional intelligence, confidence, and grit, has 44 titles and counting, with sales approaching one million copies.

“I began to get a lot of requests for merchandise, so when the opportunity presented itself to work with The Brand Liaison, I jumped at it,” Ninh said.

“We were very moved by the mission of this brand to empower kids to manage their emotions,” said Laurie Smith, strategic consultant with The Brand Liaison. “It’s exciting to be involved with a property that can truly make a difference.” She noted that emotional intelligence and relationship building are more important than ever due to the isolation of the pandemic. “Parents are more worried about their kids’ social skills than they are that they’ll catch Covid,” she said.

“The property came with all the traditional elements of a successful brand,” Smith continued. It has 62 characters to date (Angry Ninja, Positive Ninja, Emotional Intelligence Ninja, and the like), which enhances collectability, and relationships between the characters, which foster role play. “It also has ongoing content creation, so there’s the opportunity for new characters, storylines, and themes,” she added, noting that Ninja Life Hacks also supports diversity and inclusion. “It gives parents the opportunity to choose the best ninja for their child. There’s something for everyone, and everyone is welcome and equal.”

Customers have been asking for board books, early readers, and chapter books, so the first step is to sign a publishing partner. “We want to fill that demand for multiple formats,” Smith said. The core storybooks may transfer to the publishing licensee as well, but Ninh’s success is an argument for keeping that component of the publishing program as is, Smith said. “It’s a true art to know how to market on Amazon. She’s doubled her business year-on-year and is up to almost a million books sold.”

Other licensed product categories will include stationery and toys, followed by apparel and accessories, sleepwear, dinnerware, lunch kits, bedding, and the like. Where possible, products will support the themes of the books. Weighted plush would help decrease anxiety, for example, while costumes of the ninjas would facilitate role-play throughout the year.

The development of the Ninja Life Hacks franchise to date has been driven by parental requests for new emotions, feelings, and topics. “I try to solve my customers’ problems,” Ninh said. “If we keep listening to our customers, we’ll keep going the right way.”

Random House Enters LEGO’s World of Playful Reading

LEGO global strategic publishing partner Ameet has signed Random House Books for Young Readers as its North American sub-licensee for story-based formats including chapter books, leveled readers, middle-grade readers, and picture books.

“We’ve had our eye on LEGO for years now,” said Chris Angelilli, Random House v-p and editor-in-chief, licensed publishing. “It’s an evergreen brand that’s not going anywhere and just keeps getting better and better. And we love their vision, which is all about creative thinking.”

“Random House has a perfect balance of serving the book trade really well, but also the mass market,” said Eric Huang, Ameet’s v-p and publisher. “They can cover a wide range of channels, so we can have LEGO Books where children’s books need to be, but also where the [LEGO building] sets are. And having a strong storytelling partner is really important. When kids read a LEGO storybook, they’ll later reenact the story [with their LEGO toys] and then turn it into other things. It’s reading, and play, and creativity. We want to marry that playfulness with reading and the bricks.”

The first list, releasing in fall 2021, will include seven titles. Four will be based on the LEGO Ninjago brand, including the first two titles in a new chapter book series (to be followed by an additional title each season), a guide called The Book of Elemental Powers, and a hardcover 5 Minute Stories collection. Another three titles will be based on the core LEGO brand, including a search-and-find book, Everything Awesome, celebrating 90 years of LEGO building sets; 12 Days of Christmas, a jacketed picture book based on an upcoming animated short; and I Love You to Pieces, a hardcover picture book celebrating love and friendship.

Spring 2022 will bring more titles, including books based on LEGO Batman, LEGO Jurassic World, and LEGO City. Ultimately, Angelilli expects the mix to be split about 50/50 between Random House-originated formats, such as Little Golden Books and Step into Reading titles, and Ameet books created for the global market, adapted for North America. The number of titles and formats each season will be determined by LEGO’s corporate brand and entertainment strategy. Some books will be packaged with bricks or mini-figures.

“We want a variety of titles, formats, and properties,” Huang said. “Different readers like different parts of the brand.”

RH will join Ameet’s other LEGO partners in North America, including Sourcebooks for play-based novelty formats and Printers Row’s Studio Fun imprint for coloring and activity formats, as well as LEGO-direct licensees Chronicle Books, DK, and Klutz. Ameet expects to announce additional North American publishing licensees for niche formats in the coming months.

Highlights Turns to The M-Zone As It Marks 75th Year

Highlights has appointed The M-Zone as its licensing representative for North America. The agency is charged with adding licensing deals, collaborations, and partnerships for products, integrated marketing programs, and experiences.

“It’s an amazing brand that’s been around for 75 years,” said Melissa Segal, founder and co-president of The M-Zone. Licensees and promotional partners are increasingly open to working with brands such as Highlights, she said, as entertainment characters become riskier. Meanwhile, the pandemic has raised interest in all things educational and fun for families to do at home.

“Partners want to team with brand like Highlights that is evergreen and also has exciting things going on with the 75th anniversary,” Segal said. She added that the wide range of content available for licensing, from Hidden Pictures and Highlights Learning to jokes, riddles, and recipes, is also attractive to licensees, as is the recent expansion of Highlights book publishing, which has brought the brand into new channels such as Costco, Target, and Five Below. “There’s a real retail story to tell,” Segal said.

The focus of Highlights licensing will be on educational products for kids 3–5, especially in reading, math, and STEM, as well as products for children 5–8 that encourage exploration, experimentation, creativity, and good citizenship. Priority categories include preschool learning, electronic toys, wooden toys, arts and crafts, STEM activity kits, and subscription boxes.

This blueprint is consistent with what Highlights has been doing with its licensing effort to date. (Existing licensees include Leap Year, Lee Publications, Siscovers, Silver Dolphin, and Trends International, as well as new additions Buffalo Games, for a Hidden Pictures board game, and Bendon, for value workbooks.) The difference now is a more strategic outlook that builds on the existing licensing program.

“It’s a change from being a publisher of magazines and books to a full product-development mindset,” said Patty Sullivan, who heads retail and strategic development for Highlights Press and Highlights Learning. She said the new strategy has the full support of Lece Lohr, president of Highlights Consumer Business, who joined last spring and has encouraged the brand to engage with partners in different ways. “We have become an integrated brand across all of our efforts. So it was time to bring a licensing agent on, and Melissa and [co-president Jeff Fradin] stepped up with a vision for licensing and partnership.”

“[This new direction] allows us to offer more of a 360-degree program,” Segal said. “It’s not an afterthought, it’s a real strategic initiative. We’re looking at the whole thing holistically and we’re bringing a fresh energy.” The M-Zone will consider not just additional licensees but also other types of strategic partners. In fact, two of the first deals, to be announced soon, are with a quick-service restaurant chain and a large packaged goods company.

The 75th anniversary will bring a robust brand campaign starting in June 2021 and running into the first half of 2022, across Highlights’ social media platforms, emails, newsletters, cover wraps, and gift catalogs, as well as partner channels. More book publishing is on the way as well, including Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids, Best Hidden Pictures Puzzles Ever, and more.

Moomin Launches Global Reading and Writing Initiative

Moomin Characters, which manages the estate of Moomin author Tove Jansson, has launched Reading, Writing, and the Moomins, a global multi-year initiative that promotes the importance of reading and writing in the development of empathy, self-expression, and happiness. It features new alphabet graphics and patterns designed by Jansson’s grand-nephew, graphic artist James Zambra of Kobra Design Agency, based on hand-drawn letters created by Jansson. The initiative will be open to all Moomin partners in publishing, licensed products, and charitable tie-ins,

A new ABC book is being published in Finland and Sweden as part of the effort. All told, Finnish publishing partner Otava plans to release a total of 81 book and stationery titles tied to the MoominABC initiative, including notebooks for each of the 26 letters in the new alphabet. “Our mission is to get children and young readers to read and get excited about books,” said Kaisu-Maria Toiskallio, Otava’s publishing director, children and young readers. “What better way to do that than with the Moomins?”

“We loved the values and the design aesthetic of the MoominABC program,” said Nicole Pearson, publishing director at Macmillan U.K., which has published 20 Moomin titles including deluxe coloring books; an art book, The World of Moominvalley; tie-ins to the Moominvalley animated TV series; and English translations of original Tove Jansson novels. Global sales (in 20 languages) have exceeded a half million copies since 2017. Macmillan plans to offer several MoominABC titles, including two nursery gift books (an ABC and a 123 title) in spring 2022. A deluxe gift book celebrating the art of letter writing, with extras such as stationery and envelopes, will follow in the fall.

A number of charities are involved in the initiative as well. Oxfam operates 600 second-hand charity shops in the U.K., including 120 bookshops, and will stock the MoominABC Collection in its stores to raise money for projects supporting reading writing, and education. “Learning to read and write is one of the first steps to end poverty,” said Edward Gillespie, head of new partnerships at Oxfam. “Empowering people to express themselves is one way to help them advocate for themselves.” Oxfam has long worked with U.K.-based Moomin licensee Sort Of Books, which publishes 23 titles by Jansson, including the classic Moomin picture books and collectors’ editions of the classic Moomin novels. Sort Of published Jansson’s short story The Invisible Child with Oxfam and bookstore chain Waterstones in 2017, raising significant funds in support of women’s and girls’ rights.

Other partners for the MoominABC program to date include PEN International, the Finnish Red Cross, UNICEF, and The Children & Youth Foundation’s Read Hour, among others. Licensees for posters and t-shirts are also on board, with more to come.

The focus of the program initially is on the Nordic countries and the U.K., but Moomin Characters and its agency Rights & Brands report interest from across Europe and Asia as well. The property’s North American licensing agent, King Features, is currently in talks with Rights & Brands about how to best bring the program into the U.S. and Canada.

Girl Scouts and Delacorte Partner for 'Becoming' Program

Penguin Random House, Girl Scouts of the USA, and former First Lady Michelle Obama have partnered on an initiative for current Girl Scouts called Becoming Me. The goal of the educational effort, which is inspired by Obama’s Becoming: Adapted for Young Readers (published by Delacorte Press on March 2) is to help Girl Scouts become their best selves.

The free program is offered to any Girl Scout enrolled in the 2021–2022 membership year. Built on 18 of the Girl Scouts’ 300 skill-building badges, all aligned with the themes of Becoming, the offering includes several facets. A six- to eight-week experience highlights themes such as exploring and communicating one’s own story, maintaining mental health and wellness, and supporting girls on their journeys. A facilitator, digital downloads, and journal activities help guide the girls through the experience. In addition, former First Lady Obama will have a virtual event in which she converses with Girl Scouts about the themes of the book and how they relate to today’s girls.

Becoming Me launches this coming May.

In Brief

Legendary Comics, a division of Legendary Entertainment, is branching into children’s books for the first time as part of its Godzilla vs. Kong publishing program, tied to the Legendary Pictures feature film. It is publishing Kong & Me by Kiki Thorpe and has licensed Godzilla vs. Kong: Sometimes Friends Fight (But They Always Make Up) to Insight Editions’ PlayPop imprint. Legendary, Titan Books, and Insight are also releasing a number of Godzilla vs. Kong tie-ins for adults.... Centennial Media will publish two Popular Science children’s books under license from North Equity LLC.... The Lumistella Company licensed MasterPieces for a line of puzzles and games featuring The Elf on the Shelf. The first three puzzles and a matching game will become available in July.... Farshore (formerly Egmont Books) is publishing two illustrated fiction titles for ages 7–9 in conjunction with Beano Studios, tied to the 70th anniversary of the British character Dennis the Menace.... Aconyte, the fiction book division of gaming company Asmodee, will publish a novel trilogy based on Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed video game. The first title, The Ming Storm, publishes in the U.S. and Canada on June 1 and in the U.K. on July 8.... Penguin Ventures (U.K.) signed a licensing deal with home furnishings retailer Cath Kidston for a line of Peter Rabbit home goods, fashion, and accessories featuring Beatrix Potter’s original line sketches and drawings.