Fueled by the pandemic-era’s compulsory, continuous at-home time, podcast listening has been growing in popularity among adults and kids. It is an entertainment trend that is not lost on children’s publishers. Three Big Five houses recently contacted PW with word of new book-podcast ventures, each offering a different variation on the theme.
Born from a Book
First up is a project based on Penguin Workshop’s longtime nonfiction series, Who Was? Launched in 2002, this middle-grade series spawned the Who HQ brand, which now encompasses seven book lines (totaling more than 300 titles and more than 50 million copies in print), a Netflix series, and—as of this month—a podcast.
A collaboration among Penguin Workshop, iHeartMedia, and Radio Point, the Who Was? podcast is a comedy quiz show co-hosted by Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer and comedian Elliott Kalan (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) and writer and actor Meghan O’Neill (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert), who is also an executive producer of the podcast.
The debut season consists of 45 weekly, 30-minute episodes featuring games, fun facts, sketches, and two young contestants competing to receive a selection of Who Was? books, as well as a set for their school library.
The weekly podcast premiered on March 16 with an episode profiling Marie Curie and Milton Hershey; the second spotlights Harriet Tubman and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Subsequent installments, each inspired by two backlist Who Was? books, will include Frida Kahlo and Walt Disney, and Aretha Franklin and Stan Lee. Also planned are episodes based on books due to be released in 2022, among them graphic novels about Michael Jordan and Amelia Earhart.
“The success of The Who Was? Show on Netflix helped us realize all the different ways Who HQ could spark a curiosity for history outside of a traditional biography format,” said Francesco Sedita, Penguin Workshop president and publisher. “As we continue to expand the brand’s list to include board books, graphic novels, and more, we are beyond thrilled to partner with iHeart, Radio Point, and the fantastic team behind The Who Was? Show to bring engaging history to young podcast listeners and their families.”
Will Pearson, COO of iHeartPodcasts, welcomed the opportunity to help usher Who Was? into a new medium. “This has been an amazing kids’ franchise for years now, and we’re excited to team up with Penguin Workshop and Radio Point to bring this series into podcasting,” he said. “The podcast world needs a laugh-out-loud kids’ quiz show and we’re thrilled to give our listeners something they can enjoy with their families.”
From Podcast to the Page
The podcast-book connection is a two-way street, as seen in Clarion’s Wow in the World science-themed middle-grade series based on the podcast of the same title. The podcast, which has received more than 150 million downloads since its debut in 2017, has been featured on network TV and in various newspapers, and has won numerous awards, including an iHeartRadio Award, a Parents’ Choice Award, and a KAPI Innovative Children’s Media Award.
Wow in the World is co-created by and cohosted by Guy Raz and Mindy Thomas, who is also the podcast’s head writer. The two are the authors of the tie-in book series, which Clarion launched in March 2021 with Wow in the World: The How and Wow of The Human Body: From Your Tongue to Your Toes and All the Guts in Between, illustrated by Jack Teagle.
The second title in the series, Wow in the Wild: The Amazing World of Animals, by the same collaborators, will be published on April 12 with an announced 100,000-copy first printing. Future releases include two additional “flagship” Wow in the Wild hardcovers, scheduled for fall 2023 and fall 2024; and two paperback fact books: What in the Wow?! in spring 2023 and a still-untitled book planned for the following spring.
Amy Cloud, senior editor at Clarion, emphasized that the Wow in the World books are not straight adaptations of the podcast, but were “written from scratch, with the same humor and voice. Mindy and Guy called upon some of the podcast research,” she said, “but added a ton of new information and presented it all differently.”
The editor, who was an early fan of the Wow in the World podcast, felt an instant connection to Raz and Thomas when she first met them. “I knew we were destined to work together,” she recalled. “We shared the vision of making books that were every bit as engaging as the podcast, and the highly visual format of the Wow in the World books offers a new way for kids to hook into what they love about the podcast.”
Creating the books presented the podcast veterans with a welcome new challenge, since they were not accustomed to incorporating art into their narratives.
“When the writing was done, art directors Mary Claire Cruz and Samira Iravani were essential partners in bringing it all to life, along with our brilliant illustrators, Jack Teagle and Mike Centeno,” Thomas said. “The highly visual format is a new way for kids to hook into what they love about the podcast. On the podcast, we illustrate with sound, so as audio people, it’s fun to work within a visual medium.”
Raz cited another advantage of extending their creative journey into the book realm. “We have been blown away at the response to Wow in the World since we launched the podcast five years ago,” he said. “Now, the Wow book series is helping the show reach an even bigger audience through libraries and schools and bookstores all around the U.S. and the world.”
The ABCs of Adaptation
Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group also has a podcast-based book series in the works. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux has announced a new partnership with Pinna, an on-demand audio entertainment service developed and curated for kids ages three to 12, to adapt the Pinna Original podcast, Quentin & Alfie’s ABC Adventures, for a picture book series.
The podcast launched exclusively on the Pinna subscription service in August 2019 with the first episode, A Is for Adventure, and then over the next 26 weeks rolled out sequential installments, each focusing on a new alphabet letter, culminating with Z Is for Zoo. Based on the success of the podcast, which won a Parents’ Choice Gold Award, Pinna created five additional episodes in summer 2020.
Scheduled to launch in early 2023, FSG’s book series will be written and illustrated by Randy DuBurke, recipient of the 2004 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award for illustration. Like the podcast, the books will chronicle the adventures of five-year-old Alfie and his super-cool babysitter, Quentin. The two make new friends and learn the alphabet and early literacy skills as a magical sidewalk takes them to various locations.
'“I am very excited about becoming a part of Pinna’s Quentin and Alfie family,” DuBurke said. “The Quentin and Alfie’s ABC Adventures podcast is a fun, engaging way to bring young children the joys of learning. I hope I can add to the growth of Quentin and Alfie’s world by expanding the podcast into a series of entertaining, informative picture books.”
FSG associate editor Melissa Warten also expressed enthusiasm about participating in the podcast-inspired project, which “brings the stories to life in a fresh way.” She noted that the supportive relationship between Quentin and Alfie, as well as the series’ creative and encouraging approach to reading, “makes the stories feel so relevant to so many kids today. We’ve had such fun blazing a new trail for books to meld with kids’ audio space.”
Maggie McGuire, CEO of Pinna, said, “Collaborating with Randy DuBurke and the team at FSG to bring the world and characters from Quentin and Alfie’s ABC Adventures to life in picture books, and to extend our stories in new directions, is thrilling.”