Random House Enters the World of Afro Unicorn
Random House Children’s Books is the master trade publisher for Afro Unicorn, an inclusive brand designed to celebrate the uniqueness of children and women of color. The property centers on three unicorns of color—Magical, Unique, and Divine—each with their own superpowers. It focuses on themes of friendship and kindness throughout.
Karen Kilpatrick, an agent at East West Literary Agency, approached Random House in March 2022 on behalf of the brand’s founder and CEO, April Showers, equipped with a detailed brand bible containing descriptions of the world and characters, as well as ideas for plot lines. A Zoom meeting with Showers convinced Sara Sargent, senior executive editor at Random House, to sign on. “It was the way April talked about the brand and the importance of it,” Sargent said. “She has such a strong and clear vision of the world of Afro Unicorn. It just seemed so important to get Afro Unicorn books on the market.”
The first book, an 8x8 called A Magical Day, was introduced in May as an exclusive at Walmart, a key retailer for the brand. On September 5, it will expand its distribution to all retail channels, accompanied by a second title, the Little Golden Book We Are Afro Unicorns. An unjacketed hardcover picture book for the holidays, The Most Magical Time of the Year!, goes on sale October 10 and comes with a tear-out calendar and stickers so readers can document the kindnesses they do each day leading up to the holiday. Showers wrote all of the titles.
The second season of the program, in spring and summer 2024, will consist of a board book, You Are a Unicorn, which is a book of “Afromations” stressing how special the readers are and the big adventures they can have; a second 8x8, Divine Makes a Splash; and a Step into Reading title, Magical Parade.
For Divine Makes a Splash, Showers wanted to do a story about swimming. “She shared with me that historically, due to disadvantages around access to pools and proper training, Black people have been widely ostracized when it comes to learning how to swim,” Sargent said. “One of Afro Unicorn’s goals, with both the consumer products and the book, is to encourage all Black kids and adults to swim.”
Afro Unicorn has built a growing consumer products program covering 25 product categories, from toys to home décor. The first products launched in 2022 exclusively at Walmart; the brand is currently available at retailers including Target, Kohl’s, JCPenney, HomeGoods, and Amazon, as well as in more than 3,800 Walmart stores. In the publishing category, in addition to Random House’s program, Bendon offers coloring and activity titles, while another as-yet-unannounced publisher will be releasing graphic novels.
The brand’s support of people of color extends beyond the fans. “April and the brand are philanthropically minded,” Sargent said. “Part of her mission and business philosophy is to empower and uplift people in her community, including creators of color and female entrepreneurs.”
XOMG Pop! Adds Two Publishers
Thomas Global Media has signed Scholastic and Insight Editions as publishing licensees for XOMG POP!, the singing group formed by performer and influencer JoJo Siwa and her mother Jessalynn Siwa.
XOMG POP! debuted two years ago on Siwas Dance Pop Revolution, a reality TV series about the formation of the group, which aired on NBC and Peacock. Since then, the girl group has appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and America’s Got Talent, toured with JoJo Siwa on her international tour, and released its first album, Party Like a Pop Star, in March 2023. The recording exceeded three million streams in its first few weeks of release.
“We got really excited about the global reach of the girls and the band,” said Mike Degler, publishing director at Insight Editions. “They have three billion social media views, which is amazing, and 12.5 million YouTube views, and something like 50 million likes on TikTok.” The Siwas’ involvement was also a draw. “The power of JoJo’s brand is undeniable, and she and Jesse are really relatable and down to earth and appreciative of what we and the other partners are doing. You feel positive about working with a licensor like that.”
Insight is starting its program with five titles. The first, set for a June 2024 release, is a Coloring Adventures book, a new format for Insight that will take the reader through an XOMG POP! world tour, with fans having the opportunity to choose which city to visit next, bringing them to different sections of the book.
The second product is a lock-and-key diary, releasing in fall 2024. “It will be all blinged out just like an XOMG POP! diary should be,” Degler said. The first of a series of chapter books featuring fictional adventures starring the girls will come out in spring 2025, while a cookbook will be the focus for fall of that year. A hardcover ephemera kit packed with scrapbooking materials and tools such as posters, branded pencils, note cards, and the like, is also planned.
Scholastic, meanwhile, will publish guidebooks, handbooks, activity books, and guided journals, and is considering other formats like paper doll books. The first book, for late spring or early summer 2024, is Sparkle Queens: This Is Who We Are, which is an introduction to the girls and the band.
“There’s so much thought behind the formation of the group,” said Debra Dorfman, Scholastic’s v-p and publisher, global licensing, media, and brands. “Each girl has a different background and a distinct personality, and they stand for real positivity. They’re really talented, and their music is so sweet and just fun. And there’s lots of engagement at retail and a great plan around them.”
The girls’ enthusiasm was also appealing. “They’re so infectious,” Dorfman said. “When we popped into sales conference, the girls were talking about their favorite books and how excited they were about working with Scholastic, and it was so authentic. They know Scholastic and are enthusiastic about reading and school. It perked everyone up and made them so happy. It just felt right.”
In addition to an expanded range of consumer products releasing in 2023 and 2024, XOMG POP! also has a series of animated shorts launching in fall 2023, a themed cruise with Royal Caribbean sailing in November, and a live-action feature film planned for a 2024 release.
PBS Kids Properties to Star in Coloring Books
St. Louis-based publisher Really Big Coloring Books/ColoringBook.com is introducing a range of books and other coloring products based on a variety of properties from PBS Kids’ broadcast schedule.
The deal was negotiated with KIDS Licensing, the PBS Kids unit that represents the network’s portfolio of shows on behalf of the creators and rights holders. It is a somewhat unusual contract for Really Big Coloring Books, which has worked with licensed properties in the past, but mostly as a custom publisher rather than as a licensee.
The program will begin with books tied to six shows: Odd Squad, Wild Kratts, Dinosaur Train, Arthur, The Berenstain Bears, and Elinor Wonders Why. Several factors played into the choice of which shows to start with. “I watched a lot of cartoons, and looked at the data, and considered the value, both monetary and educational,” said Wayne Bell, publisher, founder, and CEO of Really Big Coloring Books. The first books will be available online around the Fourth of July, with printed books shipped to retailers likely in August. Several other properties are under consideration for future introductions.
Really Big Coloring Books is introducing all kinds of coloring products for the program, including books featuring storylines as well as images to color, books with stickers, posters, pads, sheets, and placemats. It will also offer customizable products for individual PBS stations around the country. Some titles will have QR codes that link to value-added content, such as introductory remarks by the property’s author or creator.
The company has displays available for retailers, with the option to cross-merchandise the books with Crayola crayons, for which it serves as a distributor. Bell believes the program will end up in more than 60,000 retail outlets over the next three years. “I told [KIDS Licensing] that these will be in every city and every county and every state, and that’s just our first stop,” Bell said.
Distributing into the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Europe, in English, Spanish, and more than two dozen other languages, Really Big Coloring Books has a direct-to-consumer business, owning web domains around the world relating to coloring and coloring books. That part of its business grew exponentially during the Covid-19 lockdowns, a period when it also purchased its biggest online competitor’s domain names and 10,000 titles. The coloring book specialist also sells to businesses, nonprofits and fundraising clients, and government agencies, as well as to retail channels. In September 2022, it launched a physical store in St. Louis devoted entirely to coloring books, believed to be the first ever, starting with 400 titles in a 300-square foot physical location.
The company publishes coloring books on all topics and has sometimes generated controversy for titles on both sides of the political aisle. But Bell said his goal is simple. “We want to add value for the people who use our product and make sure we represent the creators and their stories as best we can. We want to be creative and tell a positive story with every book, and make products that kids love, parents trust, and the creators are proud of.”
The company’s history selling to governmental agencies such as the State Department may bring new distribution opportunities for the PBS Kids-related titles. Bell is in preliminary discussions with the Department of Education about potentially taking the books into U.S. public schools.
InvestiGators Spy New Licensing Opportunities
MerryMakers has launched a licensing program for The InvestiGators, the graphic novel series written and illustrated by John Patrick Green and published by Macmillan’s First Second imprint. The series debuted in 2020 and encompasses seven titles to date.
“What a fun series!,” said Clair Frederick, president of MerryMakers, which sells plush toys based on the characters, in addition to serving as the property’s licensing agent. “It has character, color, and depth. There’s funny wordplay, and it also has something to say. And it has a lot of content that just wants to expand into products.”
The series features two alligators, Mango and Brash, who are super spies who roam the sewers helping each other solve mysteries, while learning lessons about relationships and emotions. Each character wears a V.E.S.T. (Very Exciting Spy Technology) out of which pop all the tools and gadgets they need. And there are lots of villains.
MerryMakers introduced the property at Licensing Expo 2023 and gauged strong interest from potential licensees, Frederick said. She noted that the look of the property is distinctive and lends itself to a variety of merchandise. “You read it and you can see it as a game, you can see it as a t-shirt,” she said. “And the art is a lot of fun to work with.”
Spy games of all kinds and mystery activity play will be key categories, along with toys, puzzles, calendars, stationery, educational materials, apparel, and eventually bedding.
Macmillan has been very supportive of the program, according to Frederick, and Green is an active participant. “He’s very creative,” Frederick said. “He’ll give us lots of guidance on the products, not just approvals.”
Little Prince Children’s TV Series Sparks Licensing Program
Licensing Works!, the agency handling consumer products extensions for the estate of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, has secured the rights from Mediawan Kids and Family to oversee consumer products for a new animated series based on the classic book. The show, The Little Prince and Friends, is tailored to children in the lower elementary grades.
“This turns The Little Prince into a real four-quadrant property,” said Jill Collins, head of retail partnerships and promotions for the agency, referring to a brand that appeals to males and females, adults and children. The property started out with an array of products for adults, she explained, then expanded into infant products, and then into preschool through its North American publishing deal with Chouette, signed in 2021. “This is the last leg to make it an all-family brand.”
In the series, which teaches social-emotional skills, The Little Prince is an eight-year-old who travels the galaxy on a spaceship transformed from asteroid B-612, going on adventures with his best friends The Fox, The Rose, Charlotte, and Elijah. Along the way, they learn that anything is possible.
The show premieres this year in France and Israel, followed by Brazil, Germany, and Portugal in 2024. The U.S. broadcast schedule is expected to be announced soon.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of The Little Prince. Since the publication dates differed in France and the U.S., the epicenter of the global celebration is Little Prince Day, June 29, which is the anniversary of the author’s birth. “Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s birth date is the official day when our partners around the world promote the values of The Little Prince, highlighting numerous initiatives around messages of hope, peace, and respect,” said Leslie Levine, founder of Licensing Works! “Celebrated annually, this year’s event will be especially joyful in support of the 80th anniversary.”
The milestone has opened new licensing opportunities for both existing and new licensees, from a Little Prince Pop! vinyl figurine from Funko and figural puzzles with Mosaic, to high-end collectibles, comics, and more. All told, there are more than 40 Little Prince licensees in North America and 350 globally, generating more than $100 million annually in retail sales.
A new, immersive live show will kick off in Miami before touring the Americas. “The estate really supports the brand with content and experiences, and that helps keep it relevant,” Collins said.
Rebel Girls has extended its content partnership with Nike, which began last year. A sport-themed multimedia campaign will complement the Nike FC Rebel Girls Tour and include distribution of almost a million units of a limited-edition book called Rebel Girls Kick It, digital content, podcast episodes, and in-person events in London and Paris…. In other Rebel Girls news, King Features, the agency handling international licensing duties for the brand, has signed sub-agents in Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Canada to represent the property in their respective territories…. Sesame Workshop named Penguin Random House its master publisher for China, with Sesame Street books being produced in English, simple Chinese characters, and bilingual versions, starting in 2024…. Hasbro has paired with Audible for two Peppa Pig podcasts—a first for this property—one for children featuring original storytelling and the other for parents. The latter is full of parenting tips and a tongue-in-cheek take on raising a toddler, narrated by Peppa’s parents, Mummy and Daddy Pig…. In the U.K., Nosy Crow is the new publishing licensee for Spin Master’s Unicorn Academy TV series, starting with an official companion title; Random House Children’s Books holds the license in the U.S.