A Roster of Reimaginings and Retellings from Disney
Disney Publishing Worldwide has been creating original, publishing-driven stories based on its on-screen entertainment for years. Gail Carson Levine’s Disney Fairies series, an early example based on Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell, launched in 2005, for example, while Serena Valentino’s Villains series was introduced in 2009, with a ninth title coming up later this year. The practice has expanded and evolved since then, with many success stories along the way. Over the past three years, the company has ramped up its production of original YA and middle grade novels and chapter books tied to its own IP, through two distinct but complementary programs.
The first, housed under the Disney Press imprint, involves retellings that extend the core property’s storytelling beyond the screen. These are original stories that occur before, during, or after the on-screen action and are closely related to it. “We explore new stories within the Disney cannon,” explained Holly Rice, editor, franchise content creative, at Disney Press. Examples set for release this year include Bravely, by Maggie Stiefvater, on sale May 3, based on Brave; The Aristokittens: Welcome to the Creature Café, by Jennifer Castle, on sale April 19, featuring three characters from The Aristocats; Long Live the Pumpkin Queen by Shea Ernshaw, on sale July 5 and inspired by The Nightmare Before Christmas; and Prince of Song and Sea by Linsey Miller, on sale October 4, tied to The Little Mermaid and part of a new Disney Prince series.
“These are properties that haven’t been explored that much lately, but fans are still excited about them,” Rice said. The new storytelling can take the form of prequels or sequels, as is the case with Bravely and The Pumpkin Queen, or they can explore a secondary character’s life. Prince of Song and Sea focuses on The Little Mermaid’s Prince Eric and gives new insight into the core story from a different perspective. These narratives also allow new characters to be introduced. For example, Prince of Song and Sea features a non-binary pirate who is the captain of their own ship.
The second program, centered at Disney Hyperion, focuses on “reimagined stories. “We take a kernel of an IP and create a brand-new franchise from it,” said Jocelyn Davies, executive editor, who leads the IP development team at Disney Hyperion. The stories, which are not tied to current Disney initiatives, might modernize a property or add a more diverse perspective. “We take things that are resonating in pop culture or in books and try to find a fun Disney way into that space,” Davies said.
Coming this year are Horsetail Hollow: Magically Maximus by Kiki Thorpe, on sale in June, the first in a chapter book series that brings the horses of Disney into present day, starting with Maximus from Tangled. “It’s like Spirit or The Saddle Club meets Disney Princess,” Davies said. The Queen’s Council: Feather and Flame, on sale in June, features Mulan and is the second book in this YA series, after Rebel Rose. This series explores what would happen if Disney Princesses came into power in their lands, with each story set in a specific historical period. Lost Legends is a middle grade series focusing on the backstories of famous Disney rogues; The Rise of Flynn Rider, on sale in September, features a Tangled character.
The reimaginings extend to the adult side as well, through Hyperion Avenue titles such as Jasmine Guillory’s By the Book: A Meant to Be Novel, a modern day Beauty and the Beast in which Isabelle, the only Black employee at her publishing house, takes responsibility for getting a “beastly” author to deliver his late manuscript in hopes of getting promoted from her editorial assistant job.
Dr. Seuss Enters the Brave New World of NFTs
Dr. Seuss, in partnership with Dapper Labs and Tibles, has entered the non-fungible token space with a new digital experience called Seussibles. NFTs are unique digital collectibles that are stored on a blockchain (a secure digital ledger akin to a spreadsheet or database), which ensures their authenticity by providing a verifiable record of ownership and scarcity. Dapper Labs is credited with creating the first NFTs, the Crypto Kitties, and also holds licenses with the NBA and other sports properties.
“A few years ago, I read an inflight magazine article about the Crypto Kitties phenomenon,” said Susan Brandt, president of Dr. Seuss Enterprises. “The article discussed the sale of Crypto Kitties at an art auction and illustrated how blockchain was disrupting the art world. I was fascinated by the application for the emerging technology and felt it was a natural fit for our IP.”
Seussibles will appeal to existing fans who have some familiarity with NFT technology; collectors of Dr. Seuss art who currently purchase serigraphs, lithographs, sculptures, and the like; and new audiences, Brandt believes. “Dr. Seuss has a unique position in the NFT sector to create both a nostalgic program and a new way for our fans to engage in the whimsical world of our characters,” she said. “The Seuss brand has a diverse fanbase, so we love any opportunity for our fans to come together and bond over their love of our characters and books in new and different ways.”
Mickey Mahar, senior v-p of partnerships at Dapper Labs, said, “Our core mission is to put a wallet in every user’s hand. IP, especially iconic IP like Dr. Seuss, is one way to make that happen.” (A digital wallet is a personal hub for purchasing, holding, selling, and trading NFTs.) “This is a way for parents to interact with their kids and nostalgic adults to engage in a new way,” Mahar continued. “It appeals to a broad range of fandom.” Seussibles NFTs are stored on the Flow blockchain, which Mahar said was built specifically for the consumer market and is the most accessible and sustainable platform for a mass market program like this.
The Seussibles site includes a shop where fans can purchase “blind” or mystery packs of five NFTs for $4.99. More than 600 digital collectibles featuring a range of Seuss characters are available initially, with some being scarce for collectability and others more widely available to offer an entry point for new fans. Most consist of 2D art images, some with added features such as facts, quotations, or trivia. The offerings will evolve over time depending on fan feedback and could ultimately include animated or 3D images or other forms of content.
Once fans discover what content is included in their blind pack, they can place the NFTs in virtual sticker books and display them on a wall in their “Room,” where other users can see their collection. The “Clubhouse” area of the site allows fans to chat about their collections and all things Seuss, while a “Trading” section facilitates bartering and swapping. Next year will see the debut of a marketplace to support the purchase and sale of Seuss NFTs.
“This is only the beginning for Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ digital offerings,” Brandt said. “We currently have our eyes on the metaverse, AR [augmented reality], and VR [virtual reality], to name a few additional digital initiatives. As a legacy brand, we are always working to remain fresh and relevant, while keeping true to our brand DNA.”
Book Characters Come to Life as Cubles
The owners of several book-based licensed properties for children have signed deals with a start-up licensee, Cubles. The company makes sustainable paperboard construction kits that allow children (and pop culture-loving adults) to make sturdy, all-paper sculptures of characters that can move—a trait that is difficult to achieve without the use of any plastic pieces. Cubles describes the product, which comes packaged in a box the size of a thick greeting card, as a mash-up of origami and a puzzle.
The first two licenses signed by now two-year-old Cubles were the odd couple of Little House on the Prairie, licensed by Spotlight Licensing, and the rock group KISS, according to founder Joel Morris, who got the idea about eight years ago when he began to engineer a project for his young daughters. “I wanted to get them off their screens and make them think,” he says.
Literary properties on the company’s roster to date, in addition to Little House, include Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man, licensed by MerryMakers; Dana Simpson’s Phoebe and Her Unicorn, a comic property published by Universal Click and Andrews McMeel, which is in development at Nickelodeon for a streaming TV series; and John Gallagher’s Max Meow middle grade graphic novel series published by Random House Books for Young Readers. Negotiations are ongoing for additional properties. Cubles’ non-literary licenses, beyond KISS, include Nickelodeon properties such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, SpongeBob SquarePants, and others; Hasbro brands such as GI Joe, My Little Pony, and, in the future, Peppa Pig and Mr. Potato Head; David Gravel Racing; and the Professional Bullriders.
Cubles’ parameters for selecting IP from which to create Cubles kits, according to Morris, include “things that are near and dear to us” and have distinctive features that remain recognizable when adapted into blocky paper sculptures. “We look for good-hearted, well-known brands that we can make cool products out of,” Morris explained. The core age group is 6–12, but the company is considering some properties that would lend themselves to figures that preschoolers and their parents or caregivers could build together.
Some of Cubles’ non-licensed kits, as well as Dog Man—which has six characters in its Cubles line to date, with three more coming in spring—have been made into classroom kits for grades three to six. Each contains 15 kits, backed by downloadable lesson plans. “When you make a Cuble you’re naturally touching on spatial reasoning, problem-solving, and linear learning,” Morris said. The sculptures include coded tabs and pre-scored seams, and there are pictures of the finished product, but there are no instructions, so students have to solve the puzzle on their own.
Cubles are made in the U.S. of recycled materials. “Part of our mission is to create jobs, and we’re doing all the manufacturing in the Twin Cities,” where Cubles is based, Morris said. Sustainability is also a priority. “I wanted to make something fun, like the plastic stuff, but not plastic,” he added. The company also offsets its paper needs by donating funds for the planting of 100 trees for each tree used in manufacturing.
All Licensed Products Great and Small
The TV series All Creatures Great and Small, based on the books by Alf Wight under the pen name James Herriot, is set to expand into the world of licensed merchandise. The show’s producers, Playground Entertainment and All3 Media International, have retained Spotlight Licensing and Rocket Licensing as the property’s licensing agents, with Spotlight handling the North American market and U.K.-based Rocket overseeing all other territories, including the U.K. where the show is set and filmed. The series’ second season is currently airing on PBS Masterpiece in the U.S.; it attracted more than 10 million viewers during its first season. In the U.K., where the show airs on Channel 5, All Creatures has collected five million viewers to date. A third and fourth season have been announced.
Licensing plans call for calendars, stationery, gifts, home goods, and other categories, with the first products on the market in the U.S. as early as the 2022 holiday season, according to Carole Postal, president of Spotlight Licensing. The British and American licensing efforts will be separate, but the two agents will work together to determine if there are opportunities for shared licensees or other ways the two programs could dovetail.
The property is primarily directed at consumers who are young adults and older, but Postal can see the age coming down, especially with products such as plush. “Animals always have a special place in everyone’s hearts, and the fact that these are farm animals makes it even more interesting,” she said. She envisions plush cows and goats, and especially a plush figure of Mrs. Pomphrey’s dog Tricky Woo, who plays a key role in the stories.
Another important area will be home goods and other lifestyle merchandise. Postal notes that English country-cottage style, or “cottagecore,” is a popular trend in this category. “The 1930s styles, the picturesque Yorkshire landscapes, and the details of the home décor really epitomize cottagecore,” she said.
St. Martin’s holds U.S. publishing rights for the Herriot novels and other spin-off titles, but Postal says Spotlight will explore whether there are opportunities to extend into other formats, such as coloring and activity books, depending on what rights are available. Partnerships with bookstores are also a possibility, as both physical and online book shops are likely to be strong retail channels for licensed products such as calendars, stationery, puzzles, and plush.
Ninja Life Hacks and its agent Brand Liaison have licensed PEI Group to make weighted blankets and sensory area rugs and towels that help calm and relieve stress. They will launch in fall 2022.... Asmodee Entertainment licensed Ablaze for an original adventure-based graphic novel tied to the family game Spot It! (known as Dobble outside North America), to be distributed by Diamond Comics and Diamond Book Distributors in summer 2022.... Glowberry, creator of the kids’ entertainment property Brave Bunnies, and its agent Big Picture Licensing signed Penguin Random House to produce picture and board books and little libraries in the U.K., Australia, Italy, Germany, and Spain, starting in time for Easter 2022. More formats and territories will follow.... Frederick Warne & Co. named Hayakawa Publishing Corporation as the official publisher for Peter Rabbit in Japan.... IDW is creating a limited crossover series bringing together Toho International’s Godzilla and Hasbro’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. IDW publishes Godzilla’s comics, while the Power Rangers rights are with BOOM! Studios.... Surfside Girls, a graphic novel series from IDW imprint Top Shelf Productions, will be made into a 10-episode live-action series for kids on Apple TV+.