From crafts and inventions to various elements of personalization, many of the playthings displayed at this year’s New York International Toy Fair had a do-it-yourself slant. That theme carried over to the nearly 30 publishers that exhibited at the show, with Parragon, Bendon, and others adding crafting and DIY titles into the mix.
“We look at Etsy and Pinterest and see what’s happening, and then take those trends and make them relevant and accessible,” explained Stacy Lellos, senior v-p and general manager of Scholastic division Klutz. A longtime player in this segment, Klutz is focusing on premium products as it faces increased competition from other toy makers and publishers entering the DIY arena. Klutz was exhibiting books such as Lego Chain Reactions, the motto of which is “teach your bricks new tricks,” and Personalized Friendship Bracelets. “It all comes back to the personalization,” Lellos said.
Lulu Jr. launched Illustory Jr. at the show. The new line of products is a paperback extension of the company’s line of self-publishing kits, which already includes the hardcover kits My Awesome Book and My Awesome Comic Book. All contain templates and instructions to assist children in writing and illustrating their own books. They can send their work back to Lulu Jr. and receive a printed book by return mail. The company’s kits are available at a variety of retail channels, including Barnes & Noble.
Lulu Jr. also introduced a licensed line of three Crayola kits that contain expanded supplies. The Crayola products mirror Illustory Jr.’s open-ended creative process, but Lulu Jr. has also developed a guided, fill-in-the-blank format, in the hopes of attracting licensors who want to retain control over how their intellectual property is used in kits. Lulu is currently in negotiations for more licensed versions.
The rise of DIY is also being driven by customers who are already making crafts and stories based on their favorite book and TV characters and sharing them online. Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time Crafts, published in October, came about after the network’s consumer-products executives noticed that fans were already making their own Adventure Time products on Etsy and various social media platforms, according to Pete Yoder, v-p at Cartoon Network Enterprises, North America.
Outside of publishing, Cartoon Network has licensed Adventure Time crafting items, such as fabrics, and has incorporated DIY elements into other licensed products, such as some paint-your-own figures and a range of collectibles from Kid Robot. “We’re looking at including things that aren’t 100% finished,” Yoder said.
Another big driver of the DIY movement at Toy Fair, which ran from February 14 to 17 at New York City’s Javits Center, was the quest to engage fans more deeply with books, toys, and licensed properties. For instance, toy makers and licensors look to books to provide additional storytelling and a more in-depth fan experience for customers. For example, Hasbro includes an IDW comic book, which is also available in print and as an e-book, in its Transformers Generations Combiner Wars action figure packs, giving customers a chance to enhance play by reading the story behind the characters.
Adding layers to storytelling is also the basis of Hasbro’s My Little Pony publishing program with Little, Brown and IDW. “Our fans want to know what the ponies are doing when they’re not on TV, and that’s what we tell them in the books and apps,” said Michael Kelly, director of global publishing at Hasbro.
Little, Brown’s My Little Pony: The Daring Do Adventure Collection takes that connection one step further. The boxed set brings together three real-world versions of books that appear within the show, along with a collectible golden pony that is not available elsewhere. “The fans can read the same books the ponies read,” said Kelly. “That’s the essence of fan engagement.”
All About Technology
Toys with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) themes were prominent at the show. That was true in the book aisles as well, with publishers reporting more such titles to come in the future.
Risa Beckett, v-p sales at Parragon, which was showing titles such as Too Many Robots and Paper Planes as well as its long-time Discovery Kids line, reported a growing interest in books focused engineering and building, especially for girls. She noted that the company was planning an announcement about a new series along those lines in time for BEA.
Klutz, which was promoting STEM in signage at its booth, expects to add at least one title per season with physics and/or engineering themes. “We’re having a lot of those conversations now,” Lellos said. She pointed out that some retailers are launching science sections to house both books and toys on that topic.
Bendon also was incorporating STEM themes into some of its early learning formats, according to president and CEO Ben Ferguson, who cited titles tied to the Nickelodeon preschool show BLAZE and the Monster Machines as examples. BLAZE is a monster truck-themed show focused on STEM learning for preschoolers.
Physical Plus Digital
Technology was at the forefront not only as a content theme but in product development as well, with many publishers, toymakers, and licensors stressing the importance of marrying physical and digital product.
In some cases, the link was a matter of merchandising. School Zone was showing its Little Scholar tablet, introduced last year, which is preloaded with ebooks, animation, and other content. The company was highlighting a display that includes both Little Scholar tablets and School Zone’s traditional flash cards and workbooks. “We feel that kids should be using all types of learning activities,” said Barb Peacock, managing director. Retailers such as Meijer have implemented the display.
A trend in technology this year was a connection between coloring books and apps. The combination allows children to import their creations into a digital world, sometimes in a 3D incarnation, so their drawings come alive and interact with environments and other characters.
Bendon is the exclusive publishing licensee for the Disney Color + Play program, which enables kids to import their artwork tied to Mickey Mouse Club House, Frozen, Doc McStuffins, Sofia the First, and Big Hero 6 into a Disney digital environment. Ferguson reported a strong reaction to the new product from show attendees, but stresses that technology won’t replace the company’s core print focus. “We’re not in the app business,” he said. “We’re in the business of enhancing our activity product.”
A start-up, Painting Lulu, introduced a similar line, in which a physically colored page could be imported into the app and then further colored or erased with a stylus that looks like a crayon. The company was demonstrating a generic version and is developing Barbie and Hot Wheels editions, both licensed from Mattel.
Mercury Inpress was another exhibitor demonstrating an augmented-reality coloring book series. The Incredebooks line, launched at last year’s Toy Fair, includes a proprietary fairy tale series as well as licensed titles.
AR is not the answer for publishers beyond coloring formats yet, however. “It’s too hard to explain with our titles,” said Lynn Brennan, associate publisher and editorial director, Silver Dolphin Books. The company introduced standalone Little Critter apps last year, which Brennan said drove “nice sales.” But she added, “Our focus now is back on physical product.”
Diversity in Book-Based Dolls
Reflecting cultural and ethnic diversity has been a growing trend among exhibitors at Toy Fair for some time. This year diverse content seemed particularly notable, especially in the book, book-based doll, and music categories.
Betty K. Bynum, author of I’m a Pretty Little Black Girl!, a self-published title distributed through Midpoint Trade, was signing books at the Madame Alexander booth. She was promoting a new doll line depicting characters from the title, which saw its placement at Target expand in 2014. It is the first of a planned series, with I’m a Pretty Little Latina Girl! and I’m a Pretty Little Asian Girl! in the works. Bynum believes her deal with Madame Alexander represents the first time that book characters of color have been licensed to a major toy company for dolls.
Meanwhile, an independent company, Double Dutch Dolls, was touting a series of three books by K. Charles: Double Trouble, Double Dare, and Double Time. The books’ twin protagonists, who are African-American and have an ethnically diverse group of friends, are being introduced as companion dolls.
For younger children, InnovativeKids was showing two new titles called I Love My Grandma and I Love My Grandpa. “They were designed with characters of all colors and genders that any child can relate to,” says Anthony Cotugno, v-p sales. “There are all different kinds of grandpas and grandmas, and everyone’s family looks different.”
Licensing and Literature
Book publishers at Toy Fair always stress their licenses and highest-profile series, and this year was no exception. Several were spotlighting titles tied to Disney’s Frozen, while properties such as Universal Studios’ Minions, Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Marvel’s Avengers were among the many licenses with prominent placement across the show floor.
Book-based properties were much less prevalent than in the past several years, as tends to happen when big TV or movie licenses are driving sales, as was the case with Frozen last year. An exception was James Dean’s Pete the Cat, an up-and-coming license represented by Merrymakers, which was noted at University Games, EduPress, and other of its licensees’ booths.
While licensing, book-plus, mass market formats, and key series tend to take center stage at Toy Fair, literary and non-licensed titles can work as well. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt focused on its most popular character-based series, devoting about half of its display to Curious George books and highlighting the Five Little Monkeys series, among other titles.
But attendees seemed to be aware of the company’s literary side. “People have come up and congratulated us on our Newbery awards,” said Ali Schmetzle, special sales coordinator for HMH Trade Publishing. “That was surprising for Toy Fair.”