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Publishers Weekly Children's Features

Knopf Issues a Treasury Of Children's Classics
Sally Lodge -- 7/27/98
New collection gathers 44 books, from Babar to Ferdinand to the Stinky Cheese Man

Madeline, Babar, Curious George, the Berenstain Bears, Winnie the Pooh and Amelia Bedelia are just a handful of the many literary celebrities who make appearances in The 20th Century Children's Book Treasury: Celebrated Picture Books and Stories to Read Aloud, an anthology due from Knopf in September. With cover art by Kevin Henkes, the volume presents the original illustrations and narratives from 44 books, among them four Caldecott Medal winners, eight Caldecott Honor Books and one Newbery Honor Book. A Book-of-the-Month Club main selection for October, the anthology will have a 250,000-copy first printing for the trade alone.

The collection was in part inspired by an anthology released by Random House U.K., The Hutchinson Treasury of Children's Literature (1995), a round-up of titles originally published by that company. Simon Boughton, publishing director for Knopf and Crown Books for Young Readers, explained that the success of that volume, combined with some specific changes in the marketplace, fueled his decision to publish the forthcoming anthology. "Among the things we saw happening in the children's book market is an increase in the price of hardcover picture books," he noted. "There seems to be less willingness on the part of parents to shell out close to $20 for a 32-page book. We felt this was a good time to issue something that parents felt was of real value."

Another recent phenomenon -- the surge in concern for literacy and early childhood development -- contributed to a favorable climate for the treasury, Boughton believes. "This book brings together a lot of great books and makes a statement about the richness and diversity of American picture books," he said. "Since these are stories meant to be read aloud, the volume also encourages parents to get involved in this rich world of children's literature. Since no other publisher had done a book quite like this and, with many people today having quite a bit of disposable income, the current environment seemed right for this book."

But What to Include?

The daunting task of deciding which titles would appear in the treasury fell to Janet Schulman, v-p and editor-at-large for Random House's children's division. According to Schulman, the thought of publishing a collection of picture books first occurred to her a decade ago, but she surmised that licensing so much copyrighted material would make it financially unviable. "After seeing the Hutchinson book," Schulman said, "we decided that it would be wonderful to do a collection of all fresh, all American picture books. Simon did the initial arithmetic and figured out that this could work. He handled the nitty-gritty, and I had the easiest part."

Though this is likely a humble exaggeration, for Schulman, a veteran children's book author and anthologist, selecting the entries in this collection was clearly a labor of love. Her criteria were quite straightforward: "I pulled out of my memory bank books I thought were exceptional and would be remembered long into the 21st century. Many of these have certainly not suffered from neglect, and all but two are still in print. Yet some have been overlooked, including The Tub People by Pam Conrad, illustrated by Richard Egielski, and Robert Kraus's Whose Mouse Are You?, one of the earliest books Jose Aruego illustrated." She was also careful to choose material that represented a balance of key childhood themes and concepts, different reading levels and various types of art.

Schulman emphasized that the treasury should not be described as a "definitive" collection, as there are many books that, for simple space limitations or for other considerations, she could not use. Some books' special features precluded their inclusion (Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which has die-cut holes in its pages), some were too long (Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which runs some 60 pages) and others didn't work well when the art was reduced to fit the anthology's format. In all but two cases (the relatively lengthy Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish and Roger Duvoisin's Petunia) the texts are complete and unabridged, and for all but several longer stories, such as Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings, every illustration from the original book is reproduced. In Schulman's words, "We tried very hard to mirror the look of the original books, but found that in this format in several instances the text and art were better balanced by dropping a few pictures."

A Cooperative Effort

Boughton and Schulman both praised the publishers of the original editions anthologized in the collection, noting that virtually all worked willingly with Knopf to arrange for the licensing of the copyrighted material. "We were very lucky in that most of the publishers we approached saw the value of this project, not just financially, but in a broader sense, and were willing to help us make it work," Boughton commented. "We had to keep the retail price of this book reasonable, and it was a real challenge to thread that needle. But the support of so many publishers, as well as BOMC, which committed to the book early on, made it possible."

The treasury's $40 price tag, in Boughton's view, is "quite reasonable, since, with its extensive contents, it works out to less than one dollar per book. Though this may be pushing the envelope a bit for a children's book, compared to other gift categories, such as toys, or publishing categories, such as adult coffee-table books, this volume has a high perceived value." In fact, booksellers' early response to the book indicates little price resistance: Boughton stated that Knopf will advance a good percentage of the sizable initial print run, given retailers' "phenomenal interest in the book at every level, from small independents to chain superstores."

Promotional Plans

According to marketing manager Kerry McManus, independent booksellers in particular have reacted enthusiastically to Knopf's 10-copy lectern display, which features a display copy of the treasury that customers can peruse. The company expects to ship more than 1500 of these displays and is also offering accounts special introductory terms and combination bookmarks/ gift-tags to promote the release. What McManus described as "an expansive advertising plan" includes print ads in key national newspapers and magazines, as well as "holiday ads" in USA Today, a first for her department. McManus reported that Schulman will promote the book through interviews in "major media outlets" and anticipates widespread coverage for its September launch party at New York's Central Park Zoo, the guest list for which includes an extensive roster of literary and entertainment bigwigs.

Though Knopf has a companion book, The 20th Century Children's P try Treasury, scheduled for fall 1999 (of which Jack Prelutsky is the anthologist and Schulman the in-house editor), Boughton d sn't foresee a sequel to The 20th Century Children's Book Treasury. In his words, "Janet did a wonderful job choosing the best books and those with high-name recognition for either the author or the title. But it certainly isn't easy finding books that lend themselves to this format that are of consistently high quality. Will we do another like this? Probably not. We consider this a once-in-a-century kind of project."
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