For 15 years, the photographer Robert Gould (who owns a successful graphic arts company in Southern California) wanted to get into children's book publishing. But when he started to look into it seriously, he noticed that there were very few titles published for reluctant readers—those who did not like to read or who read under grade level—mostly boys. His answer: Big Guy Books, the company he founded three years ago to produce illustrated book series that are part storybook, part comic book and part movie set (with real actors).
"I interviewed thousands of kids, teachers, parents and librarians to find out what boys who weren't reading were looking for," Gould said. "I heard the same thing all the time—they wanted it real."
So he started his first series, Time Soldiers, featuring real dinosaurs. Or what look like real dinosaurs, using state-of-the-art graphics technology. Investing more than $100,000 per book, Gould created elaborate movie-like sets to shoot the story of six intrepid kids who stumble onto a portal into the past in the woods near their home.
This season, Big Guy produced its third Time Soldiers title and (through a licensing deal with Marvel) Spider-man and X-Men in its Ultimate Picture Book series.
Gould calls his six employees a "team" and recently hired Beverly Fisher, formerly with Publishers Group West, as vice-president. This could prove a pivotal time for the fledgling company that has not been without its detractors.
Some booksellers have criticized the Big Guy books for being too commercial, saying that the stories are not literary and rely too much on the graphics, and that it is uncertain if they will make book lovers out of reluctant readers.
"We're losing the boys to video games and everything else," Gould said in response. "To pull them back, you have to give them something as engaging as that." So certain is Gould of what he calls Big Guy's "stealth literacy program" that he recently went on a multi-city bookstore and school tour (complete with Spider-man costume) to promote the books.
Last month, The Magic Tree in Oak Park, Ill., hosted two events with Gould: one in an inner-city school in Chicago, the other at a school for special-needs students. "The public-school principal was so impressed that she bought all of the books we brought with us," said Iris Yipp, Magic Tree's co-owner. "That usually doesn't happen."
"[Big Guy titles] are valuable in engaging kids who might not already be readers and getting them hooked," Yipp said. "This is something like they see on TV, whereas books are so often perceived as something they have to do."
Susie Zlotnik, co-owner of Yellow Brick Road in La Mesa, Calif., said she had mixed feelings about the Big Guy titles, but she was selling them. Like several booksellers PW spoke with, Zlotnik said that esthetically the books did not please her, but then, neither did Captain Underpants. "I'd love them to be more literary, but the teacher in me says they might just attract someone who is not being reached at all," she added.
At Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, owner Valerie Koehler has been selling Big Guy books for a year. She first heard about them from Kathleen Duey, the author Gould recruited to work on the books. Duey pitched Big Guy Books as a bridge between video and the written word, and Koehler thinks the books do attract children to reading.
"I brought them to the libraries and the schools in Houston," Koehler said. "They are not intended to be read aloud. These are meant to be read by children during their individual reading time."
For children with learning disabilities, or who don't read at their grade level, Koehler said, the Big Guy titles were ideal. "You don't want to put a baby book in front of them," she said.
Gould said that it is too soon to tell if the children introduced to Big Guy Books go on to become readers, but as the company produces more titles, it will track that data. "They all want to read the next book in the series, and that's a start," Gould said. "If it pulls them in and they want to read, then they are practicing reading and they learn that reading isn't boring—it's fun."
Next spring, Big Guy will unveil its Big Stuff series about construction, and a series on extreme sports is in the works. Gould and his team will continue to tour, courting reluctant book buyers at bookstores and libraries. "Our biggest fans are independent booksellers and librarians," Fisher said. She added that Big Guy books are not just for boys: "Thirty-eight percent of our sales are to girls." she said. Gould said the company was pleasantly surprised with this number, noting, "We originally projected 10 percent."