When Maria Barbo, an editor at Scholastic trade paperbacks, went shopping for a secret Santa gift a few years ago, a pair of socks from Jim Benton's Just Plain Mean property caught her attention."It was the spirit of the property that sparked my interest," Barbo said. "The image, of a girl biting a cat's tail, was simple and straightforward, and so funny."
Barbo discovered that Benton had a number of other properties, including It's Happy Bunny, that have been selling in merchandise ranging from air fresheners to pens to T-shirts. "I brought the socks to an editorial meeting and everyone was hysterical," said Barbo. "I called Jim Benton and he happened to be coming to New York, so we met and really hit it off."
After they met, Benton started sending book proposals Barbo's way. One that stuck was the middle-grade series Dear Dumb Diary, which debuted last July with the title Let's Pretend This Never Happened. "Jim totally gets middle-school girls," Barbo said of the series. "He doesn't look like the kind of guy who could channel middle-grade girls, but he listens a lot to his 20 nieces and nephews, and just takes it all in."
While working on the Diary series with Benton, Barbo said, she began pestering him about translating the It's Happy Bunny property into material for a book series. "He wasn't opposed to a [Happy Bunny] book," she said. "But he wasn't sure. I think it was a matter of finding the right format for him."
After more discussions, Barbo said, "We finally came up with a vision for Love Bites. Jim had a vision about a bunny guiding you through a relationship, but the kind of relationships in the book are for teenagers and 20-somethings. The challenge of doing these books was to keep them Scholastic-appropriate, when some of the material can skew older."
Barbo said she and Benton were careful with the words they used, but kept the same humor that It's Happy Bunny fans know. She believes the material can work for teens because "Happy Bunny has an innocuous self-centeredness, but there's nothing very cutting about it. It's a book that you'd want to buy for your friends."
Love Bites, a handbook for those who have made the mistake of falling in love, is being published this month, and the second book featuring the blunt bunny will be out in April, called Life. Get One. It's "a spoofy take on the path to enlightenment," according to Barbo.
Two other Happy Bunny books are in the works and only time will tell if any of Benton's other properties will make their way into books. As the bunny says, "It's all about me. Deal with it."