Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Popular Kids

So this week I'm thinking about books that are so popular they get made into movies and are otherwise worshipped by vast quantities of young readers, as well as by old people hoping to make money. These would be the books considered commercial, the ones that make the bestseller lists. Some of them are even well written! No, seriously, there's a reason kids like certain series. Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, for example, are among the funniest things I've ever read.

When I cruised the bookstore yesterday, I came across a new book in another popular series, the Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz. The flap copy for Crocodile Tears doesn't give away much, except to say that Alex has been recovering from a gunshot wound inflicted by a sniper and that he wants to live a normal life, but human suffering is a business, and he's about to have another spy-type adventure related to that business. This reminds me why I like the Alex Rider books—they're not like those movies where being a young spy is a frolicsome thing. We are shown, rather, that being a teen spy is to be hurt and dirty and even exploited by one's spy superiors. There are a lot of Alex Rider wannabe's out there, most of them inferior because the characterization isn't as strong, which is why I bought the book, no questions asked. And one of these days I'll get organized enough to write a detailed post about the Rider imitators!

Which, amusingly enough, include the Young James Bond books by Charlie Higson. It's obvious that somebody in the Bond franchise saw how well the Alex Rider series was doing and said, "Hey! We should be writing those, about a younger version of Agent 007!" So they did. In my opinion, the Higson books are a bit uneven. I think Robert Muchamore's Cherub series comes closer to the Alex Rider books as far as being gripping. You'll find that Muchamore's young heroes are more earthy, in part—truly—because they aren't upper-class kids like Alex. Along the same lines, I've noticed that my teenage students, who are mostly Latino and African American and quite poor, have no interest in Alex Rider. I figure it's because he's too rich and white and British. I suppose I'm not the first to wonder if we'd have more readers in the inner city if we had more books, not just about pregnant girls and drug dealers a la Precious, but along the lines of the Percy Jackson or Alex Rider series, only with young minority heroes.

Of course, the first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, The Lightning Thief, is now a movie that will be coming out on Presidents' Day weekend in 2010. In case you haven't seen it yet, here's the trailer. The movie poster is shown to the left.

Just who are the most popular kids in the world of children's books? For boys, always an uncertain audience, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is currently number one—it's about a middle school kid, but readers in grades ranging as low as fourth or even third get a kick out of it. For one thing, it's a friendly read, with a hand-written-style font, relatively few words on the page, and lots of illustrations, making it sort of a graphic novel, or halfway there. Main character Greg Heffley is one of the most selfish kids you'll ever meet, but the joke is that he's a pretty typical middle school kid and has no idea he's that selfish. Very few writers have captured the essential boyness of that age as well as Kinney has. And the stuff he makes into humorous episodes! Greg's little brother turning potty training into a racket, what happens when you tell a 12-year-old boy he has to do his own laundry, and the true terrors of public pools are just a few things that come to mind. If anything, the DWK books resemble a really well-written, character-driven comic strip like Calvin and Hobbes or FoxTrot. Makes sense, since Kinney is first and foremost a cartoonist. There's some Malcolm in the Middle and Everybody Hates Chris here, too. Of course, movie plans are already underway for the wimpy kid.

The Percy Jackson books were burning hot about three years ago and continue to be popular, with the upcoming movie amping up interest. In case you haven't heard, they're about a boy who finds out the Greek gods are alive and well and living above Manhattan. What's more, Percy is the son of Poseidon. He soon finds himself fighting off monsters and going on quests with his new friends, many of whom are also demigods. There's even a training camp!

As for the Alex Rider books, they're a little less popular now than they were five or six years back, but they continue to be recognized reads for tweens and teens, especially boys. (The movie didn't do very well.)

For girls, the Twilight books are still sizzling, with the rising of New Moon, the movie, getting fans ages 13 and 31 all twittery and giggly again. (Team Edward or Team Jacob?) But Twilight has migrated to the adult bestseller list somehow, and the true hot book on this week's New York Times bestseller list for children is Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins' highly anticipated sequel to last fall's hot book, The Hunger Games. The books are about a dystopian post-U.S.A. where teens from the 24 districts are forced to compete in gladiator-like games to the death. When two teens manage to beat the system in Book One, the government tries to use them in Book Two. Katniss and Peeta also find themselves becoming the symbols of a resistance movement.

I'll give you a hint about book popularity: besides checking the bestseller lists, note how many customer reviews have been written on the Amazon book page. Catching Fire has only been out since September 1 and it has already garnered 300 customer reviews, which is more than most books rack up in 5-10 years. Since a single review is unlikely to stand out in a batch that big, what's really happening is a conversation, with people feeling wildly compelled to chime in. I'm sure you're wondering, so here you go: Twilight has 4,536 customer reviews, while Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has 5,543. The Hunger Games has 674 and The Graveyard Book has garnered 327, both in the past year. And books that aren't so popular, the vast unwashed masses of the publishing world? They usually show somewhere from 10 to 30 customer reviews.

Two other key books on the New York Times Bestseller list for children's chapter books this week are Ellen Hopkins' Tricks and Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver. Ellen Hopkins, as I've said before, is not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for Worried Parents. I heard her talk about this book and read a selection in a workshop at the August 2009 Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Conference. She said something like, "Well, if people think my previous books were shocking, wait till they see this one!" Her latest novel-in-verse is about how a handful of teen characters become prostitutes. The author read us a poem about a teenage boy reluctantly having sex with two older men, and I have to say I felt all prudish just listening! But there you have it—it's a bestseller. [Note: See Ellen Hopkins' note in the comments. It is her hope that the book will deter young people from pursuing this lifestyle.]

Shiver is a werewolf story (207 customer reviews on Amazon), so its popularity may be linked to the phenomenon that is Twilight. I have read Stiefvater's book Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception, and what I learned is that the woman is a very good writer, better than most of the people currently writing teen paranormal fiction. It shouldn't surprise you to hear that Shiver was just optioned to be made into a movie.

Neil Gaiman's Newbery winner, The Graveyard Book, continues to enthrall, speaking of well written. There's no question about this one becoming a movie!

Another much-anticipated book in the NYT's top ten is Fire by Kristin Cashore. I read Graceling last year and thought it was good, though I wasn't quite as enamored of it as some of my friends in the Kidlitosphere blogging community. Graceling is about a magically gifted warrior girl on a quest to circumvent the evil first manifested by the kidnapping of the elderly father of a king. Prequel Fire is set in the same world as Graceling, telling the story of an unnaturally beautiful girl, the daughter of a monster, who has powers of mind control and gets caught up in her country's political struggles. (I try not to get Catching Fire and Fire mixed up!) The cover art to the left is from the UK edition.

The other four books in the NYT's top ten are The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo (which someone just gave me for my birthday), The Million-Dollar Throw by Mike Lupica, Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. These are, respectively, another magical fable from the Newbery award-winning author of The Tale of Despereaux (which, you'll note, was made into a movie), a sports book in a series that's growing in popularity and really should generate at least one movie, a Twilightish paranormal romance about a hunky fallen angel, and a Young Adult novel about the reasons a teenager has killed herself.

Of the books on the list, The Magician's Elephant and Thirteen Reasons Why are probably the least commercial. I'm a little leery of teen suicide books, but that's just me—I've got more of a middle grade fiction personality than a YA one. Without even reading it, I can recommend The Magician's Elephant to you. Not to mention The Graveyard Book, which I have read. It manages to be both literary and commercial, a fairly remarkable achievement on Gaiman's part.

Overall, I thought this list was more promising than the list of Top Ten Bestsellers in Children's Picture Books, which made me want to cry. Read it and see if you can guess why: Fancy Nancy: Splendiferous Christmas by Jane O'Connor, The Christmas Sweater: A Picture Book by Glenn Beck, LEGO Star Wars by Simon Beecroft, Nubs by Mary Nethery, Waddle by Rufus Butler Seder, Eragon's Guide to Alagaesia by Christopher Paolini, Skippyjon Jones: Lost in Spice by Judy Schachner, Otis by Loren Long, Julie Andrews' Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies by Julie Andrews and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, and Where the Wild Things Are: The Movie Storybook by Barb Bersche.

From the depths of my soul, the question bursts forth: What are these kids reading? And close on its heels: What are their parents thinking?

Most of these "picture books" are movie tie-ins, books with visual effects, books by political pundits, etc. While I know Fancy Nancy is popular, I feel that after the first book, the series quickly sold out and went downhill, becoming a fashionable franchise (no pun intended) rather than true storytelling. For me, the only real books on the list are the poetry collection edited by Julie Andrews and her daughter, Skippyjon, and Otis. I have yet to get my hands on Andrews and Hamilton's anthology, but as a poet and poetry lover, I look forward to reading it. I confess I'm not a big fan of the Skippyjon books, possibly because I don't own a cat, although I suppose in this case the cat is actually a stand-in for a small child. I read Otis standing in a bookstore and thought it was a nice story about an anthropomorphized tractor, though not as compelling as, say, the classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton.


If you take the time to skim through Amazon's list of the Top 100 Bestselling Books for Children, you'll get a little better picture of the market, finding other commercial books such as the 39 Clues series and my 9-year-old nephew's favorite, Klutz Press's very fun Encyclopedia of Immaturity, along with more literary works. Well, a few, anyway. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is holding its own, for instance.

I did notice a boxed set of the first four Magic Treehouse books in the top 100. Mary Pope Osborne has really cornered the second grade series market, and yes, her books are a pleasant read. But I'm telling you—I can't wait for someone to come up with a far more wonderful series for that age group. So far, it hasn't happened. This begs the question: how good can a series actually be? Does the very concept of a series somehow dilute the literariness of books? Then, too, why do some books seem more like powerful sequels than a series series? Yes, some of the successful books listed above are series, but do second and following books fall short by definition?

On that conundrumical note, I'll conclude my report on the coolest of the cool. It's kind of like watching the popular kids at school. Sometimes you wonder why they're popular when they seem so ordinary, or even, in some cases, so unappealing. On the other hand, there are times it makes sense. Some of the popular kids are truly extraordinary, and their singular status seems completely deserved.


Jennifer said...

Yech, I wouldn't even call most of the stuff on the picture book list "picture books". I'd put them in the "novelty books" category. Sigh. Interesting thoughts about series - my series section at the library is getting impossibly tight and I'm not sure what to do as we can't afford the shelving I need to expand. Get rid of all those ancient and icky Mary-Kate and Ashley books? But they still check out, regularly! Stop adding new series? I dunno.

Anonymous said...

One minor thing...I thought Skippyjon Jones was a Siamese cat who imagines he is a Chihuahua.

Unknown said...

Catching Fire is awesome.... except for the cliff hanger at the end. Now i am dying for book three

Kate Coombs said...

Artgoddessmama--Oh, thanks for catching that! I'll go back and fix it. I just have this whole chihuahua thing in my head based on the last time I read a Skippyjon!

Kate Coombs said...

Jennifer--It's a dilemma! When I was cleaning out my personal library, I asked myself whether I really needed to keep every single Lemony Snickett forever and ever, since it's mostly just for my reference.

I will say that when I was culling books at the tight-on-space library at my school, I made the books compete with each other, although they didn't have to wear sashes and strut across a stage. I've noticed there are a lot of endless, mediocre fantasy series in print, for example. But then, it's just very hard to bring yourself to get rid of books at all--ouch!

"Novelty books" is a great way to describe many of the books I listed. As opposed to a Real Book, like the real princess in "The Princess and the Pea"!

Kate Coombs said...

Eric--I know, it's like you get a new book by your favorite author and every page is bliss, but then it has the incredible nerve to end. And you can't believe the author needs an entire year to let you know what happens next...

Nice website for the Hunger Games books, by the way! I know you're totally devoted, but I hope you can find some lesser books to tide you over during the next year. Maybe Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper books, for example. For that matter, you might like Jim Butcher's fantasy series for grown-ups, the Codex Alera books.

Ellen Hopkins said...

Actually, what I said was, "This book will be challenged." So far, not, though. TRICKS is not for everyone, of course. However, it is an important book (and not just in my own humble opinion) that will hopefully turn kids away from earning a fast extra buck through sex. It happens every day in this country, whether or not Worried Parents want to see it.

Respectfully, Ellen Hopkins

Kate Coombs said...

Ellen--Thanks for the clarification! And "Tricks is not for everyone" is exactly my point. It's strong stuff, certainly, but I do hope it will make kids think twice about going down that path. (I add Worried Parents notes to a lot of reviews of the more intense YA books, just so you know.) --Kate

Susan said...

My kids' elementary school book fair was this week. I commented on facebook that I wished they wouldn't stock the Spongebob, Disney Princess, Star Wars, etc. books because there were so many better books to choose from, and the kids always want them if they are there. This started a rather spirited conversation amongst my friends who felt that those books were appropriate because it was the only way they could get their reluctant readers to read. My theory - if they had better books, maybe they wouldn't be so reluctant!

Jennifer said...

When I started at my current library I'd never heard of Ellen Hopkins, not being much of a YA person, but the first interaction I had with a teen was her asking me if we could get the rest of the books. I'd agree they're not for everyone - but they do have important things to say that many kids need to hear. Plus, they've been stolen from our YA section, so they must be good! (our top stolen authors: Sonya Sones, Tamora Pierce, Ellen Hopkins, Meg Cabot. interesting line-up huh?)

Kate Coombs said...

Susan--I love your theory!!! Kids are suckers for a brand name, responding like cheerful little mice in mazes to their cultural programming; but if you can get a truly good book in their hands, they will raise their standards without even knowing they're doing it.

Jennifer--That IS an interesting line-up! I'm the first to admit that I'm too much of a softy for the edgier YA, but I know the kids who love it really do connect to it and feel understood.

Unknown said...

wow..nice blog you have..

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, Badloi!