The huge success of The Wimpy Kid series was soon followed by a spate of copycat publishing. This kind of “borrowed idea” publishing happens after every bestseller and it’s pointless to complain. But with Wimpy Kid, some publishers seem to have missed the main lesson. So we see countless new books rolled out about dorks and losers, nerds and geeks, whereas I’ve always maintained that a big part of the Wimpy Kid’s success was one of format over content. The books looked great, inviting, funny, accessible. They were illustrated!
I don’t think it’s a mystery: readers, especially reluctant readers, like pictures in their novels. They like the text broken up, with multiple entry points along the way. Witness the line of “illustrated classics,” which have been around only since forever.
We’ve seen it with Captain Underpants. Seen it with the Geronimo Stilton, first published in Italy. But also think of a book like Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Caberet, which effectively used illustrations to serve and deepen an already sophisticated manuscript. The book was a revelation — but it also taught us something we’ve known for decades. Yes, it’s more expensive to illustrate books, but those illustrations can broaden that book’s appeal. Look at the terrific job Matthew Cordell did with Justin Case, written by the very talented Rachel Vail. My point: A book doesn’t have to be a cliche in order for it be illustrated.
After that, let the number crunchers do the math.
Quick story about copycat publishing. I was at a book convention, long ago, and had the opportunity to hang out with the president of a small publishing company. A friendly guy, he specialized in down-market books. That is, cheap, affordable books that came in at the right price point, undercutting the competition. He had recently made a boatload of money by ripping off the Where’s Waldo books. As we drove in his expensive car, he told me with glee about the exact eureka moment when he had the idea for his successful new series of books. I thought to myself at the time, “Wow, he’s telling me with great pride about the day he got the idea . . . to steal the idea!” It was kind of spectacular, and a publishing moment I’ve never forgotten.
I had once hoped that my book, Justin Fisher Declares War!, would be illustrated. It had a funny main character, school-based adventures, and was written on an easy, accessible level for middle-grade readers. Unfortunately, my publisher did not share my view for this particular book.
Which is why I’m so pleased to share these student illustrations. You see, I just spent an incredibly happy week in State College, PA, visiting five different schools along the way. After one such visit to Corl Street Elementary, I was presented with a gift that included a letter from Sue Harter. She explained that two teachers, Mrs. Evans and Mr. Schmidt, had read the book with their 5th grade classes. Under the guidance of ace librarian, Mrs. Davis, the students summarized key points for each chapter and later, in art class, illustrated favorite scenes.
So my wish came true after all.
I don’t have the names to give credit to all the illustrators . . . but you know who you are. And in truth, it’s the entire effort that I applaud, everyone who participated, thank you. I love your work.
The fateful day in the school cafetorium when a plate of spaghetti came down on Justin’s head.
A little graffiti mischief.
It was a fade in the 50’s . . . and a way to get attention in 5th grade. Oh, and by the way, YUCK.
Butterflies in his belly before taking the stage at the school Talent Show.
I see braces in this kid’s future.
Mr. Tripp, a good sport, shows up with a sock stuffed in his mouth . . . in his colorful boxers.
Thank you, Corl Street Elementary!