As the host of the "Bring Your Own Baby"
reading group at the Enchanted Forest bookstore in Dallas,
Susan Minshall meets plenty of parents anxious to start their
toddlers reading - and to make them sit still. So she recommends
the newly published "Kellogg's Froot Loops! Counting
Fun Book," which invites toddlers to insert the sugary
cereal in cut-out holes in its cardboard pages.
"I call this a going-out-to-dinner book - you have your
kid sitting in a highchair and it is something to do,"
she said. "And it is a great way to begin getting them
started reading because eating is when they will pay attention."
This fall, parents and teachers can choose from a sudden
proliferation of books starring brand-name candies and snacks
like Froot Loops, Cheerios, M & M's, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish,
Reese's Pieces, Skittles, Hershey's chocolates, Sun-Maid raisins
and Oreo cookies.
Introduced six years ago by a Massachusetts nursery school
teacher, snack-brand children's books have exploded in the
last two years into a genre all their own as Simon & Schuster,
HarperCollins, and Scholastic have all jumped into the field.
Millions of copies have been sold, with a full shelf of new
titles on the way. Random House planned its first entry this
year - a book based on Taco Bell's fast food and Chihuahua
mascot - until Taco Bell pulled the dog from its commercials.
The publishers and authors pay a licensing fee to the food
companies, who see a novel opportunity to market to toddlers.
"It is a great way to get the Froot Loops brand equity
into a different place, where normally you don't get exposure
- taking it from the cereal aisle and into another area like
learning," said Meghan Parkhurst, a spokeswoman for Kellogg,
adding that the company also provides Froot Loops book covers
But not everyone is pleased to see brand-name snacks invading
the world of books. Publishers have based children's books
on characters from movies and television for years, but have
only recently turned to brand-name foods known mainly from
commercials. Some parents, educators and pediatricians object
that the books will engrave snack- food brands in toddlers
impressionable minds, hook them on junk food, and lead to
eating problems later in life. "It's offensive. I wouldn't
let my kid anywhere near books like that," said Marit
Larson of Manhattan, mother of a 2-year-old son.
The books have met some resistance from specialty children's
bookstores. Some, including Books of Wonder and the Bank Street
children's bookstore in New York, have refused to stock many
of the titles. "I think it is such an abuse - manipulating
your audience when they don't have the ability in any way
to assess," said Ann-Marie Mott, lower school coordinator
at the Bank Street School for Children.
Miriam Bar-on, the chairwoman of the public education committee
of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a professor of pediatrics
at Loyola University in Chicago, said, "I think the whole
thing is revolting, to be targeting these little kids with
that kind of marketing."
In addition to building positive associations with foods
of little nutritional value that may damage children's teeth,
she said, the books encourage parents to reward their children
with treats, which creates a psychologically fraught relationship
with food. "You want to use food for nutrition - you
don't want food to seem more powerful than it is," she
said. She also warned that toddlers could choke on small candies
like M & M's.
But plenty of parents and teachers are embracing the new
genre. Several titles have sold hundreds of thousands of copies
in the last year alone. The best-selling food book, "The
Cheerios Play Book," sold more than 1.2 million copies
in the last two years. "We love them," said Judy
Kelley, a kindergarten teacher at the Lilja school in Natick,
Mass. "You hate to always use food, but it is such a
hit with the kids because they can count them and then it
is so rewarding for them to eat them."
Kelly Eshback, head of the parent- teacher organization at
the Florence Rideout Elemenatry School in Wilton, N.H., said
the books turned snack and cereal advertisements to a worthy
purpose. "Any book that they recognize for whatever reason
and read and enjoy is a good thing," she added. "I
guess product names are a way of life for us now."
The boom in brand-name-snack books began with Barbara Barbieri
McGrath, the nursery school teacher in Wellesley, Mass., who
discovered in 1982 that her students' interest perked up at
brand names they recognized from advertisements. She composed
a little poem about M & M's to teach children to count.
"I just made M & M's with construction paper because
you can't feed chocolate to 4- and 5-year-olds, then I laminated
them so the kids thought they were really special," she
She and her husband, a carpenter, set out to turn the idea
into a book, but their initial efforts foundered. No one had
heard of publishing children's books so similar to advertising.
Even after her husband signed a deal with Mars to use its
M & M's trademark, 35 publishers turned them down, she
said. Finally, in 1992, a friend referred her to nearby Charlesbridge
In 1994, Charlesbridge published the "The M & M Brand
Counting Book" in hardcover and paperback, and it quickly
became the house's best-selling title. More than one million
copies have been sold, along with a small-size board book
for toddlers and special editions for Halloween and Christmas,
with Valentine's Day and Easter editions on the way. All help
teach hand-eye coordination and simple concepts like counting
and colors by asking children to count the candies or place
them on the pages of the books. The holiday books include
cutout spaces for the candies.
After the success of the first M & M's books, Mrs. McGrath
quit her teaching job to make a career out of writing snack-brand
children's books for a variety of publishers, including eight
M & M's editions; five Cheerios editions, including Spanish-language
versions; a Kellogg's Froot Loops book; three Pepperidge Farm
Goldfish books; Skittles books in hardcover and paperback;
a Hershey Kisses board book; and a Necco Sweethearts book.
The pages of the board books are covered in plastic, so smudged
chocolate or grease wipes away.
Trademark owners are always allowed to approve the books'
contents before publication, Mrs. McGrath said. Hardcover
books sell for about $10, and paperbacks for about $5. She
says that she usually pays half her royalty rate - typically
15 percent of the cover price on hardcover books and 7 percent
on paperbacks - to the brand's owner, after paying the company
an upfront advance, too.
"People always say, `How much are they paying you to
advertise for them?' but that's not how it works," she
said. In fact, she often feels the cereal and candy makers
fail to appreciate the marketing her books provide. "I
think the fees should come down, because these books take
the brands to a place they ordinarily can't get to. They can't
usually get to the books parents read their kids and they
can't get to advertise in schools. You can't come in and blast
the kids with advertising in those places, and these books
are actually getting the exact target age group."
After the success of Mrs. McGrath's M & M's book, several
other authors started writing similar books of their own,
and Simon & Schuster's children's division decided to
get into the act. "A big part of our business is brand-oriented
in terms of media tie-ins like `Rugrats' or `Blue's Clues,'
so we thought, what other brands are important that we could
translate into wholesome books for kids?" said Robin
Corey, publisher of Simon & Schuster's novelties and tie-ins
division. "We knocked out dozens of brands because we
felt they might not be parent-endorsed - overly sweet candies
or cereals, or cookies that weren't wholesome all-American
enough." The company decided to start with Cheerios.
Simon & Schuster's Cheerios book, designed by the publisher's
art director, Lee Wade, pioneered the addition of cutouts
for inserting pieces of cereal, and quickly became a runaway
best seller. More than 1.2 million copies are in print. It
far outsold Mrs. McGrath's own Cheerios book, published by
Scholastic at the same time in the fall of 1998. General Mills,
which licenses the Cheerios name for both editions, declined
to tell Scholastic about Simon & Schuster's book, said
Bernette Ford, editorial director of Scholastic's Cartwheel
Since the success of the Cheerios book, food companies started
to take notice of the untapped potential in children's books.
Candy, cookie, cereal, and snack makers deluged publishers
with proposals for books based on their products. "I
broke a crown on a piece of sticky candy that came with one
proposal," Ms. Corey said. "Our editorial staff
is about 50 pounds heavier."
Publishers are scrambling to find products that fit the bill.
Simon & Schuster followed up its Cheerios success with
books on Sun-Maid raisins. Charlesbridge moved from M &
M's to Skittles. Scholastic began a series based on Hershey's
Kisses and other candies. HarperCollins jumped into the field
with Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Kellogg's Froot Loops, and,
soon, Necco Sweetheart candies. Publishers also began expanding
upward from toddlers into books for children in elementary
school, too, including "Reese's Pieces: Count by Fives,"
the "Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bar Fractions Book,"
and "Skittles Math Riddles."
Ms. Corey said Simon & Schuster still limited itself
to "wholesome" foods, like Oreos, which are featured
in "The Oreo Cookie Counting Book" the company is
publishing this fall. It teaches children to count down from
10 cookies to `'one little Oreo . . . too tasty to resist."
Most publishers are blasé about introducing books
that look like advertisements into the highchair and the classroom.
"The whole issue of the commercialization of children's
books, that came a lot of years earlier," said Susan
Katz, publisher of HarperCollins children's division.
But some publishers are not proud of it. "Its not that
these books resemble advertising - they are advertising. They
are P.R. for the food manufacturer and as such they are vaguely
reprehensible," said Kate Klimo, publisher of Random
House's children's books division, which recently canceled
the series of books based on Taco Bell's Chihuahua. "Now
just watch me get a deal with one of them," she added
with a laugh.
David D. Kirkpatrick, The New York Times. September 22, 2000