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Snack Foods Become Stars of Books for Children

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 to schools.

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 said.

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 Publishing.
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 Books imprint.

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