Scholastic Commercializes "Literature"

Scholastic is commercializing the concept of a book series by manufacturing their very own to follow on Harry Potter success, which they will never completely own. While I’m a huge fan of enticing kids to read, there’s a whole commercialization around this that makes my stomach turn. I felt repulsed at the very idea that will likely suck in my son who lives squarely in the crosshairs of their demographic target. Ten years old, loves to read, loves mysteries, loves trading cards, loves online games. Gag.

From today’s New York Times:

Scholastic Plans to Put Its Branding Iron on a Successor to Harry Potter


With the Harry Potter series now completed, Scholastic, the United States publisher of those wildly successful books by J. K. Rowling, is moving forward with what it hopes will be its follow-up blockbuster series.

Called “The 39 Clues,” this series will feature 10 books — the first of which is to go on sale next September — as well as related Web-based games, collectors’ cards and cash prizes. The project demonstrates Scholastic’s acknowledgment that as much as the publisher heralded the renewed interest in reading represented by the Harry Potter books, many children are now as transfixed by Internet and video games as they are by reading.

“We want to go where the kids are and really be part of their complete world, rather than going to one aspect of their world,” said David Levithan, an executive editorial director at Scholastic. He added, “We talk of it as being subversively educational.”

Subversively something. Educational? That’s a stretch.

The series, to be officially announced by Scholastic on Tuesday morning, will be aimed at readers 8 to 12 and offer mystery novels telling the story of a centuries-old family, the Cahills, who are supposed to be the world’s most powerful clan. According to the books, famous historical figures ranging from Benjamin Franklin to Mozart were members of the family. The plots will revolve around the race by two young Cahills, Amy, 14, and Dan, 11, against other branches of the family to be the first to find the 39 clues that will lead to ultimate power.

Historical fiction gone awry?

Rick Riordan, the best-selling author of the Percy Jackson series, which includes “The Lightning Thief” and “The Sea of Monsters,” mythologically themed books aimed at preteens, has written the first title in this new series, “The Maze of Bones.” He has also outlined the story arc for the next nine installments.

The books will come out once every two or three months, and the publisher has already signed Gordon Korman, the author of “Swindle” and “Schooled,” aimed at middle school children, to write Volume 2. Peter Lerangis, who has written books in the Spy-X and Watcher series, as well as ghostwritten for The Baby-Sitters Club and Three Investigators series, will write the third title, and Jude Watson, who has written several “Star Wars” prequels, will write the fourth.

The series is also Scholastic’s attempt to create a branded franchise for which it owns all the rights. Ms. Rowling retained the rights to the Harry Potter series, which meant that she could pursue separate deals for film and other licensed products, effectively cutting out Scholastic.

I knew I liked her. Smart lady.

An online game will allow readers to search for the 39 clues themselves, while solving puzzles and playing mini-games that will be refreshed daily. Mr. Levithan said the site would include blogs written from the points of view of characters, and maps, treasure hunts and videos, many with historical and geographical content.

Each book will come with six collectors’ cards that can be used to find further clues in the online game. Players can also win cash and other prizes.

Need I spell out the problem I have with this?

The publisher hopes that reluctant readers will be drawn to the books by the game. “Reading the books will make you better at the games, so that is the incentive,” said Suzanne Murphy, publisher of Scholastic’s trade division.

Jesse Soleil, director of the Lab for Informal Learning, a research group within Scholastic that has been developing new projects, said many gamers were already avid readers. But for those who aren’t, he said, the series is “about living where these kids are, and even if they are reading the books for information for the game, hopefully they will get some entertainment, and it will get them into reading.”

I hope so. Possible redemption.

Mr. Riordan was drawn to the series partly because of the gaming component. “I’m a gaming geek from way back,” he said, recalling his passion for Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager. Now he plays online games like World of Warcraft with his two sons.

But he said he didn’t try to write the first book with specific gaming outcomes in mind. “My main concern was crafting an adventure novel that would stand on its own, even if kids never access the Internet at all,” Mr. Riordan said.

A colleague of mine at work suggested (in her very glass half full way, which I admire) that perhaps something good can come of something born out of commercial intentions. With Mr. Riordan’s statement, I have a shred of hope that she’s right.

During the brainstorming phase and after he wrote a manuscript, Mr. Riordan worked with editors at Scholastic, who suggested details that could be worked into the novel so that they could also be used in the game.

“There’s a lot of commonality between what makes a good game and a good book,” Mr. Riordan said. “Whether you’re a gamer or a reader, you want to feel immersed in the story and invested in the action and the characters, and you want to care about the outcome and you want to participate in solving the mystery.”

As for whether attaching the books to an Internet game could help recruit new readers, he said: “Some kids are always going to prefer games over books. But if you can even reach a few of those kids and give them an experience with a novel that makes them think, ‘Hey, reading can be another way to have an adventure,’ then that’s great. Then I’ve done my job.”

I’ll try (very hard) to suspend disbelief until I hear something that convinces me that this is good literature that stands on its own. But then of course if it does, I’m sure I’ll have to pony up the money for all 10 books, plus whatever other artifacts a kid “needs” to complete the journey. I’m really trying to be optimistic. This is just a stretch for me.


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