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Licenses R Us

Forget about writing that adorable book for your kids. Children aren't reading kids' books anymore; now they inhabit personal multimedia theme parks.

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Personally, I hate kids' books. In my three-kid experience, most books I've read to my children are so bland I feel trapped back in school again. This is not surprising, because kids' books have traditionally needed the imprimatur of teachers and librarians (gatekeepers, they are called, chillingly, in the children's-book business). So what you get is Milquetoast or worse. The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners is a motive for infanticide. I'm no Good Night Moon fan either. (All right, Roald Dahl, E. B. White, and more recently the Harry Potter craze -- but this is a short list.) Children's books, if you ask me, are why kids don't want to read. But I'm a lonely voice.

Most people love children's books. In fact, most parents with young children think they can write a children's book. Celebrities especially. The latest trend is celebrity spouses who think they ought to be writing children's books.

But the hard truth is that no matter how misty-eyed you get, you probably can't write a children's book -- not anymore -- not unless you also have the soul of an entertainment lawyer (intellectual-property training and branding experience would help as well).

Todd Parr, for instance, is a bearish, cuddly prototype of a children's-book writer -- complete with a San Francisco holistic it's-a-small-world-after-all philosophy. He is distinguished from the run-of-the-mill children's author not only by his highly styled design work but by the kind of legal wrangles he's involved in. Such disputes -- who committed to do what under which set of eventualities -- may just be part of modern storytelling, or of the hundreds of deals that are part of the licensing, merchandising, branding art of modern storytelling. Litigation, you might even say, is a sign of success (who sues a failure?).

Parr, whose oeuvre consists of graffiti-style primary-color illustrations for the learning-to-read crowd, recently pulled off a kind of trifecta of children's-book promotions -- he's the first kids'-book author to claim all of the windows of FAO Schwarz (in the retail version of the trifecta, you pay the store, rather than the store paying you). His four books alone could not have filled all those windows (neither physically nor profitably). But the books are just one part of his product output, which now includes greeting cards, gift wrap, hats, children's apparel, rugs, backpacks, duffels, totes, travel bags, luggage, diaper bags, wallets, card games, memory games, floor puzzles, press-and-peel play sets, flat wood puzzles, magnetic fun boards, beach sets, frames, children's photo albums, scrapbooks, stickers, stamp sets, back-to-school products, children's watches, magnets, clocks, buttons, plastic and ceramic bath accessories, plush and soft toys and dolls, bedding, posters, infant/toddler/ children's feeding items, adult coffee products and ceramics, and beach towels.

Parr, who for fifteen years was a United Airlines steward ("I applied to art school and to be a fireman and to be an airline steward and took the first thing that I got"), may in fact be one of the few people who never had a desire to write children's books. "I have a high-school education, and I did horrible in English and spelling," he says, with slight apology. He started with T-shirts and went to coffee mugs, then worked his way up the licensing chain. Indeed, he did not come to his publisher's attention through a manuscript or literary agent or children's-author workshop. Three years ago, Little, Brown discovered him at the annual licensing show at the Javits center. Little, Brown got in line behind the backpack manufacturer and the diaper-bag people to make a deal with what Li©ense Magazine, starstruck, calls one of the most influential people in licensing under 40.

Certainly, his books are a lot more like T-shirts than like kids' books. But there's a plausible literary point to argue here: T-shirts are more expressive and intelligent than most kids' books.

The licensing show is a concourse of booths representing hundreds of purveyors of exceedingly unintellectual intellectual property, from Disney and Nickelodeon at the high end to a host of would-be brands, unknown characters, and do-with-me-what-you-will images at the other. As you walk the floor, it's hard not to find yourself swept up in the euphoria of licensing -- to sell something without giving it up, to exploit without exhausting, to trade without exchanging (finally, to have your cake and eat it too).

On the center fairway of the show floor, Tolon Brown mans his father's $150,000 booth, built in the form of Arthur's club house, recognizable to children under 7 and their parents everywhere. Tolon's father, Marc Brown, the creator of Arthur the aardvark, is arguably the most successful author of children's books today. He is quite possibly the most successful author of anything today. "A gazillionaire," says one of Brown's publishers. Arthur books have sold 30 million copies so far, at an upward-trending rate of 10 million a year. And that's only books. Arthur also has the world's second-best-selling Band-Aid (Winnie the Pooh, that zenith of children's characters, is the first). Plus he has most of the licenses Todd Parr has and many more (toothbrushes, shampoo and bubble bath, and antibacterial soap, for instance). Even a balloon in the Macy's Parade.


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