Tuesday, August 19, 2014: Dedicated Issue: Albert Whitman & Company

Albert Whitman: 95th Anniversary

Albert Whitman: Sugar White Snow by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky

Albert Whitman: The Night Before Christmas by Clement C Moore

Albert Whitman: The Princess Who Had No Kingdom by Ursula Jones

Albert Whitman: Penelope Treadwell mysteries by Christopher Edge

Albert Whitman: Lulu by Hilary McKay

Editors' Note

Albert Whitman's 95th Anniversary

In this issue, with the support of the publisher, Shelf Awareness celebrates the 95th anniversary of Albert Whitman & Company, the children's book publisher that keeps growing and educating and entertaining. Jennifer M. Brown wrote the stories.

Albert Whitman: Madame Martine by Sarah S Brannen

Books & Authors

Albert Whitman: True to Its Mission

This year, Albert Whitman celebrates its 95th anniversary, and continues to be independently owned and operated. Best known for its series The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner (which hits the big screen today--more on that a bit later), and more recently, early chapter book series (including the Lulu series by Hilary McKay) and a line of young adult books, Albert Whitman began in the educational and library markets, and has expanded its reach well into the trade market.

John Quattrochi
John Quattrocchi

John Quattrocchi, president and co-owner of Albert Whitman, bought the company, located in Park Ridge, Ill. (about 17 miles NW of Chicago) in 2008 together with senior vice-president Patrick McPartland; the two have been friends since first grade. McPartland has been with Albert Whitman for 25 years, and his decision to buy the company with Quattrocchi is part of the company's 95-year legacy--and perhaps in large part, the reason for its success and longevity. "What's interesting is when Albert Whitman sold the company the first time, he sold it to employees, who sold it to employees who sold it to employees," Quattrocchi said. He and McPartland are only the fourth generation of owners. "Because of that, we keep our culture intact and our history intact," he explained.

Pat McPartland
Pat McPartland

Quattrocchi came from an operations background at H2O Plus--shower gels, facial skin care, consumer products--where efficiency was key. "That's a rough-and-tumble business," he admitted. "I think, especially when the recession hit in 2008, that many publishers were not as efficient as they should have been. It made people become more efficient as business owners." The Albert Whitman team has just completed what Quattrocchi called "a corporate identity process." He explained, "We went through our history and how important it is to know who we are as a company, and how it affects what we do." They're now working through their three-to-five-year business strategy. "We're at an interesting point here. We've gone through our identity process, we're in the middle of our longterm strategy process, and we're publishing the books we want to publish. Everyone here wants to be here. It's the old 'getting the right people on the bus,' and at this point, I have all the right people on the bus. We're really doing some exciting things."

Quattrocchi said Albert Whitman saw low double-digit sales growth last year, and they've projected the same for 2014. "We're still relatively small, and we can move faster than some of our peers," he said. Sales are about evenly split between institutional and trade. "That's helpful to us from a planning standpoint," Quattrocchi explained. "It's a necessary change if we want to grow."

Albert Whitman: AW Teen

Going Forward with YA

While Albert Whitman planted its roots with successful series such as The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, and picture books that tackle issues facing young children, editorial director Kelly Barrales-Saylor is especially excited about their growing YA program. "I think we've finally found our voice in that category," she says.

It launched with Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perera (2011), which was "very issues-based, dark and gritty, and well-received in reviews," said Barrales-Saylor, "but it didn't strike the chord with our readership." She describes her approach as moving "from books that should matter to books that do matter." She's publishing roughly 25 titles per list currently, with an eye toward increasing that number.

Barrales-Saylor, who joined Albert Whitman in May 2012, cites Being Henry David (2013) by Cal Armistead as an example of the direction in which she wants to go. "I think it set the tone for what we want to do," she explained. "It's thoughtful and soul-searching at a level that both teens and adults can relate to." The Lifeguard (2012) by Deborah Blumenthal was another big success. "Though it looks like an easy beach read, it still has issues involved," such as the divorce of the heroine's parents and a relationship outside the family, Barrales-Saylor pointed out. Blumenthal's new book, A Different Me (September), explores body image and the way society views beauty, as a high school girl considers plastic surgery. Jolene Perry (Stronger than You Know, September) and Sarah Lynn Scheerger (The Opposite of Love, September) are two other YA authors Barrales-Saylor is excited about developing. "I think that's where we've found our voice as a company, writing about those issues but not talking down to readers."

She applies the same approach to the picture book list. "Even with a picture book that has an issue to it, there needs to be a spin so that it has a broader audience," Barrales-Saylor said. "If you look at our fall list, what I'm trying to do is find ways to give those messages without a capital M." One of her favorite picture books on the list is Madame Martine by Sarah S. Brannen (September). "It's a beautiful story about an old woman who lives in France and who does the same thing every day, and one day she finds a dog and he changes her life. The message is 'don't be afraid,' " she noted. "The title isn't 'Do Something New Every Day.' That can be the new Whitman tradition: the message doesn't hit you over the head, but you still get the point."

Another book that marks a change in direction for Albert Whitman is The Hero in You by folksinger Ellis Paul (September; the book comes with a CD). Barrales-Saylor said she was worried about doing a semi-celebrity book, but "[Ellis Paul] is so passionate about explaining to kids historical figures and people who changed the landscape of America in significant ways, Rosa Parks and also Woodie Guthrie, Georgia O'Keefe--people who aren't in the typical vernacular for kids."

She's also committed to middle-grade books and is especially excited about Mike Litwin's Crown of the Cowibbean (September), a follow-up to Welcome to Bermooda, starring a boy shipwrecked on an island of cows. With these books, Litwin, the illustrator of My Name Is Not Isabella, makes his debut as an author. "He can write and draw and has a good sense of pacing," said Barrales-Saylor. She's also looking forward to Christopher Edge's Penelope Tredwell series (his Book Brahmin appears below). And, of course, the Boxcar Children series continues to thrive....

Albert Whitman: The Hero In You by Ellis Paul

Boxcar Children Movie Opens Today

The jewel of Albert Whitman's crown, the Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner, is being released today as an animated feature-length film, distributed by Phase 4 in Toronto, Canada. Roughly a dozen theaters around the country will screen the film, including one in Park Ridge, Ill., home to Albert Whitman's offices. (You can watch the trailer here.)

All four of the voice actors from the movie are scheduled to attend the Park Ridge screening and will remain afterward for a q&a session with the directors, Dan Chuba and Mark Dippé of Hammerhead Productions. The actors are Joey King (currently in Wish I Was Here and the Fargo series on FX), Zachary Gordon (Greg Heffley from the Wimpy Kid movies), Mackenzie Foy (Renesmee from Twilight: Breaking Dawn 1&2) and Jadon Sand (Finn from LEGO: The Movie). The movie will be released on DVD at the same time.

"The Boxcar Children was intended to be a straight-to-DVD production," said Mike Spradlin, Albert Whitman's director of sales and marketing, "and once it got a debut at the Toronto Film Festival, it got good reviews and good buzz, and they've been able to get theatrical release for it in 12 theaters."

Director Dan Chuba's company started out as a visual arts production company, according to Spradlin, and did the visual effects for a variety of films such as X-men, Prometheus and The Fast and Furious franchise. The Boxcar Children marks his directorial debut. "It struck me that he had these blockbusters and he wanted to make this sweet little animated film," Spradlin said. "He was able to bring in some real talent to the production. All of them are proud of the movie and have agreed to help us promote it, schedule permitting."

The Boxcar Children series has sold 60 million copies, but this is its first time in a film incarnation. "We think it will bring new awareness to the series," Spradlin said. "We have nearly 50,000 Facebook fans on the Boxcar Children Facebook page. We have everything from grandparents to parents to children following us."

Spradlin said they're sticking with the original covers for the books, which is what most of their accounts requested. This fall, Whitman will release The Boxcar Children Guide to Adventure--how to make a disguise, how to solve a crime, how to go on a hiking trail and find your path--as well as two new mysteries: The Mystery of the Soccer Snitch and (#137!) The Mystery of the Grinning Gargoyle, in which the children visit their grandfather's alma mater.

Offering personal testimony to the books' staying power, Spradlin recalled that when his own children were in second grade, and "cracked the reading code, the Boxcar Children is the series they went to." His son is 28 now, but when Spradlin told him about the film, "he said there's something about these kids living in a boxcar in the woods and making it on their own. When they get to that age, second grade, they want to do everything by themselves. The sense of independence that these kids have really speaks to children. At the end they have the safety net of the grandfather, giving them a sense of security."

The screening is free with the donation of a book. Albert Whitman is working with local libraries and Open Books Chicago to get the word out. There'll be Boxcar Children trivia, and treat bags for all attendees. "What I'm most excited about is the charity aspect of it and working with a partner like Open Books that does such wonderful things in our community. It's just a fantastic way for us to help launch the film," Spradlin said.

Book Brahmin: Christopher Edge

Christopher Edge made his debut with Twelve Minutes to Midnight, the first in The Penelope Tredwell mysteries. Thirteen-year-old Penelope writes chilling suspense stories under the pen name Montgomery Flinch, for a late-19th-century London magazine she inherited from her parents. The second in the series, Shadows of the Silver Screen, will be published by Albert Whitman in September.

On your nightstand now:

As I'm just about to head off on holiday, a whole pile of unread books is teetering by my bedside, battling to win a place in my suitcase. Railsea by China Miéville is tussling with Generation A by Douglas Coupland, John Williams's Stoner is fighting a desperate rearguard action against Terry Pratchett's Dodger, whilst Michael Sherborne's fascinating biography H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life has ambushed Red, the autobiography of the former Manchester United full back, Gary Neville. Who will survive this literary Ragnarök and make it to the beach unscathed remains to be seen....

Favorite book when you were a child:

Thunder and Lightnings by Jan Mark. This book was to blame for the sudden rash of drawing pins that studded my bedroom ceiling one summer as a squadron of badly painted Airfix models took flight. A wonderful story of friendship, rather shamefully, it remains the only book by Jan Mark that I've ever read.

Your top five authors:

Frank Cottrell Boyce, Graham Greene, Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami and Roald Dahl. Interestingly, all of these authors have written for adults and children except for Murakami, although I personally would love to see a picture book adaptation of A Wild Sheep Chase.

Book you've faked reading:

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, but unfortunately I gave myself away by pretending to know the ending.

Book you are an evangelist for:

Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce. This is the children's book that I would press into the hands of anyone who wanted to know what was so great about children's writing in the 21st century.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of M.R. James. This is a rather beautiful hardback edition from Jo Fletcher Books, and the content of the stories more than lived up to the sinister promise of the cover.

Book that changed your life:

Violent Cases by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. I discovered this graphic novel in my local comic shop when I was growing up in Manchester, England; the illicit promise of the title appealing to my teenage mind. But when I picked it up and started to flick through the pages, I was entranced. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. It was like nothing I had ever read before. In black-and-white and without a superhero in sight, it was a story about childhood told in the most remarkable way. I ended up skipping school to get it signed by Neil Gaiman himself on his very first signing tour, and that was the moment when I realized that I wanted to become a writer--a notion that previously had seemed as remote to me as becoming an astronaut.

Favorite line from a book:

The opening sentence of Brighton Rock by Graham Greene: "Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him."

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Tim and Tobias by Sheila K. McCullagh. This story about a boy named Tim and a cat who could fly on a broomstick belonged to a 1970s reading scheme called Flightpath to Reading and was the book that taught me how to read.  From learning to decode words and sentences to discovering the worlds of magic and wonder they could reveal, Tim and Tobias was the key for me, setting me on a path that led to Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Neil Gaiman and countless other authors and books, as well as being the taproot of my own writing. Now long out of print and fetching astronomical prices on eBay, I'd love to have the chance to read this book again for the first time; to remember how it felt to be taking my very first steps into the world of fiction.

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