What Happened To Kids Books?

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Books inspired by PG-13 movies are taking over library shelves. Can See Iron Man Run really be good for young readers? Alex Cohen talks with writer Erica Perl about the pros and cons of "fast-food lit."


Even if "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" don't get those Oscar nominations, they both have already been honored in other ways, by being turned into children's books. Books based on big brands have been around for a while, but the recent trend of books intended for the youngest of readers, adapted from PG-13 films, is troubling to some parents. Erica Perl is a parent, and she's been writing about this topic for Slate. She joins us now. Erica, thanks for joining us. And tell us, why are publishers putting out books with titles like "I am Iron Man" and "A Hero Called the Hulk"? Is SpongeBob SquarePants suddenly not a big draw any more?

Ms. ERICA PERL (Parent and Writer at You know, it's interesting. It seems like there's a general trend of taking fare that's geared towards older kids and trying to shift it downward. And we're seeing this across the board, with toys and media. And it seems that early readers are sort of the next landscape for that.

COHEN: Some of these early reader books are based on films that have very adult themes. In "Iron Man," you see the main character going out and getting drunk. Do these themes come up at all in these kids' books?

Ms. PERL: Not so much. You're not going to see Iron Man getting drunk in a children's book. But you will see some of the things from the movies watered down in some of the early reader books that are out there. Other early readers will have the same branding as the movies, but then they will just completely ignore the plot altogether, and it will basically, underneath the cover, be just a book about Batman or a book about Iron Man.

COHEN: And it would seem, with that kind of branding, it wouldn't be too extraordinary for these young kids to read the book and then say to Mom and Dad, I want the Happy Meal, and I want the toys. Do these books kind of push these products?

Ms. PERL: Absolutely. And these movies have been criticized for that in other arenas. "Iron Man" has certainly been criticized for doing Burger King toy promotions and ads on Nickelodeon. "The Hulk" had some ads for a candy product that was going on Cartoon Network. But for some reason there's, sort of, this, if it's an educational book, these guys can fly under the radar, if you'll excuse the pun.

COHEN: Is there any benefit to these books? Can they help children to start learning how to read?

Ms. PERL: A lot of parents are saying, I don't care that it's about Batman or Superman or whoever. If my kid wants to read it, and gets excited about reading, that's great by me. And you know, as a parent, I'm very, very sympathetic to that. I guess my concern is that these are, sort of, the literary equivalent of junk food in a lot of cases, carrying the same "I can read" label from the imprint and reading leveling systems that are on the classic early readers like "Frog and Toad" and "Little Bear" and all those things. They are on the same shelf, with the same labeling on them.

COHEN: Based on what you've seen so far, what do you think the future is of these early reading books?

Ms. PERL: You know, as I said, I'm troubled about the idea that the motion picture industry is somehow kind of reaching to younger and younger kids. And it's funny that it seems particularly to boys, because you're not seeing other, you know PG-13 movies like "Mamma Mia!" are not being turned into early readers. But for some reason, they're sort of thinking that the only way you can connect with boys is through incredibly violent imagery and incredible, you know, ties to adult content. And there are early readers out there that connect with boys in a variety of different ways. There's also books like the "Fly Guy" series that Tedd Arnold did, and Dav Pilkey's "Captain Underpants." There are some great books that do, kind of, capture the imagination of young boys, but not by just taking adult content and feeding it to them.

COHEN: Mother and writer, Erica Perl. Thanks so much.

Ms. PERL: Thank you for having me.

COHEN: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from I'm Alex Cohen.

CHADWICK: And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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