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BOOK BEAT RED HEN PRESS : A Lesson Learned : Joanne O'Roarke and Hope Bryant became publishers when big companies seemed disinterested in their works for children.

December 27, 1990|ANN VAN DER VEER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Everyone remembers the English folk tale about the little red hen: As she went through her day's work in the farmyard she asked each of the animals to help her do the chores. No one would help. " 'Then I'll do it myself,' said the Little Red Hen. And she did."

Launched only six years ago, the Red Hen Press has become a successful children's book publishing company and it is no coincidence that co-publishers Joanne O'Roarke and Hope Slaughter Bryant chose the name they did. Both had been unsuccessful in trying to interest big publishers in their work.

"I decided, why should giant conglomerates like Doubleday and Random House make all the decisions about what children are going to read in the future?" said O'Roarke.

"Hope had written a delightful children's book, 'Plato's Fine Feathers'; my nephew David Shearer wanted to illustrate children's literature, so I decided I would become a publisher myself."

"Plato's Fine Feathers" a four-color picture book, bore the logo of the smugly smiling little red hen. It was an enormous success.

"When I held it in my hands," Bryant said, "I cherished the feel of it, the smell of it. I turned it over and over, and I said, "This is what I want to do.' My husband and his friends would say 'Books will become obsolete. Everything will be on microfilm.' Well, a child can't curl up with a piece of microfilm!"

In January the company will bring out "A Cozy Place," written by Bryant and illustrated by Susan Torrance; and "A Feather for Emily," written and illustrated by Barbara Sawyer.

Although these two new works represent only the 11th and 12th Red Hen books, the company has an impressive number of successes.

The picture book "Extraordinary Chester" will go into its second printing in the spring. Last year it was the finalist for the prestigious Benjamin Franklin Award, given annually by the Publishers Marketing Assn.

Another book, "A Sky for Henry," has been chosen by the Braille Institute for national distribution.

But Red Hen's greatest success so far has been in launching author Lee Wardlow.

"We published her first book, 'Me Plus Math Equals Headache,' in 1986 and her sequel 'The Eye and I' in 1988. National Scholastic Books has just brought out 'The Eye and I' as a weekly reader and with a run of 80,000 copies," O'Roarke said.

Wardlow, a former elementary school teacher, has since acquired an agent and published books with Avon and Silhouette Books.

Now a full-time writer, she has three books coming out in the next year. One of them, "My Mother's on the Roof," will be published next fall by Red Hen.

To what do Bryant and O'Roarke attribute the success of Red Hen Press?

"We like to think of ourselves as a launching path," Bryant said.

"We look at an author's and an illustrator's work for itself, rather than at the person's credits. We don't depend on the press for our income so we can afford, unlike the big companies, to approach the work as an art."

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