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Scaring Up Scads of Young Readers

'Goosebumps' books are a monster hit with the under-12 set. Unlike other children's fads, the marketing empire was built without a blast of TV ads.

August 07, 1996|DENISE GELLENE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

". . . Evan ran, his chest pounding, every muscle aching. And as he ran, he suddenly realized there were others running, too. . . . The Beymer twins. Rick and Tony. . . ."

--from "Monster Blood" by R.L. Stine

Frankie Amendola is the envy of his friends at St. Angeles School in Brea, but not because he's got a stash of video games or a boxful of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures. Like, who doesn't?

No, the third-grader is considered really lucky because he's got 42 episodes of the hottest children's series to hit bookstores since the Hardy Boys started super-sleuthing several generations ago.

The series is called "Goosebumps." Though unfamiliar to many people over 12, the watered-down thrillers in which kids confront creepy aliens and nasty swamp monsters are publishing blockbusters.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 9, 1996 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
'Goosebumps' books--A story about "Goosebumps" children's books that appeared in Wednesday's Times gave the incorrect name of a school attended by two children quoted in the story. The school is St. Angela Merici in Brea.

New episodes in the 4-year-old series often make paperback bestseller lists, putting their author, R.L. Stine, in the same league as John Grisham and Stephen King. "Goosebumps" is so hot that it has inspired a weekly TV show and a hot board game, plus the requisite shirts and caps. Coming soon: a "Goosebumps" game on CD-ROM.

Such popularity is noteworthy because it has occurred without the blast of television advertising used to pitch toys, videos and snacks during Saturday morning cartoons. "Goosebumps" books were introduced quietly through school book clubs and caught on among kids through word of mouth.

Because it is a book series, "Goosebumps" stands apart from previous childhood hits. Influenced by television, children usually top their wish lists with toys; last year they wanted Mighty Morphin Power Ranger merchandise and before that, Ninja Turtles. Somehow, "Goosebumps" has managed to penetrate a youth culture that assigns little value to reading.

Libraries have waiting lists to check out episodes. Bookstores are peppered with calls asking when the latest title is arriving. School kids read the books during lunch and swap them at recess like trading cards.

"It's almost as if, if you're not into 'Goosebumps,' you're out of it somehow," says Debbie Chandler, a sixth-grade teacher in Yorba Linda.

"The boys turned a corner, onto an even darker street. Trigger followed bounding after them. Evan continued to run. . . . "

With more than 130 million books in print, "Goosebumps" is a bonanza for publisher Scholastic and author Robert Lawrence Stine. Retail sales have topped $450 million, and Stine says his cut has made him a millionaire, though he lives in a modest apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

The series also has made Stine something of kid idol, not unlike Michael Jordan, an unusual position for a slight man of 52 with no jump shot.

Scholastic receives 1,500 letters a week from "Goosebumps" fans. (They receive form letter replies). At a book-signing in Virginia last fall, Stine was swamped by 5,000 children, seven times the number expected. Shouting into a megaphone, he sent 4,000 home, explaining it would take him eight hours to get to them. He's made few appearances since.

"It sounds weird, but too many kids come," Stine says. "Any time you have to send 4,000 kids home, it is not a good day."

True enough. But it is better than swelling to 400 pounds like Greg Banks in "Say Cheese and Die-Again." Or being chased by a furry, sharp-toothed swamp monster like Gretchen and Clark in "How to Kill a Monster."

Stine turns out one such episode a month, inspired by memories of what scared him as a kid in Columbus, Ohio. He also borrows from the experiences of his 16-year-old son, Matt, and visits elementary schools to keep up.

Sharing his cramped home office is a full-size model skeleton, a howling skull and a tribal mask.

Written in a clipped style, thick with thumps and gasps, "Goosebumps" books aren't great literature. Even so, educators say the books have value at a time when two of five fourth-graders nationwide read below grade level.

"I'd rather kids read good literature than less good literature, but kids aren't reading a whole lot these days," says UCLA education professor Deborah Stipek.

For children, "Goosebumps" is more than a book. It is a status symbol. Teachers say kids bring the books to school and sort them by subject: alien, mummy, monster blood. Frankie proudly displays his "Goosebumps" library in his room on a bookcase where, he boasts, it "takes up a whole shelf."

"He's the envy of me," says his friend Matt McConnell, 9, who owns "twice as less as him, like 20 'Goosebumps.' " His books share a shelf with his little brother's uncool Berenstein Bears collection. Matt winces: "Do you have to mention that?"

"Suddenly, as Evan watched in horror, the dog raised up on his hind legs. He tilted his head to the sky and let out an ear-piercing howl. . . . A creature howl."

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