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READING / The ABCs of helping youngsters achieve literacy--
the first skill.

A Play on Words

As more children's books use toys and gadgets to increase sales, some experts say literacy is being sacrificed. Defenders say the gimmicks draw youngsters into reading and help publishers compete for attention in a crowded marketplace.

March 12, 2000|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For some of today's children--born into an age of computer-assisted, multihued sensory overload--a riveting story or a beautiful illustration may not be enough.

Books have to offer more: Lip gloss, bubble gum, stickers, night lights, hair beads, puzzles, glitter, dolls, stuffed animals or felt sea creatures. Even a disposable camera.

Or to hold a child's fickle attention, books must be colored and shaped like frogs, crocodiles and hippos--or pizza, sandwiches and hamburgers, with pages drawn as pickles, onions and other condiments.

At least that's what the experts who market children's books believe. And the razzle-dazzle doodads they are using to catch the eye of young readers and parents alike make many children's sections in chain bookstores look like toy shops.

Boys can play with "Busy Builders," a picture book with Tonka trucks and spinning wheels. Girls can braid, brush and spin fake hair into buns in a Barbie book about "princess pretty" hairdos.

The explosion of book-related gizmos and gadgets has sparked a growing debate among literacy experts and those in children's book publishing.

"There are so many bells and whistles, now it seems that if a book doesn't have a toy, something's wrong with it," said Lois Sarkisian, owner of Every Picture Tells a Story, an independent children's bookstore and book art gallery in the Fairfax district.

Most of the gimmicks, Sarkisian said, "are just fooling people into buying books."

Often at the expense of literacy, Sarkisian and others say. Dumbed-down books and gadgets lining shelves can obscure literature and distract children of all ages.

"Bubble gum and lip gloss do not help literacy," said MaryEllen Vogt, director of graduate studies in reading at Cal State Long Beach and past president of the California Reading Assn. "They do not engage children in fantasy play."

Vogt does support, and even buys, toys that are modeled after book characters and designed to encourage imagination. They include plush animals or dolls like Madeline, which she recently bought for her granddaughter.

"Those are wonderful," the Irvine resident said. "They're clearly linked to the stories, and they promote fantasy play and become a child's own little friend. But I draw the line with the purely commercial and crass exploitation of a book."

Use of Gimmicks Reflects Rising Trend

While parents may not mind such associations when the TV show and books are well-regarded--as is the case with Arthur, the wildly popular bespectacled aardvark--they object when children disregard reading and pay attention only to the toys. Some young Winnie the Pooh fans, for instance, have never read the stories, Vogt said.

The proliferation of toy books mirrors the growth in children's literature, an increasingly crowded field in which publishers must compete for consumer attention.

Publishers Weekly recently projected the dollar sales of children's books to increase 17.5%, from $2.63 billion in 1999 to almost $3.1 billion in 2002.

Children's publishers say that the rising popularity of wholesale and chain stores--from Barnes & Noble to Target to Zany Brainy, an educational toy store--has driven the demand for new ways to package books.

Add to those factors increased competition from TV, video games and the Internet and a healthy economy that allows parents to splurge on their children.

By all accounts, coupling books with merchandise or other gimmicks helps sales, especially if the toys are tied to television shows or movies, such as Walt Disney's "Winnie the Pooh." They also appeal to harried parents, who are willing to pay a premium for easy birthday and holiday gifts, publishers and booksellers say.

"It's an effective marketing tool," said Debra Williams, a spokeswoman with Barnes & Noble headquarters in New York.

Although publishers generally have no say on bookstore displays, those in the industry agree that arranging a book with a related product can garner prime shelf space while a plain book often gets lost in a corner on the bottom shelf.

Books Seek to Attract Attention

"Book publishing has to stay competitive to maintain its place" with consumers, who have an increasing number of options on how to spend their free time, said Tim Moses, director of publicity for children's books at Penguin Putnam, which produced the picture books shaped like a hamburger, sandwich and pizza.

"There's a lot of dreck out there," he said, "but not all kids love to read."

The idea is that toys or gadgets will initially attract a child's attention, with the hope of hooking him on an appealing story and reading in general, Moses and others say.

"Children's books exist for one reason, and one reason only, and that is to develop and nurture a love of reading," Moses said. "But it still comes down to the basics: What makes a book sell are good authors and illustrators."

Marilyn Robertson, a librarian with the Los Angeles Unified School District and president of the California School Librarian Assn., agreed.

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