Marlon Bundo and the Market for 21st-Century American Children’s Book Publishing

Am I the only person who remembers last March’s tempest in a tea pot about how Last Week Tonight with John Oliver hustled into print a picture book about BOTUS Marlon Bundo (Bunny of the United States) a day before the one by his owners Charlotte and Karen Pence, wife and daughter of Vice President Pence, was to be issued?  Independent booksellers called out Oliver for choosing Amazon as the distributor of a heart-warming but barbed story about the courtship and marriage of the rabbits Marlon and Wesley.  Its author Jill Twiss pointedly dedicated it to “every bunny who has ever felt different” and the last line is “it doesn’t matter if you love a girl bunny or a boy bunny, or eat your sandwich backward or forward.”  The first printing sold out overnight and for weeks Amazon couldn’t fulfill orders and offered no ship date without apologies.  I lost patience and got a copy within a few days from a small independent bookstore in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Oliver and  Company got its fifteen minutes of fame  until the media moved on to less amusing but more important events as they erupted on the national scene.  The two books have continue to sell. Today on Amazon’s list of the one hundred best-selling children’s books about rabbits, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo is number two after Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd. Numbers four, seven, eight, and nine are, respectively Dorothy Kunhardt’s Pat the Bunny, Margery Bianco’s The Velveteen Rabbit, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, and Brown’s The Runaway Bunny The Pences’ Marlon Bundo made number thirty-four, barely ahead of the Kindle edition of Last Week Tonight’s Marlon Bundo and Bunnicula in a Box.  I won’t compare these titles because it would be breaking buttterflies on wheels.  It won’t be long until  the field will be left to Bianco, Brown, and Potter.  Those conventional plots and pleasant but forgettable illustrations will not make either book is going to be a contender for the 2018 Caldecott Medal, whatever your politics.

John Oliver’s baiting the vice president for his views on gay marriage was the only angle the media covered.   Nobody thought to cover it as a formidable case of industrial espionage: just how did the Last Week Tonight team obtain advance knowledge of the Pences’ book and rush their illustrated satire through the press on time.  The Marlon Bundo affair is also, I think, a timely and salutory reminder that the prevailing view of the children’s book market centers on firms with mainstream liberal values.  We are much more likely to have heard of Chronicle Books, the publisher of A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, than Regnery Kids, the publisher of Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President.

Thanks to John Oliver and his merry pranksters, I  realized I had became aware of the conservative book publisher’s existence when buying political children’s books during the 2016 election, but didn’t make the connection in March.   The motto of Regnery Kids is “Great Americans of today inspiring great Americans of tomorrow” and its brand consists of children’s books that are “non-partisan, entertaining, brilliantly written and illustrated by award-winning authors and artists.”  Its stable includes Fox News personalities such as Janice Dean and Rachel Campos Duffy and the nation’s ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich, creator of the Ellis the Elephant series.  Regnery’s Little Patriot’s Press has at least six titles featuring Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts characters.

Regnery is no newcomer to conservative publishing.  Founded in 1947, it has published notable writers like Russel Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr.,  and Donald Trump. Since 1993, it has been a part of Eagle Publishing,  a subsidiary of  Salem Media Group, which is owned by the very successful and wealthy Christian broadcasters Edward G. Atsinger II and his brother-in-law Stuart Epperson.  Who knew?

For the benefit of future  scholars of twenty-first century American children’s book publishing, the collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library really should include good samples of books produced by firms like Regnery Kids, along with the better-known award-winning authors and illustrators, which have traditionally set the ethos and aesthetics for the genre.  Silently passing over Regnery would be like refusing to collect the eighteenth-century children’s book publisher John Marshall because of his involvement in the Cheap Repository Tract project masterminded by archconservative Evangelist Hannah More to make sure the masses had reading that wouldn’t radicalize them….


A Very Rare Book, or, “Paint the Picture and Tear it out of the Book”

What’s a “rare book”?

Cover of the first edition of Harry Potter (Cotsen 36550).  Note the British version of the title.

That’s a question that’s often asked of people who work with rare books and special collections. Publications like the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio come to mind (although some might argue that the First Folio isn’t all that “rare” in rare-book terms, since some 234 copies are known to remain in existence to this day (out of an initial print run variously estimated between 750 and 1200 copies).

What about rare children’s books?  A first edition of Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit, signed by the author, might come to mind.  Or a signed copy of the very first 1865 edition of Alice in Wonderland (properly titled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), withdrawn from circulation after some 48 copies had been given away, mostly by Lewis Carroll, because of John Tenniel’s dissatisfaction with the printing of the illustrations.  Only a handful of copies remain in existence today.  How about the very first edition of a Harry Potter book — titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when first issued in England — printed for a then-unknown writer named J.K. Rowling in an initial issue of some 300 copies, most donated to libraries to see if young readers liked the book.  (You know the answer to that question!)  Cotsen Library has copies of all these books, by the way — a real testament to the breadth of the collection!

So, not all “rare” books are old; not all are elaborately printed, bound, or illustrated; and not all are even meant for adults.  It’s also with pointing out that not all “rare” titles  are household names today or written by famous authors; some aren’t even “books” at all in the technical sense of the term.  Many of the rarest items in Cotsen’s collection are books almost nobody remembers now, or books published anonymously; who would want to go out of their way to treasure, read, or even keep things like that?  (Apart from a rare book library, or course!).  How many people today are clamoring to own, or even read, books like Bertha’s Visit to her Uncle in England, Frank Netherton, Nedra, or Elsie Dinsmore?  How many people have even heard of them?  Not me, I have to admit, until I found them in the the library catalog.  Yet those books once had their day and were read by children.

The History of Thomas Thumb, 1797 (Cotsen 1346). Upper cover of a chapbook-style children’s book with “self wrappers.”

Many now-rare children’s books are cheap ephemeral publications, such as chapbooks or pamphlet books, issued without bindings in the usual sense of the term, sometimes in colored-paper wrappers or even using using their own first and last pages as wrappers of sorts for the reading matter continued inside.  They were inexpensive  (often costing only a penny or two apiece), cheaply constructed, and reading matter that people often seem to have read and discarded, or literally read to death and then tossed away.  A book costing a penny is a lot less likely to have been regarded as important to hold onto and preserve than was a book costing, say, $1, £1, or $10, a purchase sometimes representing a decent chunk of a buyer’s disposable cash. But they filled an important niche for readers.

In terms of other types of children’s books that can often be rare today, some were issued in connection with a particular event — an Arctic expedition or Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, for instance.  Once the resonance of the event faded, a publication that it prompted might well seem like yesterday’s news, and who wants yesterday’s papers?  And some children’s books might well entail marking up, painting in, or even cutting apart the illustrations or the pages themselves to make paper toys or pictures to hang on the wall by a happy parent or even to mail in to a contest. Such books become literally “self-consuming artifacts” in the process of being read or used by children.

Upper wrapper of the Victoria Painting Book [ca. 1897?]. (Cotsen 30251)

A case-in-point is the Victoria Painting Book, issued in connection with a 1897 painting contest for British children, but lacking a publication date, author or illustrator name, or even any indication of the publisher.  This book fulfills a number of the “criteria” for rarity outlined above, and a quick search online suggests that Cotsen’s copy may be the only one to be found in a library now. (Not to be confused with Cassell’s 1897 Victoria Painting Book for Little Folks!)

The blatantly patriotic — and brightly chromolithographed — cover of the book depicts a Boer War veteran having returned home, his helmet tossed on the ground, and his daughter sitting on his lap reading to him, with his sailor-suited son standing next to them, holding a large Union Jack.  One facing pair of illustrations inside the book — captioned “Home Again” — depicts the happy moment of the veteran’s homecoming to his family.  (The girl’s abruptly-dropped doll hitting the floor and the child’s drawing hanging on the wall add a couple of nice touches to the family reunion, which a great many families did not get to savor, due to heavy casualties in the Boer War’s protracted fighting.)

“Returning Home”: Chromolithograph and facing illustration to paint.

But most of the subject matter in the book — combining facing chromolithographs and uncolored versions to paint with alphabet rhymes — is not about patriotism or warfare, but about sick or injured children and the Victoria Hospital for Children, which the book was printed to benefit, as noted on the foot of the cover.

“Street Accident”: A child hit by a carriage is rescued by a friendly-looking London copper, while a crowd (comprised of mostly children) looks on.

“Morning Round”: A friendly-looking nurse in the Children’s Hospital attends to a smiling child, who is also surrounded by flowers and toys.

Accordingly, most of the illustrations depict injured children (with a sentimentality that would have made Dickens proud) or children in the hospital, injured or sick to be sure, but looking surprisingly happy against the backdrop of a very, very neat and tidy, altogether impressive-looking hospital with caring nurses.  “The stately old home … is now a children’s hospital: the rooms are full of cots, each with its tiny sick child, and up and down go the nurses, busy with their work… It takes a lot of money to build such a hospital” (in the words of the accompanying two-page “Victoria Hospital Story” in the book). Who wouldn’t be moved to buy a book or donate money to support such a wonderful, caring institution for children?

“Paint the picture … and tear it out of the book…”

The Victoria Painting Book was issued so that its sales proceeds might benefit the children’s hospital.  The text of the book itself also asks child-readers to raise money themselves (“If each child who reads this book would collect twelve pennies towards it, that would go some way to pay for bricks and stones and mortar”).  As if that’s not enough fund-raising inspiration, the book also advertises a painting competition on several pages inside, whereby children are solicited to “tear out” and mail in a completed version of the Prize Competition Picture from the book (a Christmas scene at the end), along with ten shillings (presumably in cash), in hopes of winning £5, 2£, or 1£ prizes.  I have to wonder how many books were discarded after the picture and required entry form pages were torn out, the book perhaps fell apart as a result, and other pictures were colored in.  Perhaps that’s one reason why it’s so rare now?

Prize Competition Picture: Chromolithographed model illustration for contestants to copy with their painting.

Multiple contest entries are explicitly encouraged, with a “special prize” (unspecified) to be awarded to the “competitor who sends in the largest number of paintings for competition” — buying multiple copies of the book in the process!  Perhaps it’s the cynicism of our time, but this sort of thing reminds me a bit of Soupy Sales crossed with the old Chicago political machine (“Mail in those green bills in Daddy’s wallet and Mommy’s purse to Uncle Soupy,” and “Vote early, and often!”).   As if anticipating such a jaundiced view of their charity efforts, the two-page Painting Competition rules and instructions has the heading: “Please remember that although you may not win a prize, you have done a good action in helping the hospital by competing.” The rules do specify that the “names of prize winners” will be published in “The Gentlewoman,” “The Queen” and the “Morning Post,” but I haven’t yet been able to verify that tidbit of information, or the names of the lucky winners.

The rules pages also list the mailing  address for ordering additional copies of the book and its price: 1 shilling — placing the book in the same general price-range as chromolithographed “toy books” of the time, which usually had fewer pages than the twenty-four-leaf Painting Book, though.  (The mailing address — the Hospital’s — suggests that this book may not have been sold via traditional children’s booksellers.)

“Added value” in the Painting Book is provided by four pages of illustrated, sepia-toned alphabet rhymes, customized for this book.

First two pages of facing alphabet rhymes in the Victoria Painting Book

One of my favorite pair of rhymes is: F is for “funds, alas, almost nil; / Will nobody help us to fill up the till?” and “G is the gold we should like to see poured / In nice shining heaps, on the Hospital board.”

“M is for our Matron… N speaks for the Nurses… O, the Out-patients, who throng to the door… P the patients, who each had a bed…

Note how the alphabet rhyme finesse the letters W, X,Y, Z — always-troublesome in terms of illustrative words and illustrations!  Also worth noting is the number of children the rhymes specify as having been served by the Hospital over a period of some thirty years, — thirty thousand patients and a million outpatients — a staggering total, and numbers echoing those in the prose narrative “History.”  Were these numbers meant to impress child-readers and be remembered by them, were they meant for their parents or other adults, or were they included by a harried copywriter just to fill out the rhymes?

Railway ABC, Warne, 1890. (Cotsen 30407)

The Victoria Painting Book is an unusual publication in lacking any information whatsoever about the date, publisher, or printer.  Early books for children sometimes lacked this information, but by the nineteenth century, publishers realized this was a valuable source of advertising — and also protection of intellectual property.  We can infer an initial publication date of about 1897 from the context of the contest.

But who was the publisher?  I think it’s almost certainly Frederick Warne & Co.  The Cotsen copy came into the collection along with a batch of books from the Warne Archive publisher’s archive copies. (But publishers did keep tabs on competitors and prior publishers; the Warne publisher’s archive contained some Routledge books, for instance, which also came into the Cotsen collection.)

The Victoria Painting Book looks a lot like many other Warne publications of the time, for instance the circa 1890 Railway ABC toy book (Cotsen 30407).  Compare the  chromolithographed upper wrappers of the two publications.  Apart from the strongly patriotic motif (admittedly, not Warne’s exclusive province), the overall layout, cover design, and use of color seems “typically Warne.”  Perhaps more importantly, several contemporary serial publications listing books in print include the Victoria Painting Book under Warne publications — and specify that the title is indeed the one issued to benefit the Victoria Hospital, thus eliminating possible ambiguities about similarly titled books.  (These publications include “The Publisher’s Circular” from 1904 and “British Books in Print” from 1906.)

Victoria Children’s Hospital as depicted on lower wrapper of the Painting Book.

The fact that the Victoria Painting Book was still in print — and presumably available for purchase — in 1904 and 1906 raises questions about just how popular the title was  (unless of course my date attribution of ca. 1897 is off).

Were copies of the book unsold and the title still “in print” over five years later?  Or was it so popular that the book was reprinted again, possibly with Warne’s imprint?  Lacking other copies to compare to Cotsen’s copy or further “books in print” information, I can’t answer those questions now.  All I can say with relative certainly is that the Victoria Painting Book is one very, very rare book now, and one whose illustrations and overall design present a fascinating window into not only children’s book production in this era, but also the look of high Victorian life.

Victoria Painting Book: High Victorian fashion as exemplified by the Hospital’s benefactors.