When the publisher becomes an author
Scholastic Book Clubs President Judy Newman writes 'Bobs and Tweets' series under pseudonym
NEW MARLBOROUGH — The prospect of writing a book is intimidating. But the thought of writing a children's book when you're the president of Scholastic Book Clubs is downright scary.
"I'm supposed to be an expert in children's books, and I was terrified," New Marlborough part-timer Judy Newman said of starting her "Bobs and Tweets" series. "I wouldn't talk to anybody about this, my family. I didn't tell anyone. It was bad."
Her initial experience as an author wasn't particularly inspiring. She chose a pseudonym, Pepper Springfield, that she now regrets, and her first book, "Meet the Bobs and Tweets," didn't sell well upon its publication by Scholastic in 2016. But that didn't stop Newman from continuing to write and, eventually, going public with her pen name. On Aug. 1, her series' fourth installment, "Scout Camp," hit shelves, continuing to explore the relationship between two seemingly opposite families — the neat Tweets and messy Bobs — as they attempt to complete a team-building exercise at an outdoor retreat. Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, the latest edition of the humorous book series arrived just in time for a new school year, another year that Scholastic Book Clubs will be offering vital reading material to students and teachers across the country through its famous distribution model.
"These are the catalogs that we create for each of the teachers, these massive things, and then inside of them are multiple copies of these different individual flyers that the kids get," Newman said, thumbing through some of Scholastic's sales copy inside her office at The Whip Shop.
The Southfield studio and office complex is just down the road from where Newman and her family spend weekends. The rest of the time, she lives in Montclair, N.J., and works in Manhattan at the iconic children's publisher behind "The Hunger Games," "Harry Potter" and "Clifford the Big Red Dog" franchises. But Scholastic is perhaps better known for its book fairs and book clubs divisions, the latter of which dates back to 1948. Scholastic Book Clubs allows students to choose titles that their parents then order from catalogs distributed by teachers. In turn, these teachers can earn free books for their classrooms. Many readers undoubtedly have fond childhood memories of their books arriving in boxes at school.
"I used to get the book orders when I was a kid. I remember them coming," Newman said, recalling an order of Elisabeth Ogilvie's "Blueberry Summer."
Scholastic Book Clubs' presence remains alive and well today. According to the company's website, more than 800,000 teachers across the country use the distribution channel. Like the rest of the publishing industry, Scholastic has had to adapt to digital upheaval, and Newman has been at the fore of that shift. Thanks to the creation of Clubs Ordering On-Line (COOL) and Parent COOL initiatives that she oversaw, parents and teachers alike can now complete their steps in the process online. Still, the executive values the physical visits she makes to schools.
"We live in a lovely bubble here, but there are places where kids have no books," she said.
Growing up in Newton, Newman didn't have that problem.
"We were all about books," she recalled of her family's reading habits. "I could read anything I wanted, and I read everything."
After graduating from Connecticut College in 1979, Newman decided to attend the Radcliffe Publishing Course, known today as the Columbia Publishing Course. Initially, she worked in publicity, traveling with Joan Rivers and Gay Talese, before receiving an MBA from New York University. She subsequently started Bantam Doubleday Dell's Trumpet Club, a children's book distribution business intended to compete with Scholastic.
"Eventually, Scholastic kept shouting out, 'Come! Come over!'" Newman recalled.
She started at Scholastic in 1993 and has served on boards for Reach Out and Read and Book Trust in the years since. Though phones and other technology have posed new challenges to engaging young readers, learning differences have long been a substantial obstacle.
"We have kids captive until about the second or third grade. ... They're excited to read when they're little. But then what starts to happen is, if you're not a good reader, you get left behind. The books get hard. You can't pronounce the words. You feel stupid, and you don't want to read baby books because your world is pretty big and complicated," Newman said. "... So, this gap between ability to read and interest widens, and we lose them, and kids feel dumb and parents don't feel competent to pick the right books. Even my friends, they're like, 'What books should I be getting?'"
For Newman, "demystifying of the whole process" and "making sure kids have fun interesting books to read even if they're not super readers" is vital. When she began writing her own series, she knew that using rhyme would help bridge some of those learning gaps.
"We know from all the studies we do, humor is huge for motivation, and rhyming makes it easy — hard to write, easier to read," she said.
The Bobs and the Tweets concept stemmed from a desire to show the value in overcoming differences.
"I'm always fascinated about what's behind the scenes in kids' minds, and also, how not everybody's the same," she said, adding, "How do we learn to work together?"
During her trips to schools, teachers' work ethics have buoyed her, and when she gives out books, she often feels better about her other role in publishing.
"When they ask me for 'Bobs and Tweets,'" Newman said, "then I feel good about it."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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