Marketing: A 'Little House' Makeover

Sometimes it's good that you can't judge a book by its cover. This month, for the "Little House" books' 75th anniversary, the first eight stories appear with photos of models as Laura instead of with the Garth Williams illustrations. (The text is unchanged.) "Girls might feel the Garth Williams art is too old-fashioned," says Tara Weikum, executive editor for the "Little House" series. "We wanted to convey the fact that these are action-packed. There were dust storms and locusts. And they had to build a cabin from scratch." (The new tag line: "Little House, Big Adventure.")

Publishers are altering cover art--often tied to anniversaries and movies--to appeal to kids weaned on videos and computer games. The thinking is that children are more likely to pick up "Charlotte's Web" with Dakota Fanning on it than with Williams's illustration of a girl and a pig, or Newbery winner "Bridge to Terabithia" with a scene from the Disney movie (in theaters next month). "A Wrinkle in Time" is getting two different new covers. "Purists are often upset. But this is also a way for publishers ... to beef up sales," says Diane Roback, children's editor for Publishers Weekly. "The book jackets we as adults are accustomed to seeing, and love from our childhood, may look musty and dusty to today's kids." Allison Edheimer, 9, wants the photo version of the "Little House" series. "I'd rather read something where I can picture the person," she says. Rachael Ross, 10, agrees: "I like seeing real people better than drawings," she says. "Drawings look sort of fake."

Sometimes the changes seem sacrilegious. And yet, as Weikum notes, artist Helen Sewell actually illustrated the first eight "Little House" books; Garth Williams re-illustrated them in 1953. "They do walk this fine line between trying to make them contemporary enough to appeal to today's audience but at the same time to have enough of a nostalgia factor to remind parents and grandparents they want to share these books with their families," says Ilene Cooper, children's books editor for the American Library Association's Booklist review journal.