Scaring Up Scads of Young Readers

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.

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."

When the series debuted in 1992, publishers viewed it as somewhat risky. It has no central character--like fictional heroine Nancy Drew--whom kids can latch onto. What's more, though scary stories have been around since the Brothers Grimm, "Goosebumps" was the first horror series for children under 12.

Scholastic built an audience for the books through its school book club, a powerful tool that reaches 70% of the nation's elementary schools. It shipped 100,000 copies of the first episode, "Welcome to Dead House." Now Scholastic ships a staggering 4 million "Goosebumps" a month, dominating the children's departments of bookstores. That is enough to supply a book to every 9-year-old in America.

Besides the original series, now up to 47 episodes, there are two spinoff serials written by ghostwriters: "Give Yourself Goosebumps," in which readers choose the story ending, and "Goosebumps Presents," based on the TV shows. (The shows, in turn, are based on the original stories). The spinoffs, introduced in 1995, sell at nearly the same rate as the originals.

"We love to talk about strategy, and believe me, a strategy evolved, but there is no way you could have strategized this kind of response from kids if you tried for 100 years," says Joan Waricha, president of Parachute Press, the company that owns the rights to "Goosebumps."

Waricha runs the firm with Stine's wife, Jane Stine. Together with R.L. Stine, they form an unusual trio. Though Parachute markets other books, including a series about the Power Rangers, 60% of its profit comes from books by R.L. Stine, including his macabre "Fear Street" series for teens. Waricha handles marketing chores while Jane Stine oversees editing of manuscripts.

While she doesn't edit "Goosebumps," Jane Stine edits her husband's "Fear Street" books, occasionally handing back manuscripts with the written comment: "Psychotic Ramblings." The Stines stopped writing books together after Jane ended a shouting match by locking her husband in a closet for 15 minutes.

R.L. Stine credits his wife and Waricha for pushing him to write "Goosebumps." "When I started this, I told them there would only be five plots, the mummy, the haunted house, the werewolf; we'd only do five of these," he says. "Today I'm working on No. 57 ('Ghost of Camp Cold Lake,' due out next summer). But," he says, in a self-mocking tone, "I was right. There are only five plots."

"And then Trigger's features began to transform. His forehead burst forward and enlarged. His eyes grew wide and round. . . ."

"Goosebumps" books had an edge when they were introduced because Stine already was an established horror writer for teens. Schoolchildren, eager to appear grown up, liked having books similar to those big kids were reading.

But the biggest single reason for the success of "Goosebumps" is that the series is read in great numbers by both girls and boys, defying conventional wisdom in the publishing business that boys from 7 to 12 don't read.

Most of the successful children's series in the last decade, such as "Sweet Valley High" and "Baby Sitters Club," have climbed onto bestseller lists because girls liked them. Series written for boys have flopped, including one by Stine about space academy trainees.

With boys and girls reading, "Goosebumps" sales figures have soared.

"It is amazing, absolutely," says Nancy Maxwell, director of marketing for the Crown Books chain, where 11 "Goosebumps" titles are among the chain's Top 20 children's books. Maxwell got a firsthand look at the trend when she took her 7-year-old nephew to the New Jersey shore in June and watched him spend the afternoon engrossed in "Goosebumps."

"He didn't go near the water," says Maxwell. "When we left, he said he had 12 pages to go."

Why boys are drawn to "Goosebumps" is a matter of conjecture. Some publishing executives believe that after a decade of video games, boys are looking for something new. Others think boys were lured by the colorful book covers, which depict skeleton families and oozing green slime.

Author Stine attributes the books' overall appeal to what he calls "safe scares." He likens the stories to a roller coaster in which riders bite their knuckles on the dips and curves but always land without mishap.

"You know how it is going to end before you get on," he says. "It's a fast, exciting ride that lets you off safe and sound at the end. The books have the same kind of thrill."

Children are less analytical. "They are fun to read," says Frankie, the third-grader. "Sometimes," he confides, with a little smile, "they give me the chills."

Publishing executives say mere thrills and chills don't account for the enormous popularity. They say the books have become collectibles to show off, like Pogs or Hello Kitty accessories.

"It's what is in fashion, like having the right sneaker," says Beverly Horowitz, vice president and editor in chief at Bantam Doubleday Dell. "This notion filters down to even the young kids. They know the books are popular, and they want them to look like they are in the in crowd."

Take 7-year-old Shannon Cabbell. Because she is too young to read the 100-plus page "Goosebumps" books, her parents read them to her at bedtime, one chapter each night.

Shannon learned about the books from an older friend, says her mother, Dana Cabbell. Now Shannon has 20 books, a "Goosebumps" shirt and a video library of taped "Goosebumps" TV shows.

"I like them because they are scary," says Shannon, her eyes widening. "Really scary."

"Fangs slid from his gaping mouth, and he uttered another howl to the sky, louder and more chilling than the first. He's a monster!"

Rival publishers are trying to tap into the newfound appetite for horror with series of their own, such as "Bone Chillers" and "Barf-O-Rama" and "Gooflumps," a parody by fictitious author R.U. Slime. In a deal with Parachute Press, Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books unit is touting "Ghost of Fear Street," a horror series for kids ghostwritten for Stine.

According to the publishers, "Goosebumps" sales continue to grow even as Simon & Schuster ships 300,000 to 500,000 "Ghost of Fear Street" books a month, an indication that the name R.L. Stine is becoming a brand, like "Goosebumps."

Anxious to encourage reading, some educators and parents are helping to boost "Goosebumps" sales. Though she reads "The Hobbit" aloud to expose her students to more highbrow literature, Yorba Linda teacher Chandler keeps her classroom stocked with "Goosebumps" so kids also will read on their own.

"I don't know if it's a fad, but it's not a video . . . or an action figure," says Matt McConnell, 35, who financed son Matt's collection. "It's a book, and they have to sit down and read them."

Still, "Goosebumps" is not without critics. Jan Kristo, a professor of literacy and education at the University of Maine, says the books contain weak plots and grammatical errors, making them poor examples for children learning to write.

"If kids are reading only that stuff, it won't help their writing at all," says Kristo. "Good writing is tied to reading."

Some parents complain that the "Goosebumps" habit is getting expensive. Prices have risen 35% since 1992, to $3.99 from $2.95 each, an increase Scholastic says is in line with the industry.

"Every time we go to the mall, he wants to go into the bookstore," says Nina Hashimy, who took her 7-year-old son to the Arcadia library to check out "Goosebumps" books. "I'm here to save some money."

Purists have rapped commercialism that includes not only a TV show, but a Milton Bradley board game. (The Hasbro unit acquired the license after Vice President John Gildea noticed his 8-year-old daughter with "Goosebumps.") An upcoming promotional tie-in with PepsiCo units Taco Bell and Frito Lay has drawn criticism from activists who say children's books shouldn't be used to promote junk food.

In the end, such tactics could hasten the inevitable decline of "Goosebumps," which already has surpassed the life expectancy of many kid fads.

"Once you put it on TV and merchandise it in every possible way, the property gets younger," Waricha concedes.

"As soon as your little brother picks up your book, that's it. The older kids don't want it anymore," says Nancy Pines, vice president and associate publisher at Simon & Schuster, which publishes Stine's "Fear Street" series. Its slogan: After "Goosebumps," walk on "Fear Street."

Ten-year-old Brandon Towner isn't ready to do that just yet. At a Barnes & Noble in Pasadena with $5 to spend, he examines one "Goosebumps" book after another, trying to decide which to buy. He's been using his allowance to buy "Goosebumps" since November, when he read his first one, "Werewolf of Fever Swamp."

Finally, he chooses "Under the Magician's Spell," his 19th book because, he says "it looks good."

It might even have a plot twist like this one:

"A monster!" Evan cried. And woke up. . . . It had all been a dream. . . ."

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.
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