Licensing Deals and Brand Extensions: Richard Scarry’s Busytown

As a part-time business instructor, I find book-based licensing deals fascinating. I’d love to know how much Warner Bros. is raking in from licensing arrangements for J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. And then there is Disney’s licensing of its version of Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Still, it seems like there are far fewer licensing deals that originate with picture books and hold true to the original artwork and characters. Of course there is Curious George and the Hungry Caterpillar, but these examples are few and far between.

One exception is my children’s current obsession: Richard Scarry and Busytown. We’ve been reading Richard Scarry books for years. What Do People Do All Day? is a recent favorite. Scarry’s books are rich in detail. For example in “Building a New House,” Scarry shows how the pipes bring in clean water to the house and carry dirty water to the sewer. “Wood and How We Use It” reveals how a sawmill works, including the water wheel, saws and scrap lumber piles that later get turned into paper. My five-year-old eats up the “how things work” element of Scarry’s books.

I’m not sure how we stumbled across TV’s Busytown Mysteries, based on Richard Scarry’s books. However, one glimpse, and the children were hooked. The animation and characters seem to have jumped off of Scarry’s pages. Each episode challenges the children to make observations and solve a mystery, like who stole the muffins or what happened to the pickle car. Looking closely and finding interesting things are activities Scarry’s books invite children to perform, so the show is in keeping with the spirit of the books too.

My three-year-old sings the show’s theme song constantly. Even on the potty. At the top of his lungs. “There’s no doubt we can work it all out with Huckle….and Busytown!” Given the Busytown obsession, I was immediately on the lookout when my friend Sarah mentioned a that there was a Richard Scarry Busytown board game.

The game is a perfect extension of the Richard Scarry brand. The 6-foot game board is packed with pictures of Busytown, just like the books. The game is cooperative: everyone must work together to reach Picnic Island before the pigs steal all the food. Along the way the children get to work together to solve mysteries and earn bonus points. For example, they use magnifying glasses to find as many kites, ice cream cones or bicycles as they can around the town. It forces them to look carefully. Working together, they find more of the required objects. The game is a lot of fun for two to four players. It’s even won a Parent’s Choice award.

So, I’m curious, what’s your favorite licensing deal or extension of a children’s picture book? Why don’t picture book characters translate into more toys, games, TV shows and other products especially when there is such a market?

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9 Replies to “Licensing Deals and Brand Extensions: Richard Scarry’s Busytown”

  1. Ian Falconer’s OLIVIA has been branded very well. The show on Nick Jr is clever and fits the tone of the books. The Nick Jr website has activities, coloring pages and games. There are plush toys, jewelry boxes, tea sets and jack in the boxes for sale, too!

  2. This is a good question, Kirsten, and I don’t know the answer. Personally, I think Phyllis would make a great stuffed animal and there’s all kinds of potential for playing games with her 🙂 But with a few exceptions – Olivia as mentioned above, Skippyjon Jones, Lilly for a while although I haven’t seen her recently – most picture books don’t seem to go this way and you’d think they would – what more perfect audience for expanding on make-believe?

  3. I just find it very interesting. I think part of the problem is that picture book writers on the whole may not be as savvy in this regard. But I think we could educate ourselves. Let’s take the movie, “Cars 2” as an example. My boys watched the movie. We bought the DVD and watched the movie a billion times. We have the LEGOs. We have vehicles of various sizes. Now, we have “Cars 2” books, both easy readers and Little Golden Books. It’s a virtuous circle, the more they play with the toys, the more they want to watch the movie and read the books. Then we buy activity books and t-shirts and underwear. It seems like good licensing deals could actually encourage children to read more and buy more books. And by the way, Susanna, I want a Phyllis t-shirt to wear on Groundhog Day.

  4. This is such a timely post for me because my PB, The ABC’s of Cancer According to Lilly Isabella Lane will be coming out this Spring/Summer. The publisher is Inkspotter publishing and they have commissioned a coloring book to go along with this but I have so many more ideas of where this could go particularly for children and friends of children who have cancer. The PB has many off shoot ideas regarding gifts for kids with cancer or who are ill, friendship gifts, journals, a stuffed kitten, a stuffed kangaroo ( helps the character get through her chemo) and quilts ( a pattern book from the character encouraging kids to make quilts for friends would be another off shoot product.) and future fiction books with the character and her friends. I am sure it is timing and finding just the right agent, publisher, or contact that can see the vision and the market. Unfortunately, children with cancer or other critical illnesses are not considered as a target audience as witness to what little is available to help them read and express what they go through.

      1. Thanks, that sounds like a great idea. I know I have entertained the idea too, just waiting for the book to come out. There is such a need for meaningful products for this target market.

  5. My kid’s are really into Thomas the Tank Engine. They have Thomas pillow cases, Legos, toy trains… you name it. I think it enhances their pretend play. They make up their own stories with their favorite characters.
    They also like the Busytown Mystery series (as well as the books), I bet they would like the board game you mentioned here.

    1. Yes, Hannah, after I wrote this, I thought of Thomas. Good catch! I hate to admit it, but I’ve never read the original books. Is the cartoon similar to the original books or have the illustrations been changed substantially like Curious George? I am having a hard time thinking of a picture book with substantial licensing that didn’t involve a movie or TV show along the way (except for Eric Carle).

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