Franklin: Million-dollar Turtle

 Paulette Bourgeois knew she had a hit on her hands when she opened the door one Halloween about five years ago and saw a little girl dressed as a turtle. "I'm not a Ninja Turtle," the trick-or-treater said emphatically. "I'm Franklin." Franklin, as millions of toddlers and young schoolchildren know, is the star of a series of 12 books written by Toronto-based Bourgeois and illustrated by Brenda Clark of Port Perry, Ont. The adventures of the tiny terrapin are commonplace - Franklin fears the dark, tells fibs, gets lost, acts bossy - but the books' winning texts and endearing illustrations have struck a responsive chord in children and parents alike. Since Franklin's 1986 debut, the series - aimed at children aged 3 to 7 - has sold more than six million copies in nine languages. The Toronto publisher, Kids Can Press, has spun off such merchandise as Franklin book bags, T-shirts and puppets, and it has recently licensed a Franklin educational CD-ROM.

And his lumpy but lovable green face is destined to hit TV screens in Franklin's own cartoon series. Late last month, Toronto's Nelvana, Canada's largest animation company and the maker of the Babar and Rupert cartoons, was in the process of acquiring film and merchandise rights to the character. It is all still a bit of a shock to Bourgeois, 44. "I could not have imagined a decade ago," she says, "that I'd be sitting here talking about Franklin dolls, film rights, CD-ROMs. I wrote one story and was thrilled that anybody wanted to publish it."

Before Franklin, Bourgeois was a freelance journalist and a new mother contemplating writing a children's book. She had researched the field, but had not been able to come up with the right character. One night, she was up late feeding her newborn daughter (Natalie, now 12) and watching a rerun of M.A.S.H. In the episode, the Hawkeye Pierce character refuses during a bomb attack to take shelter in a dark cave, pleading claustrophobia. "He said something like, 'Look, if I were a turtle, I'd be afraid to go into my shell,' " Bourgeois recalls. "And that was the genesis of Franklin in the Dark."

Within a week, Bourgeois had written the story and sent it off to one Canadian and various American publishers, all of whom rejected it. Then, she submitted it to the owners of Kids Can Press, Valerie Hussey and Ricky Englander, who expressed interest but told her the manuscript needed work. For a while, in its pre-publication life, the story was called A Turtle They Called Chicken and Franklin's name was nearly changed to Michael. But Franklin prevailed - and triumphed. Since then, young readers have followed him through many situations and growing-up stages, from Hurry Up, Franklin (1989) to Franklin Is Messy (1994) to the latest, Franklin and the Tooth Fairy, released this fall.

That success is due in no small part to the art of Brenda Clark. Clark, who had worked on educational texts before Kids Can asked her to illustrate a picture book, Sadie and the Snowman (1985), and then Franklin, says the story appealed to her immediately. Bourgeois and the publishers, meanwhile, gave her complete freedom to bring the character to life. "I like to make things believable, not realistic," says the soft-spoken 40-year-old artist. "I want kids to think that a character might walk right off the page, to believe that Franklin could actually exist beside a pond." Her illustrations amplify the turtle's emotions and include the kind of detail that delights small children: Franklin has a turtle clock on his bookcase and likes his pancakes to be dripping with maple syrup and a generous sprinkling of ladybugs.

Both Clark's and Bourgeois's children have grown up with Franklin and take his presence for granted. Bourgeois, who is separated, says that Natalie and 10-year-old Gordon seem to share a mixture of pride and embarrassment about her career. "When they were smaller, I used to give them my books to take as gifts to birthday parties," she recalls, laughing. "But after a while they began to balk and say, 'We can't take those! They're just Mommy books.' " According to her mother, Natalie has become an excellent editor who points out discrepancies in the manuscripts, and sometimes helps with the stories' resolutions. Meanwhile, Clark says that her child, five-year-old son Robin, hears the Franklin stories being read at school. But she does not think he quite understands her role in creating them. "He knows I do those drawings, but I think he thinks that all mothers do that," says Clark, who is married to Bob Courtice, a copy writer for signs.

Certainly, not all mothers have a four-books-a-year contract to fulfil. Clark and Bourgeois are now producing four new Franklin titles annually for Kids Can, which has a licensing agreement with the North American school book clubs run by New York City-based Scholastic. The U.S. clubs have sold anywhere from 350,000 to one million copies per title, while Kids Can sells about 100,000 copies of new titles in the first year in Canada, through retail outlets, book clubs and such specialized marketing as the Avon catalogue.

Both author and artist say they are concerned about keeping Franklin fresh and are wary of the books becoming formulaic "merchandise." At an early point in the Scholastic deal, the pair had thought that they could simply oversee the series while contracting out some of the work to other writers and illustrators. But the idea proved unworkable: neither was satisfied with the results, and they quickly re-established themselves as the hands-on creators (although Clark does get assistance in the production process).

Bourgeois points out that since thousands of books exist about the drama and dilemmas of young children, what matters is a distinctive approach. "What you have to do," she says, "is find an innovative, unconventional way to tell that story, and tell it with some emotional resonance and humor." In Franklin Fibs (1991), for example, the little green guy boasts to his friends that he can eat "76 flies in the blink of an eye." He consults with his parents about ways to escape from his lie, but eventually figures out on his own that he has to admit it to his companions. Then, to show them what he can do, he bakes a pie with 76 flies in it and gulps it down. "Very often, there's a kind of pedantry in children's books, with adults pointing out the lesson to be learned," says publisher Hussey. "We try hard to avoid that. Franklin's parents are there to support him, but he usually resolves it himself. That's a large part of the appeal."

Nevertheless, Franklin has had a few bumps along the way. Hussey speculates that some reviewers have ignored recent Franklin titles because they think the series has become too commercial. And there is some parodying of Franklin's earnestness within the KidLit community: mock titles such as "Franklin Comes Out of the Closet" and "Franklin Cross-dresses" have floated around a few gatherings. "I've even heard there's some naughty stuff on the Internet," says an amused Bourgeois.

Some of that may be envy of Franklin's creators - and of Hussey and Englander - who have achieved a measure of financial stability in a notoriously difficult industry. Hussey, 45, a transplanted New Yorker, took over the company in 1979, and Torontonian Englander, 51, became her partner in 1981. "We wanted to publish quality books, books that kids would like to get as birthday presents as opposed to books that adults think they should get," says Hussey. From a two-person operation, they have steadily built up the company to the point where it now pulls in $4.5 million annually in gross revenues, employs 16 full-time employees and dozens of freelancers, and enjoys an international reputation. And while Franklin may be their biggest seller, they publish an average of 35 titles a year, at least half of them nonfiction.

Neither is Franklin the only going concern for Bourgeois and Clark. This summer, Bourgeois released two science-information books with Kids Can called The Sun and The Moon, aimed at children aged 7 to 11 - bringing the total number of children's and preteen books she has written to 29. And Clark worked on an educational card-and-dice game called Picture Chase, which was named one of the top 10 toys by the Canadian Toy Testing Council this year. But it seems unlikely that Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark will soon walk away from their most famous offspring, even if he has been around for a decade. After all, as so many turtle-besotted children have reminded them, they are each "Franklin's mommy."

Maclean's December 11, 1995