My 1994 The M & M’s® Counting Book started as a lesson plan. I certainly wasn’t the only teacher with a sweet-tooth and a little creativity. Teachers everywhere were embracing hands-on math activities with everything from Goldfish crackers to peanuts…because it made learning fun. Little, colorful candies that every student from ages 3 on up instantly recognized as yummy engaged them instantly in any math task at hand...in hand...and maybe as a special treat...in mouth.
I would like to say I acted on a good idea. I didn’t. I only did the creative part. The creative part is not a big deal in publishing. Millions of people have great ideas for children’s stories and picture books. If you think you have had an original idea the odds are overwhelming that someone somewhere has had that same idea. But, if you have the patience, persistence, or perhaps a husband on a mission, a friend of a friend, right place, right time...you can get it done. It’s not easy.
As most good ideas often do, it spawned from boredom. One evening I brought a package of M & M’s® to our basement. I was hiding from my mother-in-law who was living with us at the time. I settled on the couch to try to think of a different lesson to teach “colors” to my class of 4 and 5 year olds. Nothing. So, while thinking of nothing I spilled the candy out on the coffee table and started playing with them. I counted the colors and paired them up. Suddenly I saw. I wrote. I ate. Then, being a teacher, I laminated. Large construction paper M & M’s®. I brought the poem and my home-made manipulatives to class.
Suddenly 3 and four year olds could sit long enough to get the concept of colors, graphing, greater than, less then, addition, subtraction, etc. The amazing thing--no chocolate needed. Even back in the 80’s teachers knew that you couldn’t feed any amount of sweets to children without wiggly repercussions. It wasn’t and still isn’t necessary. Paper images of the candies were just fine--as long as they had the white “M’s” on them. Children chose their “favorite” color. When they chose the giant plastic image the question followed, “What color is that?” The questions and comparisons were endless. The learning was exciting and contemporary.
As far as me going on to find a publisher and really believing that this idea would become a piece of children’s literature--no. I did nothing. It involved licensing - permission to use a world-wide product and their famous brand icon. There were phone calls and contracts. I had a baby and a toddler, and I was very happy teaching.
It was my husband who read the poem and said, “This would make a great book”. It became his hobby. On first approach to M & M Mars (now Masterfoods, Inc.), the answer was “no.” They liked the book very much, since it promoted their product for education, but the company did not have an “avenue - licensing division” in place. In fact, the same year we applied for permission was the same year Steven Spielberg applied to use M & M’s® in the movie, ET. They said “no” to him, too! So that was my claim to fame...Steven Spielberg and I got refused by Masterfoods. And that was fine with me. Mr. Spielberg went on to use Reece’s Pieces and my husband simply waited. Eight years later...Masterfoods opened their licensing division and he got permission to publish. He then set out to find a publisher who also believed the book was a great idea. Thirty-five rejection letters and two years later...he found one! Many publishers were scared off, ironically, by the licensing contracts--they had never seen a book of this type before. There weren’t any. The M &M’s® Counting Book started a new genre of children’s books: Snack Food Books. The year it was finally released it made the Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller List and won The Teacher’s Choice Award from Learning Magazine. Math programs embraced it and college professors used it to teach perspective teachers how to teach. The first review was horrible, to which my husband said, “Well, they spelled your name right.”
The manuscript spent 2 years in production at Charlesbridge. From the time I wrote the poem to publication...twelve years had passed. And in those early years we were dealing with a major corporation who knew as little about publishing as we did about licensing. It was a learning experience in itself.
I felt appreciative that the book was the first “licensed product” from this huge family-owned company. It was a humbling opportunity. But I must confess I never felt the love. I never had a problem paying for use to their trademark. The book would not be the same without the “M.” And children love those M & M’s® TV characters with attitude. It’s what sells their product and mine. As licensing fees and royalty percentages increased, we tried to explain that this was children’s literature, not a mug or a t-shirt. It didn’t matter--corporate policy. Yet, I was bringing their product brand name in to places where they couldn’t get it--to schools. I ask Masterfoods to sponsor my school visits to inner city schools that could not afford to bring in an author as a literacy enrichment program. “No. We are giving to breast cancer this year,” which is of course, commendable. My response: “I’m sure you can do both.” But that corporate policy plagued me. It was frustrating for all involved.
For years, during the talk of “advertising to children” controversy, The M & M’s® Book remained “under the radar” because it’s merit seemed to outweighed the controversy. To learn to love to read, you need to get children to turn the page. Maybe people were just being polite, but when I visited schools, I never heard a negative comment, and teachers usually don’t hold anything back. One special education teacher in South Carolina told me because of The M&M’s® Book, her class had reached their goal of counting to ten, 6 months early. I choked back tears. While signing books at a reading conference, a recently retired teacher told me her colleague had died the month before and requested to be buried with my book. I had no words. One middle school student in New Jersey told me she wanted to become a math teacher because of the book. She said she slept with it when she was little.
I am blessed to have countless boxes of fan mail about this book. I traveled nation-wide to show the writing process, to inspire children to read and write, and to tell them that when they have to correct or change something they aren’t making “mistakes,” they are making a “change” which is part of the process...and though I have many books in fiction and non-fiction I still show The M & M’s® Counting Book. It’s fun.
Over the years The M & M’s® Book went on to sell over a million copies. I heard it saved the trade division of Charlesbridge Publishing, which made me happy and proud. It opened doors for them in sales in places like Walmart and Target. Not bad for a smaller publishing house. They took a chance and won big. As far as the writer,I will answer the question: I didn’t build an empire and make a million dollars. Not even close. The formula is that a children’s author would need 12 books on the market at the same time--all selling briskly to make a living off royalties. Dr. Seuss made a living from sales. The shelf life of a children’s picture book is maybe 2 years before it’s out-of-print.
My M & M’s® Book had a great run of ten years. Because it’s “off the shelf,” I can’t afford the price it now sells for on Amazon!
The key to every problem our country needs to solve is education. When an issue such as nutrition and obesity in children was being legitimately addressed, we saw the problem, raised awareness, then did what we always do: take the extreme--stop everything. No cupcakes for birthdays, no soda in high schools, no trail mix. I fear we might be creating “forbidden fruit” hoping for a quick fix. It is destined to be a failed solution. Eventually, the pendulum swings to the middle and we get the correct solution. We teach. We educate children to make good choices. It’s a lasting solution. That’s where we are now.
But it wasn’t the nutrition issue that made Masterfoods decide to revoke the license to use their product. It was the “advertising to children” issue. All food companies did. No more books that advertise any food products, including my Cheerios Book. And what have we gained? Nothing. What have we lost? Certainly not weight. We lost a fun teaching tool that tied math to literature. Do children still know what M & M’s® are? “Yes.” Do they know the characters? “Yes.” Does it matter? “No.” It’s like School Snack Prohibition.
As far as the “advertising to children” issue. We ask these large food companies to give to education--and they do, millions of dollars--yet we ask them to do it quietly and specifically. They can’t give the donation of bookmarks or book covers or rulers with their brand on it or hang a banner at a book fair they have sponsored. I don’t know how I even feel about that. Maybe schools shouldn’t ask them for money. I do know these American snack foods and their brand icons are not going away. Thank goodness. I need a few M & M’s around mid afternoon. And, I confess that I even love those M & M® characters on TV. They are a riot--throwing the bread at the man’s head when he says, “Get in the bowl!” How funny is that?!
Regarding obesity and nutrition: I feel in actuality, M & M’s® and similar snack food products, in pieces, are the perfect tool to teach children good nutrition. Why? Because they are little. You don’t have to eat the whole bag. You set a good example by eating a few--another good example by sharing a few. I dare say, in my opinion, a childhood without a few M & M’s® is a little sad. School lessons can not be fun all the time. Those multiplication facts have to be memorized. But, once in a while it needs to be fun. Those fun lessons are remembered for a lifetime. This gives children a general good feeling about school and education and in turn they pass that down to their children. It’s an important process. I don’t remember specifically learning how to read. But I do remember how much fun Friday Spelling Bees were--the winner got a Hershey Bar (I never won). I remember a very hot June day, when my kindergarten teacher took the whole class on a walk to the little market down the street and bought us all popsicles. I remember how special I felt when I passed out my birthday cupcakes. What are we losing?
The M & M’s® Counting Book opened doors for me as well--allowed me to travel and teach, which I love. I have been so fortunate in a very tough, competitive industry. People ask me about publishing all the time. I still don’t understand it and I’ve been in it for over 30 titles and 18 years. And I still get “rejected” manuscripts! Recently I’ve worked with Charlesbridge editors to rewrite the M & M’s® series: McGrath Math: Teddy Bear Counting Book is a new release. I used another popular class manipulative: little plastic teddy bears. The books are adorable. Illustrated by Tim Nihoff. I hope children don’t try to eat those bears.
When I become a grandparent I want you all to know I will be armed with M & M’s® - and the first edition copy of The M & M’s® Counting Book!
Happy trails and trail mixes to all! Thank you for your continued interest in my work.
Posted by Barbara Barbeiri McGrath, author of several books for children, including Teddy Bear Counting and The Little Red Elf.