It’s the kind of pickle any kid would understand. Goof-off Goose offends her friends—Responsible Rabbit, Enormous Elephant and Smarty Stork—by her sheer laziness, then feels miffed when she isn’t invited to Rabbit’s house for cookies. Luckily for Goose, some of the animals in the storybook town of Sweet Pickles are long-suffering types. They forgive her foibles—as they do those of Accusing Alligator, Jealous Jackal and Imitating Iguana—and take Goose back into the fold.
I’m OK—You’re OK has come to children’s literature. And never mind that characters like Loving Lion seem as slickly problem-solving as transactional analysis—the therapy is working. Parents and kids (the series is targeted for ages 3 to 9) are buying Sweet Pickles books as fast as popsicles on a hot summer day. Since Holt, Rinehart & Winston published the first four in 1977, the Sweet Pickles library has swelled to more than 40 volumes, sold 40 million copies, and grossed nearly $100 million (currently the books retail from $1.25 to $5.95 per copy). Sweet Pickles’ creators, rich Richard Hefter and jackpot Jacquelyn Reinach, are mostly modest about their publishing achievements. “We’re trying to help children understand things like shyness, laziness and embarrassment in a humorous way,” says Hefter.
Sweet Pickles has plenty of adult admirers too. In 1977 Xerox outbid Doubleday and Book-of-the-Month Club for the rights to start a Sweet Pickles Book Club, which now distributes the books through direct mail to schools and homes and has signed up more than a million subscribers.
Hefter, 41, and Reinach, 52, have guided their property from a two-person publishing venture to a two-person empire. Veterans of the children’s book business, they were introduced by a mutual friend in 1975. Four years later they formed their own publishing company, Euphrosyne (the goddess of joy), after Holt, Rinehart’s initial 26-book contract expired. Euphrosyne put out the next 14 books and in 1981 sold publishing rights to Random House, which will publish eight Sweet Pickles books per year for the next five years.
One of their canniest moves came early. “After the first year, we took all our profit and used it to pay for trade-marking every one of the characters,” explains Hefter. Then the pair began licensing manufacturers to make T-shirts, school supplies, ceramics and giftware. Polygram Records recently contracted for 15 Sweet Pickles records, with songs composed by Reinach; a Sweet Pickles Broadway musical has been optioned (with Reinach as writer); Time-Life will publish a 16-volume Sweet Pickles dictionary this year; a preschool learning kit is on the market; and a TV show is in the works. “For the last two years we’ve worked seven days a week,” says Reinach.
Smart Storks indeed. Hefter and Reinach have become rich beyond the dreams of most children’s book authors. They admit to “comfortable six-figure” incomes. For all that, they are Responsible Rabbits to the core. Reinach, who trained as a jazz musician, composes the songs and writes half the books in a cramped two-room apartment in Manhattan. (She’s divorced and has two grown sons.) Her one indulgence has been a custom-made desk, “the Pickleodeon” (“Sweet Pickles paid for it”), which incorporates an electric multipurpose musical keyboard, typewriter, four-track mixer and two tape decks.
Hefter has plowed his share of the profits into yet another business. Last year he founded a computer software company, Optimum Resource, which is beginning to manufacture games and educational software for children. Hefter, who started out as a painter and illustrator, works out of his house in Norwalk, Conn., where he lives with his wife and four children, aged 4 to 11.
The partners work best by rarely meeting. “After we discuss a story line, one of us writes the story and then the other edits it,” says Reinach. Adds Hefter, “Jackie usually writes too much, and I write too little.” Two or three times a month they meet in New York.
Though the secret of Sweet Pickles’ success is the team’s gift for isolating and anthropomorphizing kids’ emotions—shyness, jealousy, worry—their mail keeps reminding them that they have overlooked a biggie: vindictiveness. “Goose gets cookies at the end even though she’s been bad,” says Reinach. “The fact that the characters don’t get punished seems to bother an awful lot of parents.”