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May 07, 2012

By Graydon Gordian

The Book on Books: the History of Sesame Street and Random House

Sesame Workshop Co-Founder Joan Ganz Cooney signs a contract with Random House in 1984.

In January 1970, less than two months after Sesame Street first aired, Joan Ganz Cooney, the co-founder of Sesame Workshop, received a letter.

“Our editorial staff in particular and many other of our associates have been watching the outstanding progress of your Sesame Street show with real respect and admiration,” read its opening line.

The letter, sent by the Western Publishing Company, was the beginning of Sesame Workshop’s relationship with books, the Workshop’s very first licensed product format. Eventually Western Publishing’s classic Little Golden Books line, which included beloved children’s books such as Sesame Street’s The Monster at the End of This Book (1971), How to Be a Grouch (1976), and The Together Book (1971), was published by Random House.  Today we are still using our imaginations to rethink those classic titles — The Monster at the End of This Book now comes in an interactive app form — and to create new titles that encourage our longstanding curricular goals, such as the Elmo’s Big Birthday Bash! book app.

This relationship wouldn’t be possible without the hard work of a small group of talented and enthusiastic individuals. In the early 1970s it was Random House editor Jason Epstein and Sesame Street songwriter Christopher Cerf who formed the backbone of this relationship. Today, Sesame Workshop’s Vice President of Publishing, Jennifer A. Perry, and Naomi Kleinberg, the editorial director of the Sesame Street publishing program at Random House, carry on the tradition Jason and Christopher started.

“There’s a lot of history,” said Naomi, who has been working with Sesame Street since 1992. “We have got some of the great classics in our library. There is something about these books that gives them timelessness. They have a heart that many books don’t. There’s this wonderful humor. There’s always this message about friendship, about sharing, about community. There’s a kindness at the heart of it.”

A page for the Elmo's Big Birthday Bash! book app.

Although classic series like the Little Golden Books still make up a large part of the work Sesame Workshop and Random House do together, we’re also at the forefront of some of Random House’s newest projects. For instance, Elmo’s Big Birthday Bash! is the first app in Random House’s longstanding print series, “Step into Reading.”

“Out of all the premier children’s brands Random House works with, we are really honored that Random House selected Sesame Street to launch its Step into Reading series into the digital arena,“ said Jennifer.  “It’s also the first original story Sesame Street has created for a book app, and we hope to publish the title in print, showing that inspiration between the print and digital worlds works in both directions.”

When I sat down with Jennifer in her office to discuss Sesame Workshop’s relationship with Random House, the letter from the Western Publishing Company Joan Ganz Cooney received in 1970 was sitting in her in-box. When I asked her about it, she said she keeps the original copy on her desk. “It reminds me in a very concrete way of the legacy I am entrusted with for a short time,” she said. “Everyone who works in the Sesame Publishing Group is proud to be a part of such a longstanding tradition.”

We can’t all have the original copy of that letter on our desks, but I know she’s not the only one at Sesame Workshop who feels that way.

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