It's easy to understand why Brian Lewis has such boundless enthusiasm for a book titled Has Anyone Seen Christmas?
After all, Mr. Lewis' wife, Anne Margaret Lewis, is the book's author. And the book is published by Mackinac Island Press, a 2-year-old children's book publishing company in Traverse City, Mich., owned by Mrs. Lewis.
Even the enthusiastic Mr. Lewis, however, could never have envisioned the astonishing trajectory taken by the book, which has become one of the holiday season's literary megastars, with prominent display at 800-plus Barnes & Noble stores nationwide, a story in the Wall Street Journal, and inquiries from movie studios.
"In our wildest dreams, we would never have come up with this," Mr. Lewis said in a recent telephone interview.
The $18.95 book, which features brightly colored illustrations by Wendy Popko, uses rhyme to tell the story of Emit the Elf, who falls out of Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve. Emit then goes from holiday to holiday searching for Christmas until he finally makes it back to Santa.
Fans of the book absolutely love it.
"The illustrations are magnificent, the concept is terrific, and kids seem to be fascinated by it," said Dee Sockol-Frye, children's department manager of the Holmdel, N.J., Barnes & Noble. "I'm just passionate about it."
Others, however, are less enthusiastic.
"Unlike the celebrity books that usually get this treatment, Has Anyone Seen Christmas? truly attempts to communicate with children," said children's book expert Anita Silvey, author of 100 Best Books for Children.
"However, it hasn't gotten any positive critical endorsement from those who know books well, and it doesn't really measure up in terms of those artistic and literary qualities that experts always seek."
After the book was published in September, the initial 20,000 copies quickly sold out, an almost unheard-of event for a holiday children's book by a tiny, unknown press. The Lewises then printed another 30,000 copies, which Mr. Lewis says are close to selling out.
The book's success has been spurred by a decision by Barnes & Noble to prominently feature Has Anyone Seen Christmas? in the children's section of all of its stores. Such display is highly coveted by publishers because of the chance to catch the eye of buyers and stand out from the thousands of other books being sold.
The Toledo Barnes & Noble store on Saturday was host of a book-signing by Wendy Popko, who illustrated Has Anyone Seen Christmas? Store officials said there was a good crowd at the event, and that the book has been "selling steadily."
The boost from Barnes & Noble has been compounded by calls from movie studios seeking the rights to the book, Mr. Lewis said. No movie contracts have yet been signed.
The book's success also has been driven by the Lewises themselves, who started Mackinac Island Press two years ago after selling their successful Sleeping Bear Press to a larger publisher.
The couple has tirelessly promoted Has Anyone Seen Christmas? Mrs. Lewis has traveled to bookstores around the nation, patiently signing thousands of copies of the book.
At the Holmdel Barnes & Noble store, Mrs. Lewis was mobbed by those who wanted her to sign their copies of the book, said Ms. Sockol-Frye.
"It's the best-selling children's book in my store," she said, adding that she had so many customers who wanted books during Mrs. Lewis' signing that she had to give up the copy she had set aside for her granddaughter.
Mr. Lewis, meanwhile, has stayed home with the couple's four children and worked the telephones, calling reviewers and bookstore owners to talk up the book. Several weeks ago, he hit pay dirt when the Wall Street Journal ran an extensive story about the book's surprising success.
The book also is selling well online at www.amazon.com, where it ranked No. 1,031 in books yesterday, up from No. 1,201 on Monday. That compares to The Polar Express, the holiday classic written and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Chris Van Allsburg, which ranked No. 140 yesterday.
Interestingly, although the book has received write-ups in various newspapers published in places where Mrs. Lewis has had book signings, Has Anyone Seen Christmas? has received scant attention from traditional book review outlets like Publishers Weekly or School Library Journal.
Many independent booksellers also have turned a generally cold shoulder to the book.
"This book is a hit in Barnes & Noble. That's wonderful, and I'm thrilled for them," said Claire Kirch, Midwest correspondent for Publishers Weekly. "But, for some reason, it has not resonated with independent booksellers."
Ms. Kirch also pointed out that independent booksellers usually are more careful about which books they stock so they have fewer to return if the books don't sell. Some people have noted that Mackinac could face financial problems if booksellers end up sending back large numbers of unsold books.
Mr. Lewis, however, said he has no fears about unsold books. Rather, he's concerned about having enough books to sell to those who want them at bookstores. Customers can always order the book online - at least at the moment, he added.
"We are going to run out,'' Mr. Lewis said. "But we'll be back next year."
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