hearts may sink at the news last week that the fifth Harry
Potter book is still being written and may not arrive
at all this year. What to give them during the summer
holidays? How will we survive? Despite recent claims that
children's fiction has not been revived by the JK Rowling
phenomenon, the vaccum created by the absence of a new
Harry Potter novel is in fact having an astonishing effect
on the fortunes of children's authors.
Until five years ago, children's publishing
lived in a ghetto. Advances were low, marketing budgets
non-existent and ambitious editors got out of it as
fast as possible. No longer.
"It used to be the case that if you
worked in children's publishing you were assumed to
have a mental age of twelve," says Marion Lloyd,
Associate Publisher of Children's Fiction at Macmillan.
"Now there's tremendous interest in the best children's
fiction. It has the respect of serious literary commentators
and of marketing departments. The perception of its
quality has changed, thanks to the Harry Potter phenomenon,
and to the success of Philip Pullman who became the
first children's author to win the Whitbread this year."
The buzz around the best children's novels
has been growing ever since 1997, the year the second
Harry Potter caused a 25% jump in Bloomsbury's share
value. Now, with stratospheric sales and profits, the
vogue for children's fiction is reaping commercial rewards
for its authors. This month sees the arrival of yet
another star. Twelve years ago, Georgia Byng was a struggling
young actress with a small daughter, who turned to writing
picture books as a way of expressing her love of drama.
Her novel, Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism
(Macmillan), published this month, has reaped her $1
million, and been bought by the same Warner Bros team
that made Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
The tale of Molly, an unattractive 10-year
old abandoned at an orphanage, whose life is tranformed
by discovering The Book of Hypnotism, has all the comedy
and tension of an instant classic. Molly turns her life
around by hypnotising first a dog, then her bullying
headmistress, and flies to New York in search of her
best friend Rocky. Ambitious and ebullient, she hypnotises
her way into a Broadway hit, before confronting the
moral implications of her astounding power over adults.
"She's a tremendously original, funny
character, who made my hair stand up," says Marion
Lloyd. "I'm constantly looking for that magical
combination of story-telling, quality writing and strong
characters, but the one thing I don't want is me-too
wannabees. Agents have learnt not to mention the words
Harry Potter when submitting a new author to publishers.
We don't want to hear those words."
Yet it is the Harry Potter phenomenon
that is single-handedly driving the price of major children's
novels, as most privately admit. When JK Rowling was
originally signed up to write the first Harry Potter
books she received the standard advance of £2,500.
Now, following her world-wide fame and fortune, competition
to find the next big names in children's fiction means
that its authors are increasingly receiving advances
that are around ten times that amount. Publishers such
as Random Century who turned down Molly Moon are watching
its sales nervously: with Macmillan spending an estimated
£50,000 on poster and book-shop advertising, its
commercial success is guaranteed. Yet what will really
make or break the novel's success is word-of-mouth.
Children of 6-12 are remarkably sophisticated consumers
but they tend not to be fooled, as adults are, by mere
fashion and hype.
According to a recent Bookseller report
on the children's market, the volume of sales actually
fell from 109 million in 2000 to 104 in 2001, with the
biggest decrease in books for children of 0-6. It is
simply not true that, as some claim, the Harry Potter
phenomenon has helped nobody but Harry Potter, Series
fiction, such as the Goosebumps horror stories by RL
Stine have fallen off, and what is replaced them are
the more literary, serious novels by authors children
recognise and value. Philip Pullman recently became
the first children's author to win the Whitbread Book
of the Year prize for The Amber Spyglass, yet it was
children's desperation to continue reading quality fiction
that lifted sales of Philip Pullman's outstanding trilogy,
His Dark Materials into the American and UK best-seller
lists. Anyone who read his other novels may well wonder
why they took so long to succeed (he has said "they
were not so much published as concealed by Penguin")
but there is no doubt that Rowling's success has drawn
attention to what is effectively a third golden age
for children's books.
Georgina Byng is the sister of the Canongate
publisher Jamie Byng and daughter of the Earl of Strafford,
yet her success is, like that of three other new superstars
of children's writing, the product of both inspiration
and perspiration. She got the idea for Molly Moon "in
three swift steps" when wondering whether she could
hypnotise her mother's dog, but in fact she has been
writing for younger children for a decade. This is one
of the essential differences between children's publishers
and adult ones. Where adult editors are prepared to
pay £100,000 for an unknown, untried author, children's
editors, in Marion Lloyd's words, "don't expect
them to write their best work at the beginning of their
career. We've got to allow writers the odd weaker book,
and nurture them through several before the one that
makes the huge impact. We're wary of giving a brand-new
author stacks of money, because if the book doesn't
succeed, their career is over."
Eva Ibbotson, another Macmillan author,
is a case in point. The author of eight children's novels,
she won the Smarties Gold Prize this year for Journey
to the River Sea, which is also shortlisted for the
Carnegie Medal, the Booker of the children's world,
which she is hotly tipped to win. Her novels, though
always well-received, were not well-known until two
years ago. They now sell 200,000 copies a title. Partly
this is due to their being rejacketed, but the real
impulse is that children themselves wrote in to the
Internet bookstore Amazon to say the words publishers
have been attempting in vain to attach to other authors
- that "if you love Harry Potter, you'll love this."
And they did, particularly with regard to The Secret
of Platform 13, published three years before Harry Potter
and the Philosopher's Stone. The similarities between
the two are astounding: Ibbotson's novel describes a
door at Platform 13 of King's Cross opening onto a magical
world of wizards, ghosts and giants. The hero is a young
boy who belongs to this world but who is ignorant of
his true nature, and bullied by the grotesquely rich
and nasty Trottle family, and made to sleep in the servants'
quarters until magic comes to rescue him. Ibbotson would
seem to have at least as good a case for claiming plagiarism
as the American author currently suing JK Rowling, but
unlike her, Ibbotson says she would "like to shake
her by the hand. I think we all borrow from each other
Eva Ibbotson's novels feature witches
and ghosts not as scarily powerful but as an endangered
species; her thrilling adventures brim with the wit
and wonder, and yet it has taken her twenty years to
break through. "Each time I finish a book, I honestly
expect to be taken away to a lunatic asylum, they're
so mad," she confesses, but it's this craziness
that makes her irresistible. Three of her novels - Which
Witch, The Haunting of Hiram and Dial a Ghost - are
now being developed as feature films, the latter by
the same Warner Bros. producer who made Harry Potter.
Her new book, Journey to the River Sea (Mammoth) is
about an orphan who travels to the "green hell"
Edwardian Brazil and unexpectedly discovers it to be
a paradise. She wrote it when grieving for the death
of her husband, and its deep feeling for loneliness
make it as remarkable a work of fiction as The Secret
Garden. It is, she says, "a plea for children to
live big lives, to be allowed to discover their destiny."
This perhaps, is part of the appeal that
children's fiction holds for adults as well. Where the
literary establishment turned its back on the art of
narrative after EM Forster's languid remark that "Yes
- oh dear yes - the novel tells a story", a strong
plot and pellucid style is essential to children's fiction.
Its powerful hold on us has recently been examined in
Francis Spufford's best-selling memoir, The Child that
Books Built. (Faber £12.99) He describes the second
golden age of children's books that occurred in the
1960s as deriving from "a kind of temporary cultural
consensus: a consensus both about what children were,
and about where we were in history." That consensus
has now largely vanished and a new kind of novel has
emerged. What children want, and what they are getting
isn't the literature of consolation but one that addresses
their deepest fears and longings through the medium
of an adventure story. As Georgia Byng says, "Bruno
Bettelheim pointed out in The Uses of Enchantment that
fairy-tales used to be for adults as well as children.
I think modern children's novels are providing some
of that function. People desperately need the cathartic
release that stories can bring. If you hit a spot for
children, you hit it for everybody."
This sophistication is reflected in the
spin that new children's literature puts on our expectations.
Just as Harry Potter posited a magical world existing
in parallel with our own, with its own regulations,
and Philip Pullman described a universe in which the
Devil is on the side of wisdom and God is the force
for evil, so the best new authors play with convention.
Artemis Fowl is described by its author, Eoin Colfer,
as "Die Hard with Fairies". Hugely thrilling
and very funny, its premise is that fairies exist underground
as a secret race, as technologically advanced as we
are. Artemis Fowl, a 12-year-old boy genius and criminal
mastermind captures and decodes their hand-book, and
so discovers how he can (as he thinks) extort the legendary
fairy gold as ransom. Pitted against him is Holly Flint,
of the LEPRecon police, her irascible boss and an inventor
centaur, Foley. Colfer's publisher, Penguin, launched
a microsite featuring a multi-player interactive computer
game in which players had to collect thousands of trolls
wreaking havoc on the environment, a first in marketing
children's literature, and are believed to have spent
over £50,000 marketing the hardback and paperback.
The first Artemis Fowl novel sold 150,000 in hardback,
(230,000 in the US); the second, Artemis Fowl and the
Arctic Incident, is due out next month. Film rights
have been bought by Miramax, and Colfer too has hit
A 35-year-old Irish primary school teacher,
Colfer, like Ibbotson and Byng, had already written
several children's books without notable success, and
like them is stunned by the change in his fortunes.
"Films definitely had an impact on
my writing style. I am a huge movie fan, and the action
genre is one of my favourites," he says. "I
realised that very few action movies are specifically
for kids, even though kids love them. So I decided to
fill the vacuum. I grew up reading Irish myths and legends,
so I had great fun putting a spin on them. I knew there
was no point in regurgitating other people's stories,
so instead I gave them a technological makeover."
It was this wit and freshness of approach that made
the first Artemis Fowl novel stand out, according the
Colfer's editor, Sarah Hughes at Penguin.
"We recognised straight away that this was something
different, and sophisticated, which appeals also to
adults. What we're starting to realise, following the
success of JK Rowling and Philip Pullman, is that children's
fiction has always appealed to adults, although we're
not overtly trying to capture this market. The sales
expectations in the children's market have risen."
Such is certainly the case with William Nicholson, whose
Wind on Fire trilogy reaches its climax with Firesong,
published by Egmont this month. Nicholson, award-winning
screenwriter of Shadowlands and Gladiator, turned to
writing a children's novel as a kind of experiment,
having tried and failed in his youth to write for adults.
His values are the highest, and his approach closer
to Philip Pullman's than JK Rowling's. The Wind on Fire
trilogy address subjects such as the link between violence
and art, the need for willing self-sacrifice and the
way love can prove stronger than evil. All of these
are wrapped up in linked adventures whose inventiveness
and depth of feeling never flags. The Hath family live
in a city dominated, even in infancy by exam success:
passing or failing affects the colour of clothes, the
quality of accommodation and work. This satire on our
cultural values has appealed enormously to children,
who love the way Kestrel yells "I won't strive
harder, I won't reach higher, I won't seek to make tomorrow
better than today!" When the twins Kestrel and
Bowman defy this, they are exiled into the desert where
they acquire supernatural powers that help to save their
people, and eventually bring them to a new homeland.
The first novel, The Wind Singer, won the Smarties Gold
prize in 2000, and sold 100,000 copies so far; its sequel,
Slaves of the Mastery, is doing even better in paperback,
and the third, Firesong, is published by Egmont this
month to huge acclaim.
"My career is studded with failure
as well, but everybody forgets that," says Nicholson,
53, dryly. His mother, a Catholic, was taught English
by CS Lewis, and despised his books as "drippy,
Protty stuff", but he became increasingly interested
in children's fiction after writing Shadowlands, the
BBC play about Lewis's private life, that launched his
career as an Oscar-winning scriptwriter. Now, with three
children of his own, William Nicholson like CS Lewis,
is examining the deep questions of spirituality and
identity. What is particularly good about his novels
is that for once they do not exalt the lone child-hero,
but show how a family, and a people can have adventures
together that change and deepen their innate qualities.
"The glory of writing for children
is also the trap: anything goes, but to make it believable
you have to rein it back," he says.
Unlike Byng, Ibbotson and Colfer, William Nicholson
has so far resisted film offers, although his trilogy,
which has been described as "Gladiator for kids",
is consummately filmable. He wants children to discover
them as books first. Ten years ago, when parents and
teachers were in despair as to whether the new generation
would ever learn to love books, and children's authors
were the poor relations of the adult world, this would
have seemed impossible. Now, in the new golden age,
it seems that inspiration and perseverance have at last