Monday, 11 July 2011

PotterMania: Harry Potter and the Kids Publishing Phenomenon

I loved reading as a kid. I'd read anything I could get my hands on (which is why newspapers were briefly banned in the Nerd house after I asked my Mum what 'molestation' was at the age of six). But when it came to kids books I only had Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Sweet Valley High and The Worst Witch for company. By 11 I'd moved onto Bronte, Austen and Alcott, at a loss for any more kids adventure books to read.

I didn't discover kids books again until I got Harry Potter books 1-3 for my 15th birthday. A little too old, perhaps, but I loved them. They took me right back to that excited kid who used to run around the playground pretending I was Mildred Hubble on her broomstick. I, like millions of others, was hopelessly hooked.

Suddenly, the publishers who'd never really put much faith in children's books pricked up their bank accounts. Ever since then, the children's section in book shops has been growing like ivy, encroaching on Fiction A-Z and Classics, covered from floor to ceiling in enticing multi-coloured spines and little plastic chairs for the kids who can't wait until they get home to read the first chapter. I don't remember having that when I was little. I remember the children's section of my local library had a very itchy carpet (which didn't put me off settling down there surrounded by heaps of adventures) but I don't remember ever having a place I could go that just screamed "Read in me! I'm fun!"

With Twilight boosting the teen market, young literature has experienced an unprecidented boom in the last few years. A constant stream of new titles are bombarding a previously overlooked audience. Sure, some are rubbish (I'm looking at you, sub-Twilight supernatural romance genre), but some kids books are brilliant.

Frankly, when my choice is between a brutal portrayal of Occupied Iraq or a book with a skeleton detective on the cover (Skulduggery Pleasant is brilliant), then there's rarely any competition. Yes, I'm a grown-up. Yes, I studied English at uni and am still a voracious reader spanning all genres, but sometimes a bit of escapism is needed, and where better to escape to than childhood?

Harry Potter though is in a special league. Chances are most adults haven't read Skullduggery Pleasant or Artemis Fowl, but they have read Harry Potter. Similarly, there's Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which got a wee bit lost in the Harry Potter hype but is actually the better series, a brilliantly complex exploration of religion, the soul, innocence and growing up, borrowing from writers like Blake and Milton. Like Potter, it has a cross-generational appeal that frankly boggles the mind and no doubt causes pound signs to flash in publisher's eyes. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is another kids books that soon found a wider audience on the adult side of the market thanks to its unflinching and beautifully written exploration of one girl in Germany during World War 2.

A few years ago adults could only read kids books with a flush of nostalgia, with even the rose-tinted glasses not able to shelter them from how unchallenging and childish their favourite childhood book was. Authors like JK Rowling, Philip Pullman and recently Carlos Ruiz Zafon (The Prince of Mists is ace) have upped the standards for kids literature. They don't talk down to them. They introduce complex moral ideas and terrifying monsters, they make their readers feel and think instead of just getting swept along, or rushing to the end so that they can find out what happens and never think of it again.

Harry Potter has kickstarted a publishing boom that will shape new generations of readers, kids who know that reading is fun and not just a chore. They could become the writers of tomorrow, or a more discerning audience demanding top quality literature. They could make the journey from Rowling to Gaiman and Tolkian in search of adventure, from Meyers to Bronte and Shakespeare in search of romance. And that makes this reader very happy.

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