World Book Day 2000: Children - the Facts Behind Children's Fiction ; 'Harry Potter' Is Children's Fantasy at Its Best, but Youngsters Need a Dose of Reality Too, Says Nicholas Tucker
Tucker, Nicholas, The Independent (London, England)
While fantasy has always had an honoured place in British children's literature, the astounding commercial success of JK Rowling's first three Harry Potter books has given this topic a new urgency among publishers. Older fantasy titles are being reprinted and new ones commissioned as never before. The excellent Diana Wynne Jones, many of whose witty and intelligent books had gone out of print, is now bouncing back with the HarperCollins re-issue of 15 of her children's novels. The film rights to her Homeward Bounders have also been sold.
Hodder, meanwhile, has launched its Silver List, featuring 10 new paperbacks by bright stars of the fantasy genre like Catherine Fisher and Judy Allen, joined by the promising new author Stephen Moore. There are four more Harry Potter stories still to come, the next due from Bloomsbury on 9 July.
Children's publishers are jubilant. Not since the times of Robert Louis Stevenson and Frances Hodgson Burnett have so many adult readers taken such an interest in writing for children. This is a change from the days when adult knowledge of children's literature rarely extended beyond hazy recollections of Joyce Grenfell's monologue of an Enid Blyton clone retreating to her Hidey Hole upstairs, "Gone to Make-Believe Land" firmly pinned to the door.
Before young children's writers draw the curtains on the outside world and settle down for some lengthy imagining, a note of caution. Rowling did not succeed because she wrote fantasies for a children's book world otherwise dominated by grim realism. There have been numerous fine fantasy works written in the last two decades, not least by Terry Pratchett, who at one stage accounted for 1 per cent of all books sold in the UK. The best modern fantasy novels, however, still engage with concerns about the world of today. Rowling's books, by contrast, reach back to a time when the expected hallmarks of children's adventure stories were the hero's triumphs over adversity.
The major theme in the Harry Potter books is equally traditional: nothing less than the immemorial fight between good and evil. Rowling also resurrects other tried and tested set pieces from a past world of writing for children. As in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays, she includes school house matches, in her case involving the imaginary game of quidditch instead of rugger. As in Rudyard Kipling's Stalky & Co, she describes a group of friends up against an unjust classroom teacher in a school ultimately ruled by a saintly, all-knowing headmaster. The secret passages of other adventure stories abound once again, and some of the dialogue ("Good Man!") could be found in any school story written 50 to 100 years ago.
There is nothing wrong with fiction setting out to revive past traditions. But too many other modern writers trying to emulate the Potter stories would probably be as unsuccessful as a group of modern architects who decided to suggest mock-Tudor as a viable style. Rowling is strictly a one-off: brilliantly inventive, very funny, but isolated from the rest of today's children's literature, which has moved on in so many ways.
Philip Pullman's great trilogy Northern Lights, for example, is a modern fantasy loosely based on Paradise Lost and concerning, among other things, the corruption of a brilliant mind by the promise of unlimited power. The contrast between his vision of evil, to be completed this autumn, and the monsters of the Potter stories ("Blazing red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake") is stark - rather like comparing a Brueghel phantasmagoria to a trip on a ghost train.
Rowling's success has been used by some as a reason for gloating over the assumed failure of more realistic stories for today's children. But it is a typically …
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Publication information: Article title: World Book Day 2000: Children - the Facts Behind Children's Fiction ; 'Harry Potter' Is Children's Fantasy at Its Best, but Youngsters Need a Dose of Reality Too, Says Nicholas Tucker. Contributors: Tucker, Nicholas - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: March 1, 2000. Page number: W4. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.