A Week in Books: When it's time to grow up

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The Independent Culture

Tugged by Potter and Pullman, the gravy train in children's fiction picked up speed at roughly the same time as New Labour, the dotcom hysteria, and the latest house-price boom. All the rest of our millennial manias have either busted or, at least, softened. Not so with fantasy epics for young readers. Only last week, the accomplished thriller writer Philip Kerr mutated into "P B Kerr" to sign a humungous seven-figure deal with Scholastic (print) and the DreamWorks studio (celluloid rights) for his planned sequence of novels, Children of the Lamp. The Akhnaten Adventure, first in the series and scheduled for next autumn, will send a pair of 12-year-old New Yorker twins to London, Egypt and the North Pole.

As J K Rowling's worldwide sales hit 250 million, no one should (as Dubya might say) misunderestimate the future size of this sector. Aspirational parents around the world - cash-rich, time-poor, and guilty as hell about it - will go on ploughing their resources into all forms of enrichment for the young. Fiction sequences, now far more popular than single works among agents and publishers, offer the added boon of a brand ready to be defined and developed. Recent entrants into the multi-volume market have ranged from the sublime (Lionboy by "Zizou Corder") to the ridiculous (Madonna). And, as everyone in the children's book-biz recalls, Harry Potter only has two more adventures left.

With many long-term, high-value commitments already in place, junior readers will hardly lack heavily-hyped sensations over the coming years. But this cornucopia may have one unintended consequence (beyond the manifest danger of closing the market to new writers). Part of the joy of maturing as a reader consists in the discovery of adult books. Before the arrival of "crossover" blockbusters designed for eight-to-80-year-olds, and the codification of the "young adult" genre, an early shift to the grown-up shelves was a vital rite-of-passage for confident bookworms. So it should remain. After all, there's something distinctly naff about publishers, like some excruciating relative, deciding that they grasp the tastes of teens.

Hence the value of the mind-stretching literary selection in the new Rough Guide to Books for Teenagers (£5.99), a collaboration between Julia Eccleshare and Nicholas Tucker. Far from dumbing down its readers, the Rough Guide wants to wise them up. The recommended age for Homer's Odyssey is "13+". Well, George Steiner started on Homer (in the original Greek) at six.

The authors choose a library of titles seldom found in the bookshop kiddies' corner. True, you might expect the hallowed classics of growing-up: from David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn to The Catcher in the Rye and even Sons and Lovers. Yet McEwan's Atonement, Ballard's Empire of the Sun, Plath's The Bell Jar, Smith's White Teeth and a host of other modern landmarks also figure. The first novel highlighted in this eclectic A-Z happens to be one of my eternal flames: Alain-Fournier's love story from the enchanted woods of pre-1914 France, Le Grand Meaulnes (Penguin Classics).

It's a paradox of modern children's culture that, while young people join the fray of adult obsessions ever earlier (far too early, some would say), they also have especially elaborate consumer niches prepared just for them. In every case, corporate money seeks to define what, when and how they buy. Enduring books, in contrast, can stick around for a lifetime because they hold not hidden agendas, but hidden meanings that will continue to unfold over time. Besides, no one ever offered the young Alexander Solzhenitsyn (whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich crops up in the Rough Guide) a megabucks Hollywood deal.