Castles in the air

Being a big, grown-up novelist is all very well, but when do you get to party in a sweet shop that serves champagne? Matt Thorne makes the switch to children's author and defends the so-called 'new infantilism'
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The Independent Culture

While the market is flooded with "How to be a Writer" handbooks, there are very few guides on what happens after you're published. Hardly anyone has offered advice on how to cope with undersold events, unsympathetic editors, remaindered books and all the other joys that are a staple of the writer's life. But if such a guide were to exist, it would no doubt have, in very bold type, the sterling advice:

While the market is flooded with "How to be a Writer" handbooks, there are very few guides on what happens after you're published. Hardly anyone has offered advice on how to cope with undersold events, unsympathetic editors, remaindered books and all the other joys that are a staple of the writer's life. But if such a guide were to exist, it would no doubt have, in very bold type, the sterling advice:

Never, Ever go to a Book Fair*

London, Frankfurt, New York: the locations are different, but the humiliations are the same. It may be one big whirlwind working party for agents and publishers, but for an author, even the most famous, seeing the inner workings of the industry is inevitably a crushing blow to the ego. Those foolhardy enough to disregard this advice should heed the examples of those two shrinking violets, Howard Jacobson, whose South Bank Show on the subject ended up with his temporarily losing his love of literature, and Martin Amis, who ended a very depressed article on Frankfurt for The Observer in 1981 with the telling observation: "You never feel at your best, perhaps, when you crash the works' outing at another firm."

But see that asterisk? That's there because there is one exception to this rule:

*Unless it is the Bologna Children's Book Fair.

Until recently, it was a relative secret that the Bologna Book Fair is by far the most enjoyable trade event. Post-Harry Potter, the word is out. Now the festival is attended not just by anyone with any connections to children's publishing, but also representatives from every major Hollywood company.

Why is it so enjoyable? The location, obviously, but also because in spite of the large amounts of money now involved in the children's book trade, there is still a more relaxed atmosphere than you'd expect from such a frenetic environment. The magic of the fair is perhaps best conveyed by the fact that after a hard day's business the main location for an after-hours drink is a sweet shop that serves champagne.

Of course - agents and editors aside - unless you've actually written a children's book, you can't go to the Bologna Book Fair. It's a perk I had no idea about until I'd sold my first, Greengrove Castle (the opening volume in an ongoing series called 39 Castles), and I'm sure has not been the cause of the ever-increasing number of adult authors who have either recently published children's books or have one in the works (including everyone from hard-boiled US crime writers, Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard to Julie Burchill, as well Jeanette Winterson, Rafaella Barker, Amanda Craig, Louisa Young, Jackie Kay and Philip Kerr).

Amanda Craig believes there are three kinds of adult authors who turn to writing for children. "There are the kind who do so as a present for their kids or as a technical challenge (which is never any good). Then there are the kind who are storytellers anyway and can picture their writing for any audience. Finally, there are the kind like E Nesbit or JK Rowling who remember perfectly what it feels like to be a child, and who may not be technically all that competent but who have a passionate commitment to the whole state of childhood."

My own route into writing for children came from writing about children. Having spent two years working on a novel called Child Star, which was published last year and looked at childhood through the filters of celebrity and nostalgia, I felt the next logical step was to drop those filters and try to write directly for an audience the same age as my protagonist. Although Child Star was a realist novel, the fact that the characters were involved in making a TV show gave their lives a sense of adventure. The part of the book which worked best was when the children left their homes and went to the Yorkshire moors to devise their programme. The excitement of escaping your home stayed with me as a possible theme for a children's book, and this developed into an idea about a group of children who live in a small community grouped around a castle. The castle is one of 39, and each community has little idea about what lies outside their boundaries. A 12-year-old girl named Eleanor is invited to join a group of five children who are chosen to travel with the Castle Seven, an elite group who want to discover what has happened to England.

Raffaella Barker, whose children's book Phosphorescence is being published this summer by Macmillan, followed a similar creative development. "I decided to write for children because I have written several novels where children are prominent and I thought it would be interesting to explore the world through their eyes. For me, children provide searing honesty as well as humour and I love their dialogue."

Honesty is also an important factor for Matt Whyman, one of several authors writing for the teen market who are bringing a new gritty urban realism to the genre. While for many, children's books are an opportunity to explore fantasy terrain, he is aiming for a darker tone. His controversial new novel, Boy Kills Man is the story of a 12-year-old assassin, and he claims: "I tried to tell the story as honestly as I could, even if some truths are unpalatable. Sonny, the narrator, isn't sorry for what he does, because I didn't feel he would be under the circumstances. He has his own moral code, of course, but if I'd made it more palatable, or softened the violence, it just wouldn't seem credible - and for teen readers it's vital to have that connection. Fiction or non-fiction, you can lose them far quicker than an adult reader if there's a whiff of bullshit or preaching."

Some commentators have been uneasy about the boom in adults reading and writing children's literature, seeing it as a kind of "new infantilism" that has risen up in response to a world that has suddenly started to seem a lot more dangerous. But I believe a more accurate interpretation is that there are now more first-rate children's authors than ever before and they have brought the genre to much wider attention.

Narrative has been neglected in favour of style for too long and, as Amanda Craig observes, "in my experience it's much harder to write a great plot than it is to achieve a good style, which is why I waited until I'd written five novels and had 13 years of writing experience before trying."

With Hollywood films now seemingly wedded to the standard three-act structure, the novel remains a form where it possible to experiment with narrative. The rise of children's fiction is simply a further development in the renaissance of storytelling and the re-emergence of the novel as one of the most appealing forms of entertainment.

The Bologna Children's Book Fair runs from 14 April to 17 April. Matt Thorne's 'Greengrove Castle' is published by Faber (£7.99). To order a copy (free P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or post your order to: Independent Books Direct, PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TP

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