A week in books

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It comes as quite a shock to learn that Peter Mandelson, Liam Gallagher and Geri Halliwell share a favourite children's book. Which title, one wonders, could possibly bond a blameless Spice Girl with the fearsome, snarling, rough-tongued superstar (not to mention that guy from Oasis)? Each adores the Christian allegory of C S Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a passion unveiled alongside other celebrity choices in The Children's Book of Books. (Inevitably, Tony Blair plumps for The Lord of the Rings, that endless stairway to heaven.) Compiled to boost World Book Day on 23 April, this sampler of extracts costs pounds 1 and so will neatly eat the quid voucher soon to be distributed to 10.5 million under- 18s.

This literary version of mass vaccination won funding from the trade because it aims to foster an addiction - not just to reading, but bookshop- visiting as well. The number of books for children sold in Britain last year rose by 6 per cent to 105 million units. Yet the 1997 survey just released by Book Marketing Ltd shows that an ever rising proportion comes from sources other than the trad shop, whether supermarket shelves or school book fairs. (Scholastic, the most energetic children's house, staged 29,000 events last year.)

The market for young readers now turns over pounds 355m per year: just over a fifth of the pounds 1.7bn publishing business. Look beyond the headline figures, though, and the superstore connection begins to look depressingly apt. Standardised series and TV tie-ins increasingly dominate the junior charts. In BookTrack's paperback bestseller list for 1997, the march of the Teletubbies secured them four of the first six places. R L Stine's ubiquitous tales of terror took five further slots in the top 15 (his Goosebumps series has shifted 7.5 million copies since 1993).

Because children swim so fluently through the multi-media world, the marketing of brands that originate in print now happens with ferocious speed. When all of Reed's book imprints went up for sale as a job-lot in 1996, the City types who sniffed around the firm showed far more interest in the rights to Thomas the Tank Engine than in those (say) to Thomas Mann. For today's conglomerate, the children's author is not merely a midwife to the imagination but a breeder of merchandise. As I write this, a fetching Peter Rabbit mouse-mat sits under my right hand. I can visit his cyber-warren at www.peterrabbit.co.uk .

Not even the most guileless writer can dodge this relentless integration. This autumn, Dick King-Smith's porcine hero will spawn a second movie, Babe: Pig in the City. Already, the deals have been done to stuff our shops with a litter of spin-off titles. So it's heartening to report that the latest novel from King-Smith himself features a chief character who cheerfully walks (or rather, motors) away from the burdens of ownership.

When the eponymous Mr Ape (Doubleday, pounds 9.99) is dumped by his exasperated wife, this eccentric squire packs his crumbling mansion with friendly beasts. And when his pile burns down, he joins a local gypsy and forsakes real estate. Thelma and Louise-style, they hit the road with an ancient Roller and a brand-new caravan. No doubt this gently subversive disrespect for property will outrage stars and ministers alike.