Boyd Tonkin: He has thrown a precious lifeline to the land of books

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Is Anthony Horowitz, junior spymaster and the multi-hit superstar of the children's book charts this summer, really the mild-mannered Mr Big behind a boys' backlash?

Talk to librarians, teachers, parents and other writers, and you can pick up the impression that the formidably prolific 51-year-old novelist and screenwriter has almost single-handedly hauled the male half of the school-age population back into the world of books.

Certainly, the creator of the young secret agent Alex Rider - now a holiday favourite at the cinema with the screen adaptation of Stormbreaker - has managed in this and other series to keep countless boys keen on reading at exactly the age when their interest can be blown away by the hurricanes of puberty. The Horowitz mixture of action, gags and gadgets can appeal, so the argument goes, to some Eternal Lad who has pined away unseen while a girl-centred, touchy-feely culture has taken over most of children's literature.

Thank goodness, the reality is hardly as polarised - or paranoid - as that. As far as we know, the gender split among Horowitz's young readers runs at something like 55 per cent male to 45 per cent female. The pre-adolescent scrapes and sensations of the Rider books, and of Horowitz's "Diamond Brothers" and "Power of Five" series, satisfy a fairly universal taste for adventure without alarm, and danger without distress.

If Alex grew up in Potter fashion, then the question of the gender split would widen. As it is, Horowitz's humour can allow girls (and boys) a gentle laugh at, as well as with, his heroes. In fact, even adults can appreciate the wit at work in romps such as The Falcon's Malteser, South by South East and (my favourite Horowitz title) I Know What You Did Last Wednesday.

Above all, Horowitz is a supreme professional. As a prime-time TV screenwriter, he showed his ability to ring the changes on apparently tired formulae in strands such as Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders. As a novelist for adults in The Killing Joke, he proved capable of searching - and darkly funny - speculation about the roots and limits of comedy. And he has thrown a precious lifeline to many boys who might have drifted away from the land of books for ever. That alone gives him a special status. But his work hardly shuts youngsters up inside some sweaty pocket-sized locker room. It's far too sharp and sane for that.

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