D J Taylor: How to be the new JK Rowling

As the latest millionaire star of children's literature is unveiled, D J Taylor offers a beginner's guide to writing a bestseller
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The Independent Online

However much highbrow critics may carp, children's books are fast becoming the most fashionable genre in UK publishing. Last week alone, the top 10 fiction paperback bestseller list contained no fewer than seven titles by JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling, and Philip Pullman became the first children's author to win the Whitbread Prize. Encouragingly, this is a market-place keen to welcome the newcomer. Yesterday, for example, came the news that the previously unknown Lady Georgia Byng stands to make £1m from her first children's novel, the soon-to-be-published Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism.

The author is reported to have watched "in a state of amazement" as foreign publishers and film studios scrambled to acquire rights to this affecting "fantasy adventure story", in which a young orphan sets out for America to find her closest friend, becomes a vaudeville star on Broadway, evades the attentions of a sinister professor and eventually, "disenchanted with fame and wealth", uses her hypnotic gifts to help her fellow orphans. There is clearly a well-routed path to the summit of children's literature. Here, for the benefit of aspiring pens, is a handy step-by-step guide.

Themes: Modern children's books are either hugely escapist or horribly relevant. Witches and wizards or my cousin, the Yardie, you can take your pick. Specimen titles in the former category might be "Emma's Marvellous Broomstick Shop" and "The Day We Played Mars", in the latter "The Vet Who Burned Snowdrop" (a compelling treatment of the Cumbrian foot-and-mouth epidemic) and "Beverley's Burqa" (holidaying schoolgirl gets kidnapped by the Taliban).

Location: The same applies. Some good ones at the top end of the range are: fairy palaces, boarding schools, rambling old houses in the country with priest-holes/portals to alternative worlds etc; at the bottom end, orphanages (see Lady Georgia), leprous tower blocks and travellers' encampments in the New Forest.

Names: These should fit the locale. Successful children's writers veer dramatically between the posh (Hermione, Susan, Tarquin) and the downmarket (Wayne, Gary, Mandy). No child in a contemporary children's book is ever called anything like Clive, Nigel or Jeremy.

Characteristics: No hero or heroine can ever be ordinary. Either their parents are mysteriously absent (Rowling/CS Lewis/Philip Pullman) or violently in evidence, beating them up or stealing their pocket money for drugs. Whether orphaned, abandoned or dumped at the country rectory in the care of old Mrs Motherly, the twinkly-eyed housekeeper, they always possess a distinctive ancestry that fits them for the job in hand. Thus Wayne's granddad will be a ninth-echelon space-warlock: this gets his grandson admission to Planet Tharg. Tarquin's mother (not seen since that fateful trip to Borneo in 1993) saw a woffalump in the woods when she was a girl. That kind of thing.

Invincibility: Story-book children infallibly possess some special gift or resource that puts them one up on others who stray into their path (Molly Moon, you will note, is a hypnotist). The Pevenseys in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe have magical presents from Aslan the lion; Harry Potter has an invisibility cloak; Pullman's Lyra Silvertongue has her truth-revealing "alethiometer". This is horribly unfair to the other children, but vital to the plot. So give Tracey, the heroine of your gritty account of the Gorbals drug trade ("My Sister's a Smack-head!") a black belt in karate, and Anastasia, soon to make her debut in "Year Two at Sorcerer's Academy", the ability to read the contents of sealed envelopes.

Keeping up with the trends: You may not know much about children, but plausibility demands that they be reasonably au fait with modern cultural tendencies. Stray references to skateboards, text messaging and the Spice Girls are not enough. All heroes and heroines, regardless of social class, say "cool", "wicked" and "brill". Wayne will also "diss" anyone who opposes his interests. As regards hobbies, Pokémon cards are long vanished from the cultural register and boy-band personnel changes so regularly that specific pop stars are best avoided.

Allegory: Essential. The Lord of the Rings was suspected of being a metaphorical re-enactment of the Second World War; CS Lewis's books are rife with Christian symbolism; Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is a kind of atheistical republican panto. Critics love this sort of thing, and it is a failsafe way to get reviewed in respectable newspapers. Make sure that plucky Tallulah's quest through the troll-haunted plains can be read as a critique of the recent events in Afghanistan. Even at the lower end of the scale, calling Wayne's eternally optimistic headmaster "Tony" and the vigilant head prefect "Blunkett" will probably produce results.

Humour: Invariably lavatorial. No animal should be introduced into your text without zealously fouling the carpet or pavement. The same goes for babies. As you reach the final chapter, ask yourself, how many times has someone stepped in something/smelled something unpleasant/looked at the ground in horror? If it's less than six, rewrite.

Finally: Find yourself a good agent, and, whatever Molly Moon may say, try not to get too disenchanted with the fame and wealth.