Joanna Briscoe: This Is The Life

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The Independent Online

Kid lit. It's the new gold rush. It's a bloody great bonanza and we should all be having a pop. bubbles come and burst; buy-to-let is dribbling down the drain; and the City has disgorged a tranche of its money-grubbers to learn humility in Islington's suburbs. Forget all that stuff. Children's literature is where it's at. Not only was a whopping third of the BBC's Big Read shortlist of the nation's favourite books composed of

kiddie tales, but now there's a brand new J K Rowling in the frame. One Cornelia Funke is the latest writer to hit the jackpot by producing a children's book. As a Deutsche dame, she can get away with the name. She's also spent half a year on The New York Times best-seller list with The Thief Lord, and now - naturally - she's busy penning a trilogy that's moved movie moguls to manly displays of their cheque books. "I earn so much with my books I don't have to worry about money," she says. My point exactly, liebe Cornelia.

The Funky One follows hot on the heels of Zizou Corder, the mother-and-10-year-old-daughter team who've copped a million or so, damn them, for their book, Lionboy. Before that, there was Georgia Byng, Philip Pullman, and the blessed J K. Like the boom, when every socially excruciating anorak thought they could become the new Martha, it's terribly tempting to think we could all do it if we tried. Yes, we know it's a craft and a calling and all of that, but it does look rather easy-peasy-Japanesey. You'd be bloody stupid not to charge up your Compaq, retrieve your school jotter, unearth a few Freud-pleasing moments dredged up with your mother, procrastinate on the issue of a rudimentary plot, and set your gaggle of protagonists flying off above some Merlin-y mountains with a leathery ruminant on their tail.

As my friend, the novelist and children's author Kate Saunders says, "There's that old saying that everyone has a book inside them. Well, no. Everyone has a half-digested meal inside them." Nevertheless, one can't quite curb the fantasies: a nugget of purest ore - virtually a cave-concealed ingot - is lurking disguised as a fluff-covered raisin under one's very offspring's very bed. The temptation's there to recycle that patent crap you grunt out to your kids at bedtime, spine aching, mind adrift, as you breathe in the scent of Punch & Judy toothpaste, sweet hair, old Marmite and faint urine and cobble together a sagging porcupine of loose ends, then pretend you've just skidded across a shimmering series of "guess whats!" to your hasty conclusion.

As a writer of dark and often quite inappropriately rude grown-up fiction, I'd still love to have a chip at the goldmine. Er, I mean, I'm gagging to express the Frances Hodgson Burnett that's primal-screaming inside me. The problem is that fantasy series are where the market's tuned, and I can't be bothered with elves. Nor dragon stuff and beards and clever owls. I'm also very allergic to runic languages. I prefer George, Julian and Timmy the dog, or orphans dressed in curtains, malnourished princesses with sado-masochistic guardians, throbbingly talented poor girls-cum-junior skating stars, or Fourth Form sailing-holiday characters with old-school tweedy-lesbian names such as Titty and Minky and Bunty and Jinty. And Muffy. Dirty realism like that. Terribly out of fashion.

When kiddie lit was the fag end of publishing, it was all right if faded mothers-of-three did it for a couple of grand and an annual cup of tea in their editor's pod. With the exceptions of St Philip Pullman and that Lemony Snicket person, kid-lit has continued to be something of a women's game, and that will no doubt grandly piss off the superannuated City suits. Are they poised to jack up their PowerBooks en masse, then, and cynically milk the latest cash cow? After all, we now officially inhabit a Golden Age of children's literature: J K Rowling's fortune has put the Queen's in the shade. We have a Children's Laureate in Michael Morpurgo. And ultra-lucrative "crossover" fiction is the holy grail.

It's infectious. I can feel an urge coming upon me to go scrabbling for that raisin, that ingot, that numinous child of destiny who inhabits secret worlds. The abiding fact is, of course, that the vast majority who set out in a gold rush with their prospecting pans find pyrite. Last night, for instance, the pirates were fighting off sharks with vast bogies on catapults, and then nee-naw, nee-naw, the police arrived. Will that do?