The past ten years have been seen by many as a golden era for children’s literature. Today the market for children’s fiction is more vibrant (and lucrative) than ever, with bestselling children’s books cramming shops and virtual bookshelves. But what are the drivers behind this phenomenon, and is this golden era set to continue?
Not too long ago, the children’s book market was a quiet and sedate part of the literary world. Children’s authors managed to carve out a sensible living. Some of them could even boast a moderate level of recognition, but non could ever dream of the stellar success enjoyed by the likes of JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyer.
Almost overnight, however, things changed. Pottermania and Tolkienitis swept the land, film studios burst at the seams with adaptations of wizards, orcs, dwarves and vampires and authors began to enjoy the sort of wealth and fame previously reserved for pop legends and movie stars. Children’s books had not simply become popular, they were rock ‘n’ roll! But how on earth did this happen?
Where there’s books, there’s brass
The popularity of children’s books such as the ‘Harry Potter’ series owed much to the accessibility of their storylines and the ability of the author to spin a good yarn. Nevertheless one cannot underestimate the power of the big screen.
Previously film studios would not have dared attempt to bring the creations of JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien, Philip Pullman and, more recently, Suzanne Collins to life. They simply did not have the tools to do so. The vast cinematic success of these big screen adaptations was the result of major developments in costume and special effects. Battle sequences, impossible landscapes, indeed whole worlds were now made possible due to advancements in technologies such as CGI. Directors now had the capability to give these incredible narratives the vividness and realism they deserved.
Such epic quests as ‘The Lord of The Rings’ and ‘Harry Potter’ promised equally large audiences and blockbuster box office success. Over a decade has passed since ‘The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring’ and ‘Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone’ were released on the silver screen in 2001. However, the voracious appetite of the film industry for children’s fiction is still yet to be sated.
Hollywood studios continue to hoover up film rights to children and young adult (YA) books. Commenting in a recent article published by the Los Angeles Times, the president of Harper Collins Children’s Books observed that networks are so hungry for content, “they’re acquiring rights even before books come out”.1
The ability to commercialise children’s literature extends far beyond cinema. Clothes, computer games and other merchandise all prove lucrative revenue streams into which global conglomerates are desperate to tap. ‘Harry Potter’ has become far more than a bestselling children’s book, it is a powerful commercial brand.
The all conquering ebook
Some say they sound the death knell for the written word, others argue they represent a new departure in accessibility to literature. Whatever the opinion, ebooks are here to stay. Recent figures demonstrate that UK ebook sales rose by 366% in 2011.2 Their growth in the US market has been even more significant. Sales figures compiled by the Association of American Publishers showed that sales in children’s and YA ebooks enjoyed a particular surge in numbers rising by just over 475% between January 2011 and January 2012.3
Products such as Amazon’s Kindle or the Sony Reader give access to an unbelievable range of titles at the touch of a button, whilst tablet computers such as the iPad offer a level of connectivity that is far beyond the capabilities of the traditional novel. With the brush of a touch sensitive screen, children can find themselves playing a game or interacting with one of their favourite characters. Far from destroying the book, technology has brought it to a whole new level of imagination and adventure.
Breaking down the barriers
One of the factors which spurred the success of children’s books such as ‘Harry Potter’ or teen adventures, such as the ‘Twilight’ saga, was their ability to blur the distinction between adult and children’s fiction. Pottermania was not simply a craze for excited little boys and girls. Their parents were also just as keen to lay their hands on the latest release. The works of Rowling were to be found just as readily in the office as they were on a child’s bedside table.
Such was the popularity of children’s books at the start of the 21st Century, that the New York Times was even forced to print its first bestseller list for children’s books. Previously children and adult fiction had been lumped together. However, in the year 2000 the newspaper yielded to protests that the dominance on children’s and YA literature was keeping many worthy adult contenders off the list!
The ability of children’s fiction to entertain audiences of all ages is not a recent phenomenon. Authors such as Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson were capable of drawing fans both young and old. The key difference in the 21st century, was that the stigma attached to reading below one’s age limit seemed to evaporate. Adults were just as free to pick up a copy of ‘The Hunger Games’ as any teenager without the fear of feeling that they were ‘reading down’.
The fame game
In years gone by, when a celebrity reached the requisite level of fame, out popped the autobiography. Nowadays, it is far more likely for actors and musicians to sit down to pen a children’s book. From Paul McCartney to Madonna, Emma Thompson to Jamie Lee Curtis, the children’s book market just can’t get enough of celeb storytellers.4
Of particular note is the series created by comedian David Walliams, and published by Harper Collins. The collection includes titles such as ‘Billionaire Boy,’ ‘Gangster Granny’ and perhaps more controversially, his first title ‘The Boy in The Dress’, where Walliams explores themes such as cross dressing. The fact the celebrities are drawn to children’s literature is significant. Whilst their contributions may not drive the children’s market, they certainly act as a catalyst.
Significantly, such is the pull of contemporary children’s literature, that well established authors of adult fiction have suddenly found themselves looking to write bestselling children’s books. John Grisham, whose latest legal adventure centres around the exploits of ‘kid lawyer’ Theodore Boone, is a prime example of an adult author who has been influenced by the irresistible draw of children’s literature. As the Guardian newspaper commented in 2005, “every once in a while… one literary form comes to dominate. When that happens, all the other practising artists are pulled towards the dominant form”.5
Seven years on, it appears that children’s books are still exerting a strong gravitational force on the rest of the literary scene.
Blockbuster movies, the digital age and celebrity are all very well. But the fact is that children’s books also enjoy (at least in the UK) solid support at grass roots level.
The popularity of the British book festival grows steadily and children’s literature often appears high on the billing. The world famous Hay Book Festival attracts crowds from the far corners of the globe, whilst the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which finishes today, attracts more attention year on year.
Both events take children’s literature very seriously. In particular the Hay Festival runs ‘Hay Fever’, which caters specifically for the younger reader, offering them the chance to indulge in the magic of literature and meet the authors of their favourite books.
Young at heart
All these ingredients provide the perfect fertile environment for children’s books to flourish. Nevertheless, although the influence of film, technology and celebrity cannot be ignored, there does seem to be something else that gives the enchanting world of children’s books a unique footing in a very competitive industry.
Although difficult to decipher, perhaps the X-factor that makes children’s literature so special is that it has had, at one point at least, a very strong connection with all of us. Whether a fan of crime novels, science fiction or chick lit, everyone has been captivated by a good children’s book at some time in their youth.
We all remember the stories we read as children and the magical spells they cast upon us. Though it must be accepted that the dominance of children’s fiction, owes much to billion dollar production companies and clever marketing initiatives, surely it is our craving for adventure and escapism that truly underpins its popularity. That, and a desire to reconnect with our childhood and to rediscover a time where magic and mystery were a reality and anything was possible.
1. Susan Katz, president of Harper Collins Children’s Books.
2. Figures taken from the UK Publishers Association. http://www.publishers.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2224&Itemid=1618
3. Figures taken from the Association of American Publishers. http://publishers.org/press/62/
4. Paul McCartney, ‘High in The Clouds’ (2005), Faber and Faber. Co-written with Philip Ardagh and Geoff Dunbar; Jamie Lee Curtis, ‘My Brave Year of Firsts: Tries, Sighs, and High Fives,’ (2012) Harper Collins. This is the latest in a long line of picture books by the famous Hollywood Actress; Madonna, ‘The English Roses,’ (2003) Callaway Puffin; Emma Thompson, ‘The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit’, (2012) Penguin / Warne
5. Dina Rabinovitch commenting in the Guardian in 2005. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/mar/31/booksforchildrenandteenagers.comment