No need to grow up just yet
The rich and complex world of children’s and young adults’ literature is in good shape, writes Rosemary Neill
MARK Twain defined a literary classic as ‘‘ a book which people praise and don’t read’’. This doesn’t necessarily apply to children’s literature, a field in which authors who write modern classics can command the kind of sales that would make most writers of adult literary fiction weep.
is the most obvious example: Her Harry Potter series evolved into such a lucrative franchise that her eponymous boy wizard is probably known to every 10-year-old in the Western world. This week, Rowling released The Tales of Beedle the Bard ( Bloomsbury, $ 16.95), the first book she has published since completing the Potter series. Tales is a slim collection of ‘‘ wizarding fairy tales’’, featuring illustrations by Rowling and notes by Professor Albus Dumbledore. The proceeds are to go to charity.
Another children’s writer who combines muscular sales with critical admiration is
The press release for Base’s latest picture book, Enigma: A Magical Mystery ( Viking, $ 29.95), reveals the Melbourne author was once sacked for incompetence while working in a design studio. Base clearly can afford to dine out on this story, as his picture books — including the classic Animalia — have sold more than five million copies.
With sumptuous illustrations and an entertaining story told in rollicking rhyme, Enigma follows the hunt for a missing magician’s rabbit. While Base’s prose is witty and original, it’s his drawings that transfix, rearing up from the page as if they are three dimensional.
As highly regarded as Base is another of Australia’s best-selling authors. The award-winning creator of the Deltora Quest series stays faithful to the fantasy genre in her new release, The Wizard of Rondo ( Scholastic, $ 29.99). This hardback is set in an enchanted but hazardous world within a music box and is graced with credible characters, lively dialogue and more unexpected twists than an Olympic diving routine.
Of course, there are many children’s books that deserve decent retail exposure and media coverage and will be denied both. This year, the young adult ( YA) market launched several littlenoticed titles that are as sophisticated and well written as anything found in adult literature. Among them is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian ( Anderson Press, $ 19.95) by Native-American author True Diary won the US’s 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature but has received scant publicity here, despite its acute relevance to Australia’s indigenous communities. It’s the best title I’ve reviewed this year. By turns side-splitting and heart-breaking, it tells the story of Junior, a geeky Native-American teenager who tries to escape the crushing dysfunction of life on a reservation by attending a largely white school. Another standout YA title is New Zealander
Genesis ( Text Publishing, $ 19.95). Though its narrative form ( a kind of marathon debate) is austere, this philosophical thriller seethes with complex, unsettling ideas. It’s set on a futuristic island where refugees are shot on sight, and its shock ending stays with you long after you have turned the last page.
A YA novel that would appeal to adults and teens is Georgiana: Woman of Flowers ( Lothian, $ 17.99). Part fictional biography, part social history, it tells the story of Georgiana Molloy, wife, mother and pioneering botanist who in 1829, traded a comfortable home in England for the West Australian frontier. While others could see only a khaki wasteland, Georgiana found beauty and inspiration in the riotous Australian bush.
Picture books are no longer just for preschoolers, as latest offering, Tales from Outer Suburbia ( Allen & Unwin, $ 35) demonstrates. Tales depicts the mysteries that throb beneath the complacent facade of subur- ban life. It fuses the surreal with the everyday through a series of captivating images that wouldn’t be out of place in an art gallery.
A confession: I had assumed Maximum Ride: The Final Warning ( Random House, $ 27.95) was about one of the world’s biggest-selling authors, cashing in on the YA market. I was wrong.
The fourth instalment of Patterson’s Maximum Ride series is a taut, intelligent hybrid spawned from the thriller and sci-fi genres. In it, a flock of mutant bird kids, created in experiments mixing human and animal genes, must survive frequent assassination attempts in order to fight global warming. Patterson has a hard-boiled bird-girl as his protagonist, an exception in fantasy-adventure stories where boys usually rule.
Younger readers aren’t neglected this year. The slyly humorous The Floods: The Great Outdoors ( Random House, $ 14.95) by
sees the wizard clan go on holiday. First, they must dig up granny ( born in the 1800s) from the garden so she can accompany them. Need I say more about why eight to 12-year-olds can’t get enough of the Floods?