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Myth-take no mistake

Someone once wrote, and I can’t remember who, that the dead giveaway for most dud novels was when the author’s name was significantly bigger than the title. Airport fiction abounds in suchlike: not the enjoyable light fare, but stodgy white-sliced-bread stuff like Danielle Steel’s or Barbara Taylor Bradford’s. ­Reassuringly, Eoin Colfer’s name is dwarfed by the title on the cover of the third book of his series of novels set in a world of technologically advanced leprechauns and a juvenile criminal mastermind. But there are honourable exceptions: Terry ­Pratchett’s name blazoned large on the cover of a book is a signal to his diverse fanbase that what is inside will be worth the money.

A more reliable guide to dudness is the publisher-created rather than author-created series. Children’s literature is full of such products. Empty of wit, written to formula and vocabulary lists: Goosebumps, The Babysitters’ Club, Sweet Valley High and others. All these are by multiple, almost-anonymous writers with a single narrow focus more connected to marketing targets than to imagination and delight. Much more connected to publishers’ than to readers’ demands.

Imagination and delight: who has them? We all want them when we read. The fact that J.K. Rowling had the first Harry Potter book rejected by 11 publishers might indicate that the people whose jobs it was to discern what people (young or old) actually want to read were caught napping—flagrantly, spectacularly.

When children (and most grown-ups) read, they want a story that is going to get them truly wondering and caring what happens next. They need a main character that they can love or hate (more usually love). They like to laugh a bit, even if the humour serves only to break ­unbearable tension in a dark tale, like the Porter scene in Macbeth, while in comedy they need to see some sharpness and warmth, some dryness that hints at common sense. Colfer and Pratchett do this admirably. And children’s novels’ ethics need to be sound without being simplistic. Again, Pratchett and Colfer both have that gift of great storytellers, to place their characters in a world whose choices and problems are very like our own.
The Wee Free Men is not counted in Pratchett’s adult Discworld series, but works within that universe. Like the previous novel, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, it aims at a younger audience but succeeds as adult reading. The protagonist is a nine-year-old girl named Tiffany Aching. It is no Babysitters’ Club tale, although she must find her baby brother who has been stolen by the fairies. She has decided that she wants to become a witch when she grows up. (Fundamentalists have long had Pratchett on their forbidden list for his witches and wizards, but they and their children are missing out on good ethics as well as good ­stories.) She is a tough and unsentimental child whose feelings run deep and whose sense of duty is tungsten-hard.

Despite the seriousness of the quest and the real threat to the little brother—all fairy stories must have real monsters to be convincing—the book is continually, blessedly funny. Pratchett is a word-­magician; who else could have imagined Tiffany’s small helpers as pictsies? Not pixies, mind—pictsies. These are six-inch-high little men, very much in the spirit of ‘Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen / We daren’t go a-hunting for fear of little men’. They are blue (much fun is poked at Braveheart), supernaturally strong (four can carry a sheep or even a cow, one at each leg), drunken, ­violent, superstitious and highly moral in a ­criminal sort of way. And inspiredly, their bard is known as a gonnagle: his appalling extempore doggerel is one of their most fearsome weapons against the effete and evil elves. Pratchett may well restart the cult of appreciation of William McGonagle that was so dear to Spike Milligan’s heart.

Bad poetry is truly dangerous, Pratchett hints.

Artemis Fowl is another strong young protagonist (14). Colfer’s inspiration
was to make a genius arch-criminal out of a rich, neglected child. The world is that of today, with hi-tech everywhere and sideways glances at real-world ­problems: no child reading Colfer will come away unaware of environmental damage and the workings of international crime. He adds leprechauns, but makes them almost ­scientifically possible. They are small, relatively immortal and are indeed magic, but are also centuries ahead of humans technologically. Here they are LepReCons, terminology that reassures somehow—there is no tooraloora in their culture. It would be best if readers began with the first book, Artemis Fowl, because the series is worth reading in full. Colfer is Irish, was a teacher and has a strong ­understanding of children. To read his books, as with Pratchett and indeed ­Rowling, is to be immersed in wise and amusing versions of the world we really live in, where myth tells us important things about what it is to be human.

The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett. Doubleday, 2003. isbn 0 38560 533 1, rrp $39.95
Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code, Eoin Colfer. Puffin, 2003. isbn 0 67091 459 2, rrp $19.95

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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