a feeling that school stories, witch stories, and even school-witch
stories, have all been done before, and (dare one say it?) rather better.
Charles Butler, author of The Darkling and Timons Tide,
claims to speak for many people in the childrens book world
as he explodes the myth of Harry Potter. Its easy to imagine a legion
of childrens writers armed with failed manuscripts telling tales
of schooling and sorcery Larry Trotter and the Goblins are
Liars anyone? muttering various unprintable expletives regarding
the sensational success of J. K. Rowlings creation.
Not that Im
suggesting that Butler is jealous. Not at all. But perhaps he has reason
Like J.K. Rowling, Butler juxtaposes the ordinary and the extraordinary
to great effect. However, his writing bears a closer resemblance to
that of Alan Garner in his use of the supernatural to interpret the
contemporary world; when compared with Rowlings fairly traditional
visions of boarding schools inhabited by stereotypical (despite their
Pagan leanings) characters his approach seems all the more courageous.
Butlers portrayal of difficult themes betrays a deep respect for
children as readers:
I dont have a list of taboo subjects. If I did, it certainly
wouldnt feature death (incidence 100%), drugs (about which any
inner city school child seems to know more than I do) or dysfunctional
families. What would be the point of pretending none of that happened?
I dislike books that set out to shock for sake of it its
just a kind of showing off but with few exceptions I doubt they
do much harm. Children are pretty good at judging when someone is trying
it on, and act accordingly. In most cases it is the adults who get more
exercised by such things.
He believes that children actually read differently from adults; to
some extend this allows him more scope within his writing. There
is no easy formula to describe the difference. Children know
less, of course, and that has to be taken into account but they
often feel more, or more intensely. They make more demands on the technical
skills of storytelling, voice and pace; but they are also more willing
to have demands made on them. They have fewer preconceptions too, and
will let a story lead them in its own direction. In general, it seems
to me that the disciplines involved in having children as an audience
are healthy ones for any writer. Children are impatient of self-indulgence,
but wonderfully rewarding and committed readers when you get it right.
I ask Butler about the books he read as a child and he recalls distinctly
the feeling of pride at finishing C. S. Lewiss The Lion the
Witch and the Wardrobe the first book he read by himself.
He also mentions Toms Midnight Garden (Philippa Pearce),
The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper) and, perhaps most significantly,
Alan Garners The Owl Service. What this indicates is the
importance of fiction for children. Many adults rarely read, for all
sorts of reasons, but most can remember with fondness and often clarity
the books of their childhood. It is ironic therefore that there are
so many difficulties to encounter when publishing within the field of
childrens writing. Butler alludes to a deep- seated insecurity
in many adults, which makes them reluctant to take childrens literature
seriously. He suggests that they fear the label of childish
and that this may go some way in explaining the fact that as compared
with adult books, childrens books are produced on a much lower
budget (in terms of marketing, say), are much less widely reviewed,
and in general receive much less attention than they deserve.
With all the prejudices inherent in the childrens literature industry,
plus the age-old difficulty of getting published in any area of writing,
it is no wonder that Butler is simply grateful to be in
print. In spite of his ambivalent attitude to the Harry
Potter phenomenon he also extends his gratitude to Rowling for spotlighting
his often overlooked field of writing:
Rowlings success has brought an unprecedented amount of
attention to childrens writing, and to complain about that would
just be ungrateful. In fact, if the rest of us cant make the most
of this opportunity, weve no one to blame but ourselves. Not only
has she brought attention, she has brought extra money. Without Harry
Potter, for example, its unlikely that HarperCollins would have
bought up (and republished) the extensive list of Diana Wynne Jones,
perhaps the most prominent of those people who did it before and
better. As a Jones fan from way back, I therefore have every reason
to feel grateful to Rowling for indirectly getting some of my favourite
books back in print.
Anxieties about the ability of literature to attract and appeal to children
submerged in a multi-media culture currently pervade the mass consciousness.
What does Butler envision as the future for childrens writing?
What does he think about the multitude of TV tie-ins aimed at children
and teenagers that can be found in any bookstore for instance
the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series? I see nothing wrong with
co-existence. If anyone doubted that children still have an appetite
for reading, Harry Potter has proved then wrong. Its up to us to make
sure they have something worth reading. I have no problems with
TV tie-ins either, so long as there is a bit of room left on the shelves
for other things. However, it is depressing to go into Waterstones (or
anywhere else) and see the already meagre amount of shelf space devoted
to teenage books monopolised by series and spin-offs. No one would
dream of doing that to adult books (would they?). Things have got slightly
better in the last year or two, but the situation is still dire.
And the future for Charles Butler? His last two novels were both welcomed
with encouraging reviews. Perhaps the next, Calypso Dreaming,
will be the one to make his name. It will be published in May 2002 by
HarperCollins and is typical of Butlers work in that it involves
the supernatural. I dont believe the opposition between
fantasy and realism is so clear cut. Thats part of the point of
writing it in fact, at least for me. One effect of reading fiction like
mine should be to question where the category of the ordinary
ends. However, in contrast to Butlers previous novel, Timons
Tide, Calypso is pastoral rather than urban set on
a small island in the Bristol Channel. I remember Julia MacRae,
[his agent] telling me how sick she was of receiving Blytonesque manuscripts
about seaside holidays, secret caves, buried treasure and the rest,
and how they were always the first to be rejected. I think I resolved
then to write a book that would use all those elements but somehow avoid
Now for the silly bit you always get at the end of the news yeah
you know the story about break-dancing chickens or whatever. I suggest
to Butler that he is stranded in deepest, darkest Transylvania. For
some reason all the trees have been stolen. Fortunately he has a whole
library with him. Which books would he burn as firewood first?
With all its Nazi connotations, I was relieved to find that he would
be a reluctant book burner. Nevertheless he would chuck
in D. H. Lawrences The Rainbow and Saul Bellows
Herzog. I thought they never would end. There seemed no particular
reason why they should it was the lack of discernible shape that
got to me, in fact. Fire going out? Okay, have Kerouacs On
the Road as well for the same reason. But youre not
getting The Owl Service, no way!
So leave those great works of fiction where they belong in the
dusty recesses of your local library. Instead rediscover childrens
fiction, whatever your age, you might just find that it is better written.
For more information on purchasing Charles Butler's novels:
© Jess Wynne