- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Fantasy and science fiction are big sellers in children’s books this fall, but the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney is pushing to make American history a must-read. Lynne Cheney’s latest book shows how much of the country’s history was shaped by women.

“Little girls come through the line and tell me ‘I want to be president,’” she says.

To date, she has produced two children’s picture books that have outsold by 10 times her five previous books for adults.

“A is for Abigail,” which spotlights 319 women and had an initial printing of 250,000 at its Sept. 16 release, was No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list for children’s picture books during October. It is listed No. 3 on Publishers Weekly’s children’s book list behind “English Roses” by pop singer Madonna and “Olivia … and the Missing Toy” by Ian Falconer.

Her “America: A Patriotic Primer” has sold more than 450,000 copies since its release in May 2002 and was the third-bestselling new hardcover children’s title last year.

“I pride myself on absolute historical accuracy,” she says. “Since I’ve been a writer for a long time, I think I know how to tell a good story. The trick is to keep those two things both going at the same time so you end up with a really good story you didn’t have to embellish.”

Most children’s book authors can only dream of such sales. Melanie Cecka, a senior editor of Viking Children’s Books, who spoke at a recent Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in Arlington, told 210 authors that they must produce books that truly stand out.

“Editors are looking for reasons not to publish your story,” she said. “I know that sounds awful, but we get hundreds, if not thousands of manuscripts a year, whereas we only have 60 slots [available].”

Consumers spent $1.9 billion buying 460 million children’s books last year, according to the Write News, an online media-industry newsletter.

This was despite a shrinking customer base, the newsletter said, saying children’s book purchases were down 2 percent because of declining population trends among youths 6 to 13 years old.

Thus, publishers are aiming for the “young adult” market, which is anyone 12 or older.

“Wholesome” books, said one literary agent at the Arlington conference, also are back in style. The “edgy” books of recent years — which featured gruesome, depressing topics for the elementary-school set — are out.

Formerly a genre in which sales of 10,000 copies was considered a bestseller, children’s books have turned into a big-business enterprise. Sometimes they become films, as in the movie “Holes,” which was based on a children’s book by Louis Sacharm, as well as the film versions of the Harry Potter books.

Also in the pipeline for Walden Media, the company that produced “Holes,” are films based on C.S. Lewis’ seven-volume “Chronicles of Narnia.”

On June 25, CBS’ “The Early Show” launched an Oprah-style book club for children called the Early Readers Club. First Lady Laura Bush kicked off the program by talking about literacy initiatives.

Celebrities, such as actors Carl Reiner and John Lithgow and the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, are shoehorning their way into the genre. However, a famous name is not always enough to increase sales, says Alina Gawlik, owner of Aladdin’s Lamp children’s bookstore in Arlington.

“The English Roses” has sold only six copies at her store since Sept. 26, she says, and country singer LeAnn Rimes’ “Jag,” about a tiny jaguar, “isn’t selling at all.”

And Julie Andrews’ “Simeon’s Gift,” about a medieval musician and lute player?

“I love this book,” she says, “but it’s not flying off the shelves. People want books they grew up with.”

What is selling are fantasy titles such as Mary Pope Osborne’s “Haunted Castle on Hallows Eve,” which is part of the bestselling “Magic Treehouse” series; “Loamhedge” by Brian Jaques; “Thief Lord” by Cornelia Funke; and “Eragon” by Christopher Paolini.

Mr. Paolini, 20, who lives near Montana’s Beartooth Mountains, was 15 years old when he began writing his medieval-fantasy novel about dragons and dwarves. His home-schooling parents self-published it, and the book caught the attention of Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, which reissued the book with a run of 100,000 copies.

In Great Britain, Graham P. Taylor, a former policeman-turned-Anglican-priest, has slipped Christian messages into his occult thriller, “Shadowmancer.”

The story features a sorcerer who masquerades as the local vicar, a homeless boy and his African helper, Raphah, who has divine powers to heal and deliver people from evil spirits. Phrases from the New Testament show up in dialogues between the characters who operate via prayer instead of magic spells.

Despite its clunky writing style, it was running among the top U.K. books this fall. Penguin Putnam Books plans to release it here next spring.

It’s an answer to books by the award-winning Philip Pullman, author of the hugely successful “His Dark Materials” trilogy, which opposes Christianity. Leonie Caldecott, an Oxford, England, writer, calls Mr. Pullman an “anti-Inkling” in an essay in the October issue of Touchstone magazine.

Oxford, she explains, is the home of the Inklings, the famous group of writers: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, who all were inspired by George MacDonald and whose fantasy writing for children and adults set the standard against which future works are measured.

But the skewed view of the universe in Mr. Pullman’s books, she writes, make J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series look angelic.

“When push came to shove, Rowling was batting for the right side,” she wrote. “Pullman’s books [are] an example of something that was far more likely to harm a child’s capacity for faith.”

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