Thursday, October 21, 2004

Little people, big thrills

The best-selling thriller-writer Philip Kerr was nervous about promoting his first children's novel in the US. Would shiny, happy American children take to an ageing, overweight British author?

21 October 2004

As a thriller-writer, I'm quite used to visiting other countries to promote a novel. I've even become reconciled to the new publishing order - that it's no longer enough to write a book; you have to promote it, too. Having spent months in monastic, anti-social seclusion, you suddenly emerge into the light of day, blinking like some myopic mole, and are then required to behave like a cross between Martin Jarvis and Jackie Mason.

Meeting journalists, photographers and the public, shaking hands and signing books while wearing my best grin, I've even learnt a new respect for politicians who do something similar all year round. But nothing prepared me for the rigours of a three-week tour of the United States, as a first-time children's author. Three weeks without uttering a single profanity and without once getting drunk; three weeks of politeness and diplomacy that would have exhausted Kofi Annan.

The first thing I noticed about Scholastic, who specialise in publishing children's books (they publish JK Rowling in America) is how nice they all are. How nice and how enthusiastic. Such a pleasant change from the glum old world of adult publishing where booksellers moan about point of sale (or more likely the lack of it), and editors and marketing people regard you with shifty indifference - as if it must have been someone else's bright idea to have you read to several rows of empty seats and a lost dog at some dismal bookshop in St Albans. Everyone in children's books is smiling.

Beginning my American tour in New York and New Jersey, I decide that dealing with children probably encourages this; and, unaccustomed as I am to public smiling, I fix a Tony Blair sort of rictus on my face and set off for my first speaking engagement - a 50-minute talk to 300 pupils at the Elisabeth Morrow School, in Englewood. Elisabeth Morrow was, it turns out, Charles Lindbergh's sister-in-law and, frankly, I feel like I'd rather have flown single-handed across the Atlantic than what I'm about to do. Never in my life have I spoken to a large group of children - other than the time during my eldest son's birthday party when I told all his friends that the next person to punch or kick someone else would be sent home immediately! (You get the picture.)

Somehow I get through a whole hour with Elisabeth Morrow's kids. They even laugh at my jokes. Afterwards I sign about a hundred books and autographs, and have my picture taken with various kids and even a few teachers before collapsing into the back of the limo. On the way to the next school, and another 250 kids, Charisse, my publicist, informs me that JK Rowling did the same kind of promotional tour for her first and second books that I'm doing now. I can tell that she's only saying this to keep up my spirits because suddenly this feels like hard work. But after two or three more schools I start to feel a little more relaxed.

My book is about two New York twins who discover that they are djinn, and, as well as reading from the novel, which is called Children of the Lamp, I tell the children how djinn sometimes grant humans three wishes. They know all about this part already, the schoolchildren tell me. There's a Pop Tarts commercial running on TV that features a cartoon djinni. I tell the children about my own three wishes and ask them what they'd wish for if they ever met a real djinni. Mostly this goes well. One little boy tells me he wishes he had his own personal sushi chef. Another boy stands up in front of the whole school and says he wishes there could be world peace and no more wars. We laugh when swimsuited young women in the Miss World contest come out with this sort of guff. But it's a different story when a nine-year-old boy says it, and I encourage a round of applause for this particular wish. We need more wishes like that, don't we? Especially in America. A little girl wishes she was the President and everyone laughs when I say that I wish she was, too. Who knows? Maybe there's hope for John Kerry after all.

On one occasion, however - these are children, after all - the unpredictable happens. A boy in Michigan City tells me he wishes he knew where his mother was. Gulp. And a twin in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, tells me that she wishes she didn't have a twin at all; this provokes a howl of outrage and anguish from the other side of the school gymnasium where the other twin is sitting with her friends. I'm beginning to see what WC Fields was talking about when he aired his prejudices about working with children and animals.

By now I've reached the West Coast, where I speak to my biggest audience yet: 500 kids aged nine to 13. The vast school looks more like a correctional facility, and I half expect to see some scrofulous youth trotting up the endless corridor with a newly legalised automatic rifle slung over his acne-covered shoulder. Here, the principal tells me that some of his girls wept for joy when they heard I was coming; and several with whom I shake hands tell me, improbably, that they're never going to wash their sticky little paws again. All of which persuades me to double-check that the school isn't really some institute for the blind. I'm 48 years old, for Pete's sake. Clearly there exists a real shortage of celebrities in America that is almost as acute as the lack of irony. Either that or these girls were being really ironic and I just didn't get it.

My young male fans don't seem to find any of this as surprising as I do. Cooler, more laid back about meeting a writer than their female counterparts, they and I still manage to strike up an unlikely fraternity. One of them leans toward me and says, "Our librarian thinks you're hot". Thanks buddy, I tell him. "What's the PB stand for?" enquires another youth. "Peanut butter?"

Two weeks into my tour, I'm starting to find all of this rather touching, not to say encouraging. In America, bookshops, publishers and schools work together to promote child literacy. And clearly it works. It must work when an ageing, overweight British author is treated to the kind of adoration that is normally reserved for six-packed boy bands. For years I've lived a monkish, somewhat cynical existence, never really doing very much except reading and writing and watching movies. But in a strange way I'm actually starting to enjoy myself. I realise how important children are. Not just my own. But all children, everywhere.

Arriving back in the UK, I discover that my book has entered the New York Times bestselling children's author's list. This feels good. But it doesn't feel quite as good as the experience I have just enjoyed. The fact of the matter is I feel a little privileged to have been the subject of some youthful awe. I feel like I've been given something really important and worthwhile that I ought to cherish. And far from making me feel old, my contact with children had an opposite, enlivening effect. There's no doubt about it, children are the best elixir of life I've yet discovered.

'Children of the Lamp: The Akhenaten Adventure', by PB Kerr, is published by Scholastic Press (£12.99)


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