BRIEFING
[ 1 November 2018 ]

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British authors and illustrators have fired the imagination of children, the world over, for more than a hundred years

Going international

The children’s book market tends to be regionally fragmented, perhaps because of language barriers and the importance of metre, rhyme and cultural familiarity. British artists and authors, are a notable exception, routinely creating characters and franchises that appeal to children the world over.

'Dear Zoo' – flippin' marvellous

35 years after its publication, Dear Zoo, the flip-over book for toddlers, is still on the Amazon USA best-seller Top 20 Best-Selling children’s books, as of this morning. Scottish writer and illustrator Rod Campbell’s little work has been translated into Albanian, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Persian, French, Gujarati, Hindi, Panjabi, Portuguese, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Somali, Spanish, Turkish, Urdu and Vietnamese.

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Plenty of 'Room on a Broom'

Another one on the Amazon USA best-seller list top 20, 17 years after publication, is Julia Donaldson’s Room on a Broom. The reason for its extraordinary popularity is that everyone already owns the Gruffalo…

'The Gruffalo'

This hairy monster has sold 13 million copies in 59 editions worldwide, is currently running in both the West End and Broadway and is the subject of an Oscar-nominated animated film, with the mouse voiced by British comedian James Corden. Imagine what it could have achieved with proper metre and rhythm.

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All-time biggest sales in the USA

Global sales figures are hard to come by, but in the US, three British authors feature in the top 10 best-selling books of all-time. They are, at #2 The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (1902); #5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire[the only one in the top 5 written after 1965], and #10. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets(1999)

“Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were - Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.”

The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter, 1902

'The Tale of Peter Rabbit'

The book has sold 9 million copies, a pretty slow-seller by Potter (Harry, not Beatrix) standards, but the franchise, including merchandise, TV and a Sony Pictures movie, (voiced yet again by James Corden) is a mega-seller. Beatrix Potter refused to let Walt Disney get his hands on the franchise in the 1930s, but these days, Peter is in full action-hero mode. Peter was the first soft toy ever to be patented, making it the oldest licensed character in the world.

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'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'

By some measures, the most successful children’s book ever. The fourth instalment in the saga of a bespectacled trainee wizard, by British author J.K Rowling, sold 8 million copies in its first year. A rough estimate is there are now about 400 million copies floating about, having been translated into 68 languages. And that’s just one book in the franchise. But why read the books when you can see the movies or go to Harry Potter World in London, or Florida?!

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The famous six-hundred million

By the standards of her day, Enid Blyton makes J.K. Rowling look provincial. She sold more than 600 million copies of her children’s books in the 1930s, which, coincidentally, was precisely the number of literate people in the world at the time. Imagine that. Her series including the Famous Five, Secret Seven and the Faraway Tree, remain popular despite some sentiments that were deemed politically incorrect as long ago as 1950.

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'Winnie the Pooh'

When US businessman Stephen Slesinger purchased the rights to Winnie the Pooh for $10,000 on the author’s death in the 1950s, he turned the beloved character from the poems into a $500m per annum empire. The bear went on to be the subject of an acrimonious dispute with Disney that verged on the salacious. It’s all a long way from the charming stories written by the World War 1 veteran and World War II home-guard captain, AA Milne.

“People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day" – Winnie-the-Pooh

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Best of the rest

Beneath these mega-sellers, are a whole range of very successful, much-loved books, too many to mention. Here are a few:

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'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

By German Jewish immigrant Judith Kerr, which flies off the shelves in English, German and Japanese, 50 years after publication. She is also the author of Mogg the Forgetful Cat, which has appeared in 17 children's stories between 1970 and 2015.

'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'

About a million copies sold, several films, musicals and merchandise. But girls are tending to outperform boys…

‘A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men' – Willie Wonka

Matilda finally reaches her potential

Sales of this story of a clever, brave, ill-treated girl, have recently spiked to make this Roald Dahl’s most successful work by a margin, with 17 million copies sold worldwide.

'The Wind in the Willows'

Written in 1908 by a retired Bank of England secretary, Kenneth Grahame, the book was adapted for stage by AA Milne after its 31st reprint. More than a century later, the tale was adapted for stage again, in 2016, by Julian Fellowes.

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Big friendly illustrator

Dahl’s stories work partly because of the genius of his illustrator, Quentin Blake who is now working on the stories of David Walliams, a popular children’s author in the UK.Sales of this story of a clever, brave, ill-treated girl, have recently spiked to make this Roald Dahl’s most successful work by a margin, with 17 million copies sold worldwide.

TV, toys and books

Billionairess Peppa Pig (created by four blokes from Middlesex Poly) has shown the power of a TV-first approach to book sales. Meanwhile, Thomas the Tank Engine has moved from books and TV, to amusement parks and a huge franchise. The trains with faces are particularly popular with autistic children.

Modern childhood in story

With the world and the nature of childhood changing so much, one writer that reflects the times is multi-award winning Jacqueline Wilson, a controversial writer who doesn’t shy away from covering the topics that reflect real children’s lives from divorce to adoption.

Translators

The translators of both Tintin and Asterix, were, most critics agree, geniuses in their own right. For Tintin, Hergé relied on Michael Turner and Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper to anglicise the books, while Derek Hockridge and Anthea Bell, who died last month, did the same for Asterix. “For all the genius of Goscinny and Uderzo,” writes Harry Mount in the Oldie, “Bell's translations were often better than the original. In French, the village druid is called Panoramix - good but not nearly as brilliant as Getafix... In French, the tone-deaf bard is called Assurancetourix - 'assurance tous risques', meaning 'comprehensive insurance'. Again, pretty good, but not nearly as apt as Cacofonix.”

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What the critics say

Money isn’t everything. A meta-survey of international critics from Boston to Beirut, conducted by the BBC, placed four British children’s books in the all-time global top ten. #8 Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; #7. Winnie the Pooh. #4 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and #2 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And not a wizard in sight.

Why so successful?

Britain appears to have produced world-class children’s books, over the long-term. Why so? A major advantage may be the English language – although this cuts both ways, offering huge international competition for stories in the native tongue. An established and savvy community of agents and booksellers may help. But this is hardly unique. The secret ingredients are likely to be softer, more elusive and highly subjective: creativity; imagination; some whackiness. Or as this insightful Atlantic article suggests, Britons love irony, fantasy, are more in touch with ancient folklore, inhabit a landscape of ancient countryside with castles, churches and woods and have a monarchy with roots that stretch into myth. What do you think?

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