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From the July/August 2001 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Bring Out Your Dead

hen the Entertainment Weekly reporter called to find out what I thought of HarperCollins’s plans to “continue” C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia with books commissioned from other (that is to say, living) writers, my only thought was to decide which fish in this barrel to shoot first. Let’s see: Lewis must be rolling over in his grave, publishers will do anything for money, Screwtape has reserved a special spot in Hell for the hacks who involve themselves in this project. Easy targets — until you start to look at the situation from the point of view of the fish. I stopped fretting about my display of critical invective and started instead to worry about what this kind of cloning-by-corporation means for children’s books.

Other fish in the same pickle as Lewis’s Lucy, Peter, and Aslan include Ezra Jack Keats’s Peter and Willie, now stars of their own Viking easy-to-read series by Anastasia Suen and Allan Eitzen; H. A. and Margret Rey’s Curious George, up to all kinds of merchandising mischief at Houghton Mifflin; and spymistress Harriet M. Welsch, whose further exploits are currently in development at Random House. In each case, a popular children’s book character created by a now-dead author is having his or her “brand” extended through new authorized titles, although authorization seems an odd word choice to describe a practice in which the actual author cannot be reached for comment. Simon Adley, managing director of the C. S. Lewis Company, explained the strategy (and inadvertently gave the game away) to the New York Times: “The whole children’s market is geared toward anything new. You can only keep rejacketing something a certain number of times, and in the end you have to produce something new.” Yes, Mr. Adley, you do. But you haven’t.

I confess I can’t even quite find the ka-ching! factor in either the Lewis books or Harriet the Spy. The Curious George books, yes — morally reprehensible but financially attractive. (Although don’t you think it’s funny that Houghton Mifflin is taking the high ground over its publication of Alice Randall’s Margaret Mitchell parody, The Wind Done Gone, while simultaneously attempting to deprive the punk rock group Furious George of its name?) But it’s not as if the world has been holding its breath for a new chronicle of Narnia or has been lying awake nights wondering whether Harriet and Janie happily went on to run a successful covert arms dealership out of their Park Slope brownstone. The Narnia chronicles are finished and self-contained, as Lewis intended, and, in the case of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet, the two sequels, The Long Secret and Sport, written by the author herself, pale beside the original book. One supposes, then, that the publishers are counting on the Narnia and Harriet names to stimulate demand for these faux-new titles, a business gambit directed at the sorriest fish of all in this barrel, children and their anxious parents. If C. S. Lewis’s hopes held true, he currently has better things to think about than The Lion, the Witch and the War Chest — or whatever these continuations turn out to be (HarperCollins is dangling the names of such writers as Diana Wynne Jones and Geraldine McCaughrean, but this would be but meretriciousness piled upon artistic fraud.) Mingling high-culture literary appeal with mass-market brand loyalty is a formula designed to undermine what made these books stand out in the first place: that there was nothing else like them, that they promised a journey — into a wardrobe, into the heart of a ferociously honest young girl — on a whole new path.

You might be old enough to remember the fear when Harriet the Spy came out that children all over America would start spy clubs in their heroine’s honor. And, bless their souls, they did. The best books don’t need sequels; their immortality is achieved by giving readers the desire and the resources to continue the story in their own imaginations. Here’s a piece of advice that may not be in the best interest of publishers but is very much in yours: if you really enjoyed a book, read it again.

And for the publishers, here’s a piece of advice from Harriet’s perspicacious Ole Golly: “No more nonsense.”

Roger Sutton

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