The wise child with that beguiling mix of gaucheness and knowing is a good source of wit and depth in children's literature. Sensible Alice trails the White Rabbit down the hole, then speaks truth to the population below. Precocious Eloise dishes out havoc and bon mots from her suite in the Plaza. Wise children have always been sophisticated, but it took the felicitously named British writer-illustrator Lauren Child to make them hip and to dispatch them to a mass-market audience on multiple platforms. Child's most popular creations are Charlie and his younger sister Lola, who tackle domestic dramas from picky eating to picking library books in groovy, vaguely Scandinavian surroundings.
The Charlie and Lola books whose 5 million global sales are set to rise with the publication this month of Slightly Invisible, about Charlie's annoyance when Lola tags after him and a friend have spawned their own industry in the decade since their invention. Child, an art-school graduate, came up with her earliest characters in the hopes of making a television series, not a series of books. Now she has both. Charlie and Lola appear on everything from lunch boxes to photo albums, have fans from Brazil to Beijing and star in a TV series that airs in 34 territories. When I Will Not Ever NEVER Eat a Tomato in which Charlie persuades Lola to eat her dinner by reimagining fish fingers as mermaid food and mashed potatoes as cloud fluff from Mount Fuji went on sale in South Korea, it was the first time a children's book that wasn't a classic or a textbook was published in the country, says its Seoul publisher Kookminbooks. Children everywhere, it seems, respond to Child's vision: "It's life as it should be," Child, 43, says. "With none of the nasty bits, and all the nice bits edited into one story."
And it isn't just for kids. Child's work is part of the growing kidult genre, in which irony and nods to grownup cultural allusions sit lightly atop clear story lines. As Harry Potter and Twilight have shown, books that appeal to multiple generations live in a sweet spot for sales as does, indeed, the children's book market as a whole, even during a recession. According to industry bible The Bookseller, last year in Britain, the volume of juvenile book sales rose by 13%, outperforming the adult sector. Children are far more adventurous in their reading tastes than publishers give them credit for, notes Child: "Any resistance I met with came from the industry," she says. "I was told, 'You'll never get a book published in the first person,' and 'Children don't like to have words and pictures integrated.' It was absolute rubbish."
Child's dynamic visual language speaks to the youngest of the cybergeneration, perfect for kids raised looking at words and pictures onscreen. She mixes naïf drawings with collage, incorporating everything from fabric scraps to Polaroid photos. New fonts pop up for a sentence, only to change again for the next; the text itself can skip across the page as exuberantly as Lola does.
For parents, the appeal of Child's characters is in their wise-child patter. Her protagonists are quirky and rather quaint, fond of $5 words like absolutely and prone to pronouncing on big topics: "It's amazing the sea doesn't spill off at the edges," notes the young heroine Clarice Bean. "Sometimes I think gravity is a pity." With inspirations ranging from '30s screwball comedies to '60s Danish design, the worlds Child creates are safe without being syrupy. In Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? the hero falls into his book of fairy tales, whose characters demand he erase the mustaches he's doodled on them. The idea of genius rich kid Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton-Trent came to Child after she saw the Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant comedy The Philadelphia Story.
Child admits a willingness to see the big kid in all of us, which makes for rich possibilities: "You go to a meeting with a lawyer and see he's got a bit of tomato ketchup on his tie it's all those little details I find endearing." Equally endearing is the author's own faith in her readers' sophistication. The success of her work suggests that wise children don't just exist in books they read them too.