• THE BIRMINGHAM POST | 10 February 2001 | Mel Hunter

    If you believed the hype, you'd be torn between thinking on one hand that children were permanently superglued to a dog-eared tome by J K Rowling and on the other, that they were unable to tear themselves away from a computer screen. So what is the truth? Are children bookworms or computer kids? When author Darren Shan spoke to around 50 children at Birmingham Central Library, you would definitely think the former. Rarely have I seen children's faces so animated as when they talked about the vampires in Shan's Cirque du Freak

    Ros Bartlett who had brought the children to the library from Earls High School, Halesowen, where she is head of learning and curriculum support, dismisses claims that children are glued to computer screens and nothing else. "Don't tell me that children don't read these days. Look at this," she says, waving her arm at the wide-eyed gossiping children, clamouring for Darren Shan to sign their books, "They just need the right stimulus." The right stimulus, it seems, is blood and vampires and an undeniable touch of horror. Says Owen Hill, 12: "I 1ove horror stories because so much happens." Fellow pupil David Simms is currently reading the Darren Shan books with his mum. “I read the speech bits and she reads the non-speech,' he tells me. For the uninitiated, it may seem a little dark for our little darlings but according to Ms Bartlett, Darren Shan's books not only entertain ten, 11 and 12 year-olds, but also teach them the intricacies of story telling. “We can use his style of writing to aid their creative writing as well. He uses wonderfid descriptive passages," she explains. School librarian Lesley Smith adds: "They believe after they have read books like this that they can do it themselves.”

    Cirque Du Success For Darren

    Still in his 20s, Darren Shan already has a huge following among school children. He has had three novels in his Cirque du Freak series published, has another seven books written and is planning a series of 20. The books are aimed at an age group which was long forgotten by publishers — the post-primary school pre-adult novels age group. And as such his books are competing against those from the pen of the author du jour, none other that J K Rowling (or "J K" as I discover she's called by those in the know).

    Cirque du Freak is about something out of the ordinary but set against the background of children's normal lives. It seems that Darren, who hails from County Limerick in Ireland, has found the measure of what children want from a novel. I ask him to share some of his secrets. “It's quite different writing for children," he admits. "You have to get the right tone. It's very easy to talk down to them. But after a couple of books, I got into the swing of it. I always write for myself. When I write, I think of me when I was 10, 11 or 12. A good writer will write a complex story in relatively simple language. You have to make it fun to read a book. Like this, teachers are able to read it out in class and the stories are easy to follow."

    Shan's secret seems to be that, like little Harry Potter, children actually care about the books' hero. It means they feel genuine emotions – horror, fear and so on – at what is happening to the characters. But this horror business, is it right that children should he exposed to blood, guts and severed hands? “Children, and adults, are always interested in dark things. You can't change that," says Darren. "It's like a roller-coaster ride. You can get off a really scary roller-coaster ride at the end, and it is the same with a book. Most people like to be scared but at the same time, they like to be safe." Shan, who completed his first book at 17, points out that when he was young, if you. wanted to indulge the bloodthirsty side of your nature, you would have had to read some Stephen King or something equally adult and gruesome. With the Cirque du Freak series, the kids are getting their horror kicks but in a relatively tame fashion.

    Books aimed at this age group are now coming thick and fast, thanks, in large measure to Harry Potter. Does Shan ever get frustrated with living under the almost mythical shadow of a certain Ms Rowling? “Not at all. I think Harry Potter has found a huge market out there. It has created readers. It's good for everybody." So back to the original question, are children bookworms or computer buffs? According to Darren Shan, a bit of both and that is a trend which is set to continue. His website – Shanville – complements his books and helps his readers to get to know what makes the author tick. He also sees e-books as the way forward. "I think the e-book with come in the next 20 years and it will be mostly used by children," he explains. But is that a good thing? Surely he would prefer children to be excitedly turning the pages of his paper books? Actually, no. "I live in Limerick in Ireland and when I was growing up, I could never get the books I wanted. If there are e-books and you are hooked up to a computer, you will just be able to download them no matter where you are. That means anyone can read, wherever they are. You have to remember it is the same books, just in a different format. Kids will still be reading and that has to be a good thing."

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