Fizz for Kids

Blanche Clark finds out how one mother helped transform the literary landscape for reluctant readers
Herald Sun, 17/7/2010

MOTHER of two and children’s publishing dynamo Susannah McFarlane remembers a sign that summed up the prevalent attitude to children in London, where she lived for seven years. It said, “‘Sorry, no dogs’, then underneath, ‘No children’, with no apology for discriminating against children,” she says. “And all the doors open the wrong the way for prams. It’s as if they are actively discouraging any reproduction.”

The new millennium had dawned and McFarlane was on a career high as managing director of the children’s publishing house Egmont. But for the sake of her children, Emma and Edvard, she returned to her hometown, Melbourne, where she joined forces with Hardie Grant to create its children’s division, Hardie Grant Egmont. The decision was made to add new Australian titles to Egmont’s treasure chest of favourites, such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Winnie the Pooh and Tin Tin.

“The Zac Power series was created because my son wouldn’t read, which is embarrassing when you’re a children’s publisher,” McFarlane says. “Emma, bless her, read from an early age and loves it. Edvard didn’t. He loved being read to, and loved the stories, but he didn’t actually like doing it himself.” Then aged seven, he needed a stepping-stone to the popular Anthony Horowitz books. “It’s a bit like jogging. If you don’t regularly jog, you can’t just run a marathon, and that’s what Horowitz represented to him. And he didn’t like fantasy, so there goes 95 per cent of the books for the age group.”

McFarlane helped formulate the plotlines for the Zac Power books and authors were commissioned to write the stories. “It was about having a fast-paced narrative, basically about getting boys who are reluctant readers to turn the page, finish the book and have that satisfaction, and then get them on to reading books that are more textured.”

The Go Girl series was developed to counter-balance the proliferation of books about princesses, fairies and magic. “There were heaps of sparkly books. I love a bit of sparkle, but girls of that age are really into life,” McFarlane says. “There was nothing that represented their world and all those things that are a big deal when you’re that age – like that awful moment at lunchtime when no one is playing with you and you think no one likes you and your life’s probably going to be over, but it’s completely fine when 10 minutes later you find someone.”

After a change of direction at Hardie Grant Egmont McFarlane left in 2008 and sold her 25 per cent of shares in the children’s publishing company. As part of the deal, she was restricted in her publishing activities for part of last year, but the ideas kept coming. “I thought, ‘Oh well, I’ll have a go at writing myself for fun’,” she says.

McFarlane was intrigued by how girls, even confident girls, put themselves down. “I was doing some voluntary literacy work at school, which I still do, and it’s amazing to watch the range of literacy levels in one class,” she says. “This is generalising a bit, but enough to make the point. Boys could stand up and, even if they were speaking complete rubbish, would be so confident, and some of the girls would be saying interesting stuff and would stand up, and say, ‘Sorry’ or ‘Mine’s not very good’.” She was also sick of girls being the sidekick. “Even Hermoine Grainger, who everyone loves, is still only a sidekick.”

McFarlane started her own business, Lemonfizz Media, and created a series of books starring code-cracking secret agent Emma Jacks, aka EJ12, a pastiche of her favourite TV show Get Smart and the Go Girl and Zac Power series. “The idea was there’d be this issue that she’d want to avoid and she’d get called away on this mission, which would echo the challenge she had in real life, and she’d be able to do the mission, no problem, and when she’d get back to her real life she’d realise she could kick the other problem.”

The books, which are published through Scholastic, are pitched at seven- to 10-year-old girls, with books five and six out last month and books seven and eight due in September. Discerning readers may have noticed that there are no boys in the EJ books. “I don’t think any girl I’ve spoken to has picked it up, but there are not any guys in EJ. The pilot who takes her to her mission and the professor are women. It’s there as a nice revisionism.” But she hasn’t neglected the boys’ market. She has produced, in partnership with educational consultant Louise Park, the Boy vs Beast series as a predecessor to the Zac Power series. “The books are fast-paced and loaded with high energy while maintaining a low word-count and simple sentence structure,” she says.

McFarlane says life is hectic and it’s a challenge to juggle work and her children’s needs. “I knew I was possibly working a bit hard when I sat down to watch MasterChef with the kids and they said, Are you going to watch it?’ and I said ‘yes’, and they said ‘You’re going to sit here and watch the whole thing?’”