Boys' own writer

Spy thrillers are still entertaining boys, and some girls, Liza Mundy, of The Washington Post, reports.

Anthony Horowitz (54) - dark-haired, dynamic, funny, and just now, slightly manic - is good at entertaining boys.

In his books, yes, but also in his book talks, which he does a lot of and works hard at, because to be a mass-market children's author these days, you have to be also a bit of a showman, and nothing terrifies him so much as boring a bunch of kids.

In a talk to a group of cross-legged schoolchildren, Horowitz gleefully describes himself as a bad poet - "My publishers pay me money not to write poetry!" - then launches into what he claims is the only poem he has ever written, about a little girl who is sweet as sweet can be.

"She loved to write, she loved to read, her work at school was always neat ...

And then one day, what frightful luck, she got run over by a truck!"The boys in the audience explode with laughter, while the girls laugh more tentatively.

"Not a good poem! Not a good poem!" Horowitz shouts as the boys double over.

No wonder that Horowitz - television writer, novelist and author, most famously, of the Alex Rider series, about a boy spy for Britain's MI6 intelligence service - is seen as a special sort of national treasure, a secret weapon to deploy on behalf of boys and reading.

Yet, somewhat like his hero, he seems wryly amused by this unsought assignment.

"It is something that I have accidentally become a sort of crusader for. I never set out with any other reason than to entertain and to write stories, but I have over the years ... become the writer for boys who don't want to read," he says in an interview after the talk.

"I have lost count, honestly, of the number of teachers and parents who have come to me and said, thank you for getting my kid started."

For his part, Horowitz finds it hard to get worked up about the girl-boy reading divide.

Although studies do show that girls read more than boys, he doesn't lie awake worrying about the literacy level of the human male and plotting what he can do to improve it.

In fact, he says, the gender gap is a "completely artificial division" that "disguises questions that are much, much more serious that we should be asking, such as, for example, are wealthy children reading more than less-privileged ones? Are white children reading more than children from ethnic minorities?"But don't get the idea that Horowitz is a social novelist.

The role of a children's author, he insists, is to be neutral - to entertain kids and tell stories.

"I'm not talking about being a crusader or a zealot."

It's not the only time that Horowitz will veer toward a politicised observation and then pull back, worried that he sounds like a "a pompous prat".

Because pompousness and prattishness are qualities he abhors.

They might even be the qualities he would give a villain, of which his books have gloriously many, along with poisonous plants, terrifying women, satisfying explosions, deep scary lakes, and of course, people who fire guns at boys, often while pursuing them on snowmobiles.

After more than a decade of writing children's books that sold respectably but not well enough to make a living - he supported himself by television writing and continues to work as a TV writer - Horowitz was vaulted into the big leagues by Alex Rider.

The eighth book in the series is Crocodile Tears.

"Why I became a children's writer is still a mystery to me - don't forget when I began, it was before Harry Potter, and to be in your 20s writing books for children was ever so slightly weird, really," Horowitz says.

"I did it out of some sort of compulsion, out of basically liking the purity of storytelling, the uncluttered world of a children's book, that just appealed to me."

There are, he argues, some simple reasons his books are beloved by kids, including those other readers, girls: They are action-filled page-turners.

Alex, who engages in all sorts of surreptitious missions, is a resourceful, quick-witted boy but not one blessed with magical or superhero powers.

After the death of his parents, he is raised by his uncle, Ian - unbeknown to him, a spy - until, at the beginning of the first book, Stormbreaker, Ian is killed in a suspicious car accident.

At 14, Alex finds himself reluctantly drawn into work for MI6, where he takes orders from a man named Alan Blunt, and the peppermint-sucking Mrs Jones, neither of whom seems to have his best interests at heart.

He is forced to manoeuvre in a world of adults who are either outright villains or tepid allies.

In the world of Alex Rider, few adults are trustworthy, and the ones who are often aren't all that nice.

"The books were inspired by the times we live in," says Horowitz, who believes the deeper reason kids like these books is that they feel a "mistrust of authority" and "a sense of isolation," and for good reason.

To him, it's relevant that the books are being published during the Iraq war, when "we lost faith in our Government" and intelligence services.

"I think kids these days do feel slightly betrayed by our generation, and that's the pulse I think it's tapped."

His own generation, he argues, selfishly profited from living in prosperity, and the other unpleasant upshot is the financial crisis.

Kids "have a sense that this is not an easy world they're growing up in, and they're going to need all that they can to survive in it, and Alex affirms that.

In book after book he is betrayed, he is manipulated, he's lied to, but he still comes through OK, and he doesn't lie there and get depressed either."

Horowitz knows his role: to provide kids with a bit of escapism, a bit of fun, with books that do not pretend to be exalted.

"My place is as somebody to introduce kids to better books than I write," he says.

It's a self-deprecating evaluation, while suggesting that he might indeed help make them lifelong readers.

"I think my books are well-written, don't get me wrong, I take great care with them, and I dislike bad language, I dislike lazy writing, I try to write sentences that have a certain structure and an elegance, even," he asserts.

"But that said, my books are entertainments."

And if some boys are empowered along the way, so much the better.

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