'We are all heading towards oblivion. What will save us?'

9th November 2012 at 00:00
From Kindles for kids and silent reading hours to his own hardbitten adventure stories, author Anthony Horowitz has plenty of ideas about how to get children into books. After all, he tells Michael Shaw, today's young readers will deliver us from destruction

Anthony Horowitz has a human skull on his desk. It is one of the items of inspiration scattered around his writing room in Suffolk, along with prop gadgets from Stormbreaker, the film of his first book featuring teen spy Alex Rider.

A packet of exploding "Bubble 07" bubblegum can be spotted, while the walls are dotted with posters for Tintin comics, a love of his long before he was asked to write the script for the next film.

But the most important artefact is the skull. "It reminds me to get on and write," he says. "Don't slouch, don't go downstairs for a cup of tea and a KitKat - keep writing because quite soon you're going to look like this."

Horowitz hardly seems to need the skull's encouragement. The 57-year-old is the author of a staggeringly long list of books for young people and adults, and if you have ever watched a detective programme on ITV, there is a decent chance his name was on the script.

Yet earlier this year - in between finishing his new book for young adults, Oblivion, preparing the latest series of his television drama Foyle's War, writing the first draft of his Tintin script, promoting his Sherlock Holmes book House of Silk, and a dozen other projects - he wrote something rather different. It was an eight-page report on literacy commissioned by then schools minister Nick Gibb. Horowitz set out a series of recommendations for the government, the most eye-catching of which was that every child, from 6 to 16, should be given an e-reader.

"It would allow teachers at the flick of a button to put great literature and great poetry into every home in the country," he says. "And, of course, e-books are the future. There will come a time when all children will go to school with some form of iTablet, so why not now?"

The "Kindles for kids" scheme could be funded using money from one of the fines levied against the banks, he suggests. His other recommendations included compulsory reading in the holidays and putting silent reading hours on the timetable.

"Reading cannot be the ornamental table in the corner," Horowitz wrote at the time. "It is the carpet, the floor and the foundations on which all education stands and somehow more time has to be found for it in the already overcrowded national curriculum."

So how did the Department for Education respond to this report? "It was met by silence," Horowitz says. "I was very disappointed that Nick Gibb didn't even have the courtesy to send me a two-line 'Thank you, go away' note afterwards, and I'm not at all surprised that he's no longer a minister."

Horowitz stresses that he was equally annoyed at the previous government, and the way politicians generally seem to pay lip service to getting young people to read for pleasure, then fail to take action. It is a topic he may expand on when he speaks later this month at the London Festival of Education.

"Reading is a muscle that needs to be exercised, and if you don't exercise it then you'll never read," he says. "It seems sad to me that so few children will ever in their lives discover the great pleasure that I had in reading literature at every level - not just the Fifty Shades of Grey or the James Patterson or the Dan Brown but writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro."

Reading gave Horowitz a refuge as a child during his time at a "rather unpleasant" prep school in North London. Today he looks fit and conspicuously tanned, but he tells a story of how, as an overweight child, he was picked last to play football by the team captains, after the headmaster's dog.

"My salvation was the library, reading, discovering I could lose myself in books - and also picking up a pen for the first time at the age of 8, scribbling my first story about Guy Fawkes," he says.

It was later at Rugby School that he encountered three English teachers who gave him the encouragement he needed to become a writer: Nigel Browne, Robin Alden and Geoffrey Helliwell. He has named a character after Helliwell in the upcoming series of Foyle's War.

"Those teachers found the writer in me and more or less saved my life," he says. "People think school should be about getting jobs and passing exams and all sorts of things, but really school is about finding that one thing in your life that makes you excited and happy."

Adventures in writing

Since his first children's book, Enter Frederick K. Bower, was published in 1978 when he was just 23, Horowitz has since written an average of two books a year, on top of his television work and journalism.

One of his first series from the 1980s, Groosham Grange, was about a boy who attended a school for witchcraft and wizardry. "I would have perhaps gone on writing them but someone else did a boy-in-a-school-learning-magic and that rather took the ground away," he says.

He does not, however, come across as bitter towards J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter changed children's publishing, he says, as before "children's fiction and books for young people were very much in the closet and forgotten - nobody cared".

The increased buzz around books for young readers is part of the reason for the far greater success of his later Alex Rider novels. The teen spy series also marked a shift in his writing to a more hardbitten style. "I stopped writing children's books," he says. "They didn't invite children in saying 'this is going to be fun'. They were more tough."

The action-packed books have attracted particular attention for their ability to hook boys. However, Horowitz insists that he never set out specifically to appeal to that demographic, apart from by choosing male protagonists as they tend to attract readers of both genders.

When Horowitz visits the TES office to carry out a webchat with teachers and pupils around the world, it is striking that just as many questions come from girls as from boys.

One schoolgirl in Nebraska, US, asks via Twitter if the author is planning a new series and gets an exclusive. Having previously suggested he might soon be giving up writing for a young audience, Horowitz reveals that he is working on a new trilogy in "a genre that hasn't been done".

"My publishers know nothing about it yet. I'm excited as it is about a boy, probably aged 14 or 15, but one who has family. It's the first time I've written a book with that context, in which a character has a mother, a father and a sister, yet what happens to him is even more challenging than what happens to my other characters," he says.

More recently, Horowitz has been busy writing a screenplay for a potential film version of his Power of Five series. The books, known as The Gatekeepers in the US, tell the story of five teenagers from around the world with supernatural powers who unite to fight the sinister "Old Ones".

He originally wrote versions of the first four books in the 1980s, starting with The Devil's Door-bell in 1983, but although the translations were popular on the Continent, the series failed to gain a major following in Britain. After the success of Alex Rider, he re-read them. "I thought they were good but could be better, so I completely rewrote them."

Revamping the series also gave him the chance to complete it. The fifth and final book, Oblivion, published last month, is set in a dystopian near-future and takes readers on a thrill-packed tour of the world, starting in England and ending with a fantastical battle between good and evil in Antarctica.

The arch-baddie may sound familiar: an elderly Australian-American business mogul with a vast media empire, based in New York, whose minions include a pale, flame-haired villainess who oversees his nefarious operations in Britain. When a pupil asks for Horowitz's advice on creating evil characters, he says: "I think the best way to write villains is to look in the newspapers and choose real people."

Anyone who thought the Harry Potter books ended up "a bit dark" may be surprised by how grim Oblivion gets, with scenes of mass shootings, torture and cannibalism. But it is, as Horowitz says, a book about the end of world, inspired by real-life destruction and evil. "Wherever you look there is a sense that we are all heading towards oblivion - whether it is climate change, politicians' machinations, the Arab Spring or the banks collapsing," he says.

"What will save us? Young readers. The young people in schools who are going to make up for the mistakes we've made."


Anthony Horowitz will be speaking alongside Michael Rosen on 17 November at the London Festival of Education, an event backed by TES. To book tickets, visit londonfestivalofeducation.com

The TES webchat with Horowitz can be replayed at bit.lyQnttAp

Oblivion is published by Walker Books (hardback, #163;16.99)


The new Tintin film may not be expected in cinemas until 2015 at the earliest, but Horowitz has already written his first version of the script.

He is now waiting for notes from director Peter Jackson and producer Steven Spielberg. "They are both very busy people - one is in Middle Earth and one is who knows where - but it has been a fantastic experience."

The Adventures of Tintin was Horowitz's love as a boy, and his favourite books in the series were The Seven Crystal Balls and its sequel, Prisoners of the Sun, set in Peru. "I think they had the best story - a lot of the Tintin books don't have a great story, although (they do) have wonderful characters and beautiful art."

Prisoners of the Sun inspired Horowitz to set the second book in his Power of Five series, Evil Star, around Incas in the Andes. However, he is tight-lipped on whether it is also the basis for the new film. "If I whisper a single word about what the actual film is going to be, the door will open and a team of Hollywood lawyers or gangsters or something would come in and that would be the end of me."

But will Professor Calculus make an appearance after his notable absence in last year's Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn? "I can tell you Professor Calculus does appear - that's an exclusive for TES."

In the meantime, Horowitz's next book in the Diamond Brothers series is a homage to another of Spielberg's adventure films. Its title? Radius of the Lost Shark.


Speak up for School Libraries, Monday 5 November, 6pm Librarian Barbara Band joins TES to talk about the campaign to make libraries a statutory requirement for schools.

Culture in the Classroom, Tuesday 4 December, 6pm Join TES for a round-table discussion about the evolving role of museums, galleries and other cultural organisations within education.

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