It must be something in the air. Blair-air? Family values, self-discipline, good manners, kind to animals… Adults who have been wringing their hands over the Scylla and Charybdis of pre-teen tastes – either shocks, horror and violent death or mind-numbingly repetitive romance – can instead put them together in thankful prayer.
Animal Ark, the runaway series that passed its first million sales in mid-January, is so timelessly decent it echoes the childhood reading of 80-year-olds. What is more, it is British to the core (though the core himself, Ben Baglio of Working Partners who created the series, happens to be American). For once, it is we who are exporting a craze, defiantly unadapted, to the rest of the world – even to America itself.
The series’ 13-year-old heroine, Mandy Hope, is an aspirational figure for her primary school readers, the adopted daughter of two vets who run the Animal Ark in a Yorkshire moorland village – shorthand for Herriot, fresh country air, and a close-bonded community. Bright and independent, Mandy is awesomely knowledgeable and even bossy, while being moved to tears by any animal in trouble. She rises early to shower and do her chores for the practice’s recuperating animals, does her homework without prompting, pops in to her loving grandparents, is agreeable to grown-ups, including her overworked but relentlessly cheerful parents, learns to understand people’s feelings as well as animals’, trusts her instincts over breath-holding risks, and invariably saves the day (as well as an animal) from some tragic end – well, even her creators are about to inject some mild disobedience. But kids love her. They want her to be like that; they only wish they, too, could be that good.
The set-up is also attractively, and unobtrusively, p.c. Tousled, bespectacled James shares Mandy’s passion for animals, and plays a useful role in all the action, but is in the class below her and is very much her side-kick (although he will have a bigger say in future stories set in Africa), while Gary gets the subordinate role in the stories set in Australia; Mandy’s mother is a skilled professional who manages a home and a job on an equal footing with her husband, who makes dinner when she is weary; her grandparents, recently retired, are realistically fit and active.
The television adaptation, currently in production, will nudge correctness one stage on by melding Jean, the Ark’s receptionist, and Simon, the nurse, into one young black man, albeit something of a heart-throb. Filming has begun, fittingly by the company who made the Famous Five series, and will be shown by ITV in September. To hook boy viewers James has been beefed up into a stronger, more comic figure, but the books’ readership splits into a surprisingly healthy female/male ratio of 70:30, despite their emphasis on the doe-eyed and fluffy.
The choice of creatures was crucial. The early covers erred by putting Mandy herself to the fore, before settling on the appealing single-animal portrait by a specialist artist that now identifies the whole series – and leads naturally to pin-up posters, greetings cards and an almost limitless range of merchandise. The balance tilts to furry animals, preferably babies, never frighteningly big but not too small (there is a limit to how much suspense a hamster can inspire, although Hamster in the Hamper is a respectable seventh in their sales chart, Kittens in the Kitchen being first with 84,000); few birds, certainly not fierce-looking ones, and, so far, definitely no reptiles. Favourites, especially pets like kittens, are repeated, and a few wild animals turn up, while decamping the Hopes to Australia (koalas, kangaroos), Africa (lion cubs, baby elephants) and, soon, Florida widens the scope dramatically. The title formula (mostly the Bunnies in the Bathroom/Shetland in the Shed line but straying recklessly into Goose on the Loose) might seem restricting, but the 70 fan letters a week (mustered on a database and sent a Newsletter in return) contribute a welter of suggestions.
Not that Ben Baglio, the Ark’s Noah, is ever short of ideas. Having worked in New York with Francine Pascal on Sweet Valley High from its inception 15 years ago, he knows what makes an instant phenomenon. He has been in Britain ten years, working on early readers with Ladybird for four of them. But Ben missed series fiction, and, wanting to set up his own, he produced The Mystery Club for Hodder (an 18-title series that went to eight countries, outselling even Goosebumps in Sweden, and gave birth to The Mystery Kids), which led to Hodder asking him to come up with another idea – two months later Animal Ark had shaped up and Hodder were trusting him to choose its writers. March 1994 saw the first title: no. 35 comes out in 1998, making 42 books in total already committed, including four Summer and Winter Specials.
‘Lucy Daniels’ takes the credit and the fan mail, but, like ‘Carolyn Keene’ of Nancy Drew fame, she is in fact a team, mostly women, some of them established writers offered the chance to write more than in a normal publishing career, others, like one demoralised teacher, given a safety net to write full-time. They are paid on a royalty basis and kept in touch with every move, earning their loyalty and participation; in return they write literate and humane stories in a conventional but unclichéd style that neither sparkles nor grates, managing remarkably gracefully to weave in animal facts (the RSPCA has joined in major promotions) with a thread of human psychology.
Working Partners is now three strong: Baglio, still the editorial creator who suggests plots and characters, Rod Ritchie, formerly with Hodder’s sales and marketing department, and John McLay, with a background at Waterstone’s and the Puffin Club. Ark’s success has already bred an offspring for under-eights, Animal Ark Pets, and, looking ahead, Baglio dreams of sending Mandy and James to vet college ‘with romance not out of the question’.
These books’ curiously timeless air (‘the trick isto avoid its being a fashionable craze’) makes plans for six years hence seem almost obvious. BSE is too strong and topical a theme for the Ark’s vets, so surely it is just coincidence that a higher percentage of under-11s than ever before are turning vegetarian like Mandy – but, then again, this series may prove more than a good marketing story.
Stephanie Nettell is a critic, author and journalist on children’s books.
Animal Ark is published by Hodder Children’s Books.