Potter publisher taps Chinese market

Publisher Barry Cunningham, who snapped up a domestic writer's novel during his recent visit to Shanghai, believes a good children's book has the power to change the world.
Ti Gong

UK publisher Barry Cunningham speaks at the recent children's book fair in Shanghai.

Barry Cunningham believes a good children’s book has the power to change the world, just like “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” which he published in 1997.

The 66-year-old had worked for various publishers, including Penguin Books and Bloomsbury, before setting up Chicken House Books in 2000. He is best-known for signing J K Rowling and publishing the first book in the Harry Potter series. Chicken House specializes in publishing new writers of children’s fiction.

Cunningham was recently in Shanghai, participating in the SHVIP program, a highlight of the China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair. The program invites publishers across the world to visit the fair, publishers and book stores.

He shared with Shanghai Daily some of his views on the Harry Potter series and the role of children’s books in the world.


Q: What did you see in J K Rowling’s “Harry Potter” in the first place?

A: When I read the story, I really liked the friendship among the children, and the power that the friendship gave them. And of course, I also like Hogwarts, owls, the great villain in the book.

I think the villain is often more important than the hero in a story, as it shows what struggle the heroes are against. It doesn’t have to just be a person. It can also be obstacles to overcome.

Children always want to make a journey in books. They want to feel something good to happen at the end of the books. We may not have beaten the villain, or overcome all the difficulties, but at least we have done the best we could, and we come out wiser.

To be honest, I have always preferred the alternative magic world to the real one. In a sense, stories really are just another way of telling the truth. You can see in those alternative worlds how things work in this world, and imagine how things can be changed.


Q: Did Harry Potter bring any changes to you as a publisher?

A: When I first published Harry Potter, I didn’t know that everybody else had turned it down. I love it from the beginning. We were brave publishers as we took the concept that Harry grow up in each book. It changed reading for lots of children, especially for boys. Boys started reading thousands of pages of books again. So, I think it kind of saved reading for children. It opened doors for lots of authors and books.

For me, it is like a once in a lifetime thing that every publisher has dreamed of – publishing a book that changes the world. Before Harry Potter, children’s books were not important for most publishing houses, but now, they are the main things for publishing houses.

And, of course, it also changed my life as it helped me to start my own publishing house. I then had the freedom to publish more new authors and make selections based on what I believe. It is great. I am going to publish this Chinese author, and nobody can tell me not to.

It also gave me a firm sense of purpose. What I am doing is important, as children’s books may in a way shape the future of our lives and world stories. People may say that, but I have actually seen that happen with “Harry Potter.”


Q: Is the criteria for a successful children’s book different today?

A: Today, we are surrounded by lots of distractions like politics, advertising and fashion. It is important that children can tell the difference between good and bad stories, what to believe and what not to.

I think it is our obligation to be just as good if not better than all the other distractions around. When I grew up, children’s books were confused with being a part of social work. They had to deliver moral messages, through which parents tell you what to do. But today, you have to show that in a really powerful story. Some children’s books are very successful as part of the entertainment industry today. And they tell stories in which parents are not always right.

Humor in children’s books is still very important. It can be used as light relief, so comic things happen. Or, it can be used as a weapon against bullies or evil. I love the way that humor is used in Harry Potter, to give the children strength when they needed it, and to laugh at evil. If we cannot laugh at it, we cannot take it seriously.

A girl once told me that she knew why we tried to get them to read all those stories. She said, if we read these books, we can change our own story. Our story doesn’t have to end where it began. That’s what you meant, isn’t it? I thought, wow, that’s much better.


Q: Have you found anything exciting during your visit to Shanghai?

A: I have been looking around and learning about children’s books in China. The most exciting thing is that we got our first Chinese author to publish back in the UK and America. I just met the author Chen Jiatong with his “White Fox Dalah.” We are publishing it in English next year

I really like the animal transformation ideas in it. I love the way of animal transformation that also expresses emotions, and keeps the elements of the animals in the transformer. It is very unlike folk stories in Europe. We don’t have the insight into animal behavior, using the kind of spirit of animals. I think the children in the UK and the US will be interested. It is a different kind of vision.

We are always looking for something different, or a new way to look at familiar things. I have published writers of a few different countries. But I have never published any from Asia before. So, it is very exciting.

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