Emma Roberts as Nancy Drew in mystery adventure Nancy Drew. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon
ithin the taupe walls of a meeting room, a group of men and women are brainstorming a children's fiction title. Half-drunk mugs of coffee sit on coasters, as ideas fly across the table. Bows and arrows and a compelling female protagonist suggest a nod to The Hunger Games, but it's little more than a nod since the story's set in the Middle Ages.
''How about we take a semi-historical route?'' someone asks, and the next 12 minutes involve a discussion about the exact decade in which the book should be set. Would a certain king be more suitable for this genre than another? How would the invention of gunpowder affect plot?
''How about using magic?'' someone sparks up, followed by a general murmur of approval. ''Could the heroine be a horse whisperer?'' ''Has she had to track her parents down?'' ''Or is she an orphan?''
Welcome to the inner world of Working Partners, the company behind some of the best-selling series fiction in children's writing. With more than 1000 books in 40 languages, their creations include Dinosaur Cove, Secret Unicorn and the phenomenally successful Rainbow Magic series, which has sold 20 million copies. In 2007, the series was bought by HIT Entertainment, a preschool licensing company who also own Bob the Builder and Angelina Ballerina. Then there's Beast Quest, a bestselling series largely aimed at boys. With 72 books published last year, it's written by ''Adam Blade'', with a companion series called Sea Quest.
Not that the thrusting Adam Blade, or the prettily named author of the Rainbow Magic series, Daisy Meadows, actually exist. Titles are written by teams of authors under a single pseudonym. ''We call it 'collegiate' fiction,'' says Chris Snowdon, the managing director of Working Partners. ''We're not interested in being approached with a single concept for a series. Developing ideas together is what makes our work exciting.''
Initial concepts are brainstormed by the larger team, and three or four writers and editors will then write a full treatment of several thousand words, which will get farmed out to writers to submit several chapters, before a final author is chosen for a single book.
Several writers will write books within a series, and writers and editors frequently swap roles. ''No single person owns an idea, because ownership brings preciousness,'' Snowdon declares. ''We'd have tension within the team if one person owned a concept or character.''
While this manifesto might sound like a depressingly didactic, communist interpretation of fiction writing, it gets results, both in terms of sales and the devotion of little girls to a brand such as Rainbow Magic. British library lending figures published last month showed that ''Daisy Meadows'' was the most popular children's author for 2011-12, the most recent year for which data is available.
Since 2003, 170 titles have been published, with each series running to seven books, and numerous specials; the latest - Georgie the Royal Prince Fairy - was just published. And yet, while children adore Rainbow Magic, those two words are enough to strike fear into the hearts of many parents.
''Rainbow Magic was put on Earth to punish me for my failings as a mother,'' says Rebecca, 37, whose daughters Emilie, 8, and Sophia, 6, are ''currently in the grip of a Rainbow Magic obsession so intense, it's driving me insane''.
She's not alone. ''Rainbow Magic made me seriously regret naming my daughter Kirsty, since she's convinced every book is about her,'' says Josh, 44, referring to the heroine, Kirsty, who appears in each book. Josh is ''ashamed to admit to having read 20 or 30 of those cursed fairy stories'' to his daughters. With pink glittery covers, and a huge cast of fairies, these are unashamedly gender-specific titles, with ''real-life'' themes such as the Olympics or pop culture. Showtime Fairies include Taylor the Talent Show Fairy and Darcey the Dance Diva Fairy, while Jessie the Lyrics Fairy and Adele the Singing Coach Fairy appear in the Popstar series. And back when Ms Cole was still the nation's sweetheart and an X Factor host, Cheryl the Christmas Tree Fairy sold 64,716 copies.
This plundering of pop culture is one reason parents accuse Rainbow Magic of cynicism. Many see them as poorly written books - as I learnt when my daughter read them, the verbs ''gasped'' and ''grinned'' appear with mind-numbing regularity - whose saccharine packaging and clever marketing exploit the predilections of little girls.
''The charge of cynicism is water off a duck's back for us. Giving children a world they're familiar with removes hurdles to early reading, and that's our goal,'' says Snowdon, who argues Rainbow Magic has democratised the children's market, bringing fiction to non-reading households, while enabling children of more literate parents to speed up as readers. ''We love Philip Pullman as much as anyone else, but I don't know many children who could progress to them without having done grounding in repetitive reading.''
Children's writer Berlie Doherty, who has twice won the Carnegie Medal award for children's literature and is praised by Pullman for her emotional honesty, begs to differ. ''This sort of limited plot and simple characterisation is depressing,'' she tells me. ''Books like this don't develop a child's imagination. We need to have a bigger push for the life-affirming literature individual authors are producing.''
Doherty describes series fiction as ''unstoppable'', but concedes its value lies in making children confident readers. ''I hated reading Rupert to my children, but it helped them learn.''
And even if series fiction can feel like a cynical marketing ploy intended to shift millions of books, it's hardly new. Collaborative series fiction created by the Stratemeyer Syndicate dominated the children's market in America throughout the past century, with multimillion-copy-selling series such as The Hardy Boys and the fearless girl detective Nancy Drew.
Born during the American Civil War, Edward Stratemeyer was himself a prolific writer who brought together a stable of writers to churn out children's novels based on his own storylines. According to Marilyn Greenwald, author of The Secret of the Hardy Boys, he was a ferocious taskmaster who paid writers as little as $85 for a 45,000-word novel.
Writing under the pen name Franklin W Dixon, Leslie McFarlane was one such writer milked by the syndicate, completing more than 100 titles in The Hardy Boys series, something he loathed. McFarlane despaired at the formulaic nature of the books, and, as he succumbed to alcoholism, he poured out his woes in his diaries: ''Whacked away at the accursed book … The ghastly job appalls me.'' Despite being one of the best-selling authors of the past century, he was virtually penniless, forced to raid his children's piggy to feed his family. When Stratemeyer ordered him to keep his true identity secret, he was more than happy to do so.
The creation of Nancy Drew was no more harmonious, as revealed by Melanie Rehak in Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her. First published in 1930, Nancy was nothing like the subservient female characters that preceded her. Unlike the wooden Hardy Boys, Nancy was a three-dimensional heroine. While Stratemeyer wrote the earliest Nancy Drew plots, Mildred Wirt Benson penned them into novels under the name Carolyn Keene; Stratemeyer himself never knew of Nancy's success, dying a month after the first book was published, when his daughters, Harriet and Edna, took on responsibility for the girl detective. Harriet wrote the outlines after her father's death, and entire books from the '50s onwards, but there was always tension between the sisters. Harriet championed a less wilful version of Nancy, while simplifying plot and writing out her racism.
Controversy seems to follow series fiction; James Frey, provocative author of A Million Little Pieces, has his own series fiction agency, Full Fathom Five, selling 12 books in three series, including The Lorien Legacies. But Frey became entangled in controversy when The New York Times ran a piece accusing him of exploiting young talent.
And yet, unlike poor McFarlane, those series fiction authors I contacted loved their jobs, since they tend to be prolific writers who use series fiction as a way of exercising their writing muscles. ''As a writer I bring colour and description to the original story idea,'' says Michael Ford, an editor at Working Partners who's written 25 Beast Quest books, and likens his training with the company to ''constantly being in a creative-writing class. Brain-storming sessions are brilliant for writing, as they're both highly creative and very efficient. They've taught me to think acrobatically.'' Ford creates novels from a detailed synopsis of 10 well-developed chapters with cliffhanger endings. ''If it becomes repetitive, I bring in some filmic knowledge, like details from Star Trek, to save my sanity.''
Author Rachel Elliot says: ''It might be frustrating if this was my only writing but it's just one part of what I do. And if the end result is that a child loves reading, enjoyment in my work is the same whatever the genesis of the story.''
Rainbow Magic author Narinder Dhami has 200 books under her belt. She was a literacy teacher until 1998, and the skills she learnt are ingrained. ''I know how to write books children will love reading. But if I don't think a brief will work, I suggest how to redo it.''
While the concept itself isn't exactly ground-breaking, Megan Larkin, publishing director of Orchard Books, who worked on the Rainbow Magic series for two years, believes simplicity is key to its success. A decade after first publication, they still receive fan mail. ''Many publishers have tried and failed to reproduce Rainbow Magic, but there's real skill to packaging an idea like this. We know from fan mail the fairy names really matter to the children, as does the collectable nature of the books.'' An educational specialist checks the right vocabulary has been used for the age range, and the design of each book is as carefully planned as the writing; designers use the Next catalogue to choose suitable outfits for the characters that will appeal to the average six- to eight-year-old reader. As Megan says ''For publisher and children, everyone's a winner.''
At the annual Reading Agency Lecture, Neil Gaiman argued there's ''no bad fiction for kids''. Speaking about the civilising effects of literature, he dismissed the ''foolishness'' of declaring any literature a ''bad book'', arguing we should encourage children to read any book they enjoy. ''Well-meaning adults can destroy a child's love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books you like. You'll wind up with a generation convinced reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.''
He asked adults not to ''discourage children from reading because you feel they're reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is the gateway to books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste.''
Says Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust: ''Series fiction has been heavily criticised, but is a key element in children's reading, whether it's Nancy Drew or Rainbow Magic. Of course adults find it boring, but it's not created for them. The lack of originality and repetition is part of the attraction, and the patterns are psychologically reassuring, especially for children whose lives are increasingly stressful.''
Instilling a love of fiction is probably the most compelling argument for series fiction. Perhaps parents should just grit their teeth and endure it, safe in the knowledge that those plodding building blocks will lead to literary strides.
I think of this one evening, as I lie in bed with my children, all of us quietly reading. Jimmy is devouring I Am Number Four, thanks to Frey's anonymous writer, having just finished The Great Gatsby. Dolly is now released from the sugary shackles of Rainbow Magic and is working her way through Lemony Snicket. And me? I lie between them, lost in Casting Off, No. 4 in the five-part Cazalet series. Written by Elizabeth Jane Howard, I've devoured the Cazalets, and, with engaging plot and familiar characters, they're not a million miles from the idea of adult series fiction, either.
We're all completely engaged by our individual books but, if we swapped, we'd probably be very bored. Does it matter we're all reading a version of series fiction?
I don't think so. The point is: we're reading.
Sunday Telegraph, London