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Just ask Peter Sagal: How to make billions in kids’ lit

With the end of 2010 came the end of an era — and the coming year marks the end of a very lucrative franchise. This year will see the release of the final film in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The movies have shattered box office records and the books have dominated The New York Times bestseller list for more than a decade.

So who, then, will be the next children’s book author to become a billionaire? Could it be you? Peter Sagal, of “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” is Need to Know’s resident advice columnist. And this week, he has some tips on how to become the next J.K. Rowling:

Dear Need to Know,

I’m a smart literate person who enjoys reading and writing, but what I’d really like to do is be a billionaire. Now that the Harry Potter franchise is almost played out, how do I create the next worldwide phenomenon in kids’ literature?

Signed,

Aspiring

Dear Aspiring,

I understand the problem. You could commune with your muse, write what’s in your heart and tell the story that you need to tell, and hope it finds resonance with an audience, somewhere. But in general, muses are useless when it comes to marketing a line of action figures. Instead, try this proven formula. First up, your protagonist. It will have to be a boy, because girls will accept male protagonists, but for the most part boys won’t accept girl protagonists. That’s because if you gave a boy a girl’s point of view, most of them would just take off their clothes and go find a mirror.

Your boy hero should be smart, but not too smart, brave and foolhardy, but he should never pay any real price for his foolhardiness. In fact, it should always be the case that smashing a door down makes more sense than looking for a key. He should have two friends — a girl, who’s much smarter than he is, and often gives him advice, which turns out to be wise, except when she says, “Don’t smash down that door!” And he should have a male best friend, who isn’t as brave as he is, isn’t as smart as the girl, in fact, isn’t much use at all except to be impressed with the hero and make him look good in comparison.

The villain should be astonishingly evil and malicious, of course, but for some reason all of his evil intent is on the child hero. That’s because it makes the child important. As Oscar Wilde might have said, the only thing worse than being hunted by a pitiless murderer, is to be ignored by a pitiless murderer.

Most importantly, your hero must be special. The entire parenting industrial complex is devoted to the proposition that every single child is more special than all the others. So what special specialness should you, the aspiring billionaire kid’s author choose? Having magical powers, wielding powerful weapons, and having wings have all been taken. How about: he’s bitten by a flea, and has the power to infest things and make them itchy? He can talk to animals, but they refuse to listen to him? He can eat almost anything and not gain any weight?

But what if once you’ve written your books and made your millions, people complain that kids don’t really want formulas or even magical powers — they want actual magic, meaning vivid characters whose lives and struggles are a mirror of their own, and stories that act like kindling to fires of their own imagination? Just tell ’em, ‘Hey, it’s been done.’

Meanwhile, book six of The Boy Who Could Eat Anything And Still Stay Slender series comes out next month.

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