NY Times mag piece on Barker’s new imaginary world for children:
- Walking into what Barker calls the inside of his head — that is, his private art studio — is like tripping into a punk-rock version of Oz. Brightly colored oil paintings, some of them as wide as 13 feet, cover the walls of six large rooms from floor to ceiling. There are 386 of these paintings, and while some portray ethereal landscapes and bashful-looking animals, most are a little freaky. In one, a creature sprouts seven tiny heads out of the tips of its antlers; in another, a beast with cat’s eyes holds out an assortment of skulls on stems, as if they were a bouquet of flowers. Seeing Barker’s artwork, you think: This is how Charles Addams might have painted if he’d been a serious Deadhead. ”I’m just a conduit for this stuff,” Barker says. ”It’s like pulling something out of my subconscious — something that isn’t a rabbit.”
The paintings that cram Barker’s walls each illustrate a corner of an elaborate children’s fantasy universe he calls the Abarat — and that universe is poised to become big business. This month, the Joanna Cotler imprint at HarperCollins will publish ”Abarat,” the first in a series of four sprawling kids’ novels Barker is writing based on the world he has poured into his artwork. The book spins out a story that has sometimes tinny, sometimes lovely echoes of children’s classics that range from ”The Wizard of Oz” to ”The Chronicles of Narnia.” It’s about a teenage girl with an ungainly name (Candy Quackenbush) who lives in a place that is almost as unfortunate-sounding: Chickentown, Minn. Candy is bored and lonely and frightened of her abusive father. One day, in a field near her house, she falls almost by accident into the Abarat — a teeming archipelago of 25 islands where each represents a different time of day. Once there, Candy finds a destiny of sorts: she must save the Abarat, and ultimately the human race, from the designs of a posse of bizarrely twisted villains.
”Abarat” has its problems — it’s not going to make anyone forget Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. Candy’s adventures can seem more like a wacky fun-house ride than a subtle, well-planned journey. And some of his wordplay may make even 12-year-olds groan. (One fishlike character has a ”piscatorial pout.”) But Barker’s book keeps you effortlessly turning the pages, and the metaphor that underpins ”Abarat” is always pushed front and center: childhood can be a stew of nightmares, and the only way to get out of it intact is by marshaling all the pluck, curiosity and good company you can.
The book is a lavish production, and a big gamble for HarperCollins, despite the fact that Barker’s earlier book for children, ”The Thief of Always” (1992), became a stealth sensation, selling more than 500,000 copies. ”Abarat” is a different beast. It is stuffed with more than 100 color reproductions of Barker’s artwork, and it will retail for $24.99 — a price at which it will have to tempt parents as much as the book’s coveted 10- to 14-year-old audience. In the absence of a new Harry Potter novel, it will also have a lot of competition on bookstore shelves this fall. There are new kids’ novels from such established adult writers as Michael Chabon, Carl Hiaasen, Isabel Allende and Neil Gaiman, not to mention imports like ”The Thief Lord,” from the German writer Cornelia Funke.
But HarperCollins’s gamble on Barker’s ”Abarat” series is nothing compared with what Walt Disney has riding on the project. Two years ago, in a decision based solely on an early peek at Barker’s paintings — he hadn’t yet begun to write the books — Disney laid out nearly $8 million for the film, theme park and multimedia rights to Barker’s Abarat universe (HarperCollins already had the rights to all four books). Barker reportedly gets $4million now and $4 million when the first film goes into production. That’s easily the most money ever paid for a children’s property that not only wasn’t fully established but that, in many respects, didn’t yet exist.
”For me, this is like a new ‘Star Wars,”’ says Michael Mendenhall, Disney Studio’s president of marketing and synergy. Mendenhall doesn’t just see ”Abarat” movies — he sees video games, theme-park rides, restaurants, action figures. ”We’ve talked with Clive about his own theme-park island,” Mendenhall says. ”But there’s so much stuff in Clive’s book, and our guys are so clever, who knows where this will wind up? It could go 100 different ways.”….