Australian fantasy author John Flanagan, who will be visiting El Dorado Hills’ Face in a Book on Nov. 16, has been riveting ’tween audiences for more than a decade with his “Ranger’s Apprentice” books.
The richly woven adventure series is set in the medieval-like Kingdom of Araluen, where danger lurks beneath every bough, and heroes aren’t always super-sized. The New York Times best-selling author has sold more than 5.4 million copies in the United States alone, and has apps and even summer camps based on his imaginary realm.
Now, with the 12th title in the saga, “The Royal Ranger,” hitting shelves and beaming into tablets this week, and his original characters old enough to have teenagers of their own, the tale is coming to an end with a surprising beginning – the first female Ranger, Madelyn, picks up her bow (a weapon Flanagan chose long before “The Hunger Games” filled its first quiver) and makes her debut.
“I’ve got a lot of girl readers,” says Flanagan of adding a girl to the ranks of his all-boys club (although there are other female characters outside of the Rangers, a clandestine order of intelligence-gatherers and fighters). “I had a good piece of advice from my agent when I first got started. She said, ‘Put a strong female in these books because girls will like them.’ And it’s proved to be true. I’d say half my readers are girls.”
Flanagan, an ex-television writer and ad agency executive in his native country, said that he has long planned to add a woman warrior, but felt that it was a “bit of an ask” to have a girl join a group that fought with 80-pound longbows – a physically tough task for “a small female at 16.” But, he says, “I thought it was time,” adding that he armed Maddie with a slingshot as well to make her life a bit easier.
Despite the introduction of a new heroine (spoiler alert – she’s the daughter of two original characters), Flanagan says he’s known for years that his Ranger epic would come to a close. “Several years ago, I said to my publishers in both America and Australia that I wouldn’t keep writing them forever,” he says with his accented English. “Around the fourth book, I had a good idea of what the last book would be. I thought it would probably be about the eighth book, but then ideas kept coming.”
Flanagan began the series in the 1990s to encourage his son, then a diminutive kid, to read more and believe in himself. But the first book wasn’t published until 2005. His main hero, Will, was small but dreamed of being a knight. Instead, he wound up in the ranks of the Rangers and forged an unlikely friendship with Horace, a knight-in-training whose strength and size don’t stop him from being bullied. Despite those characters being created in the last century, Flanagan says that he constantly receives emails from 10-year-olds who are just picking up his works for the first time and finding that they resonate, and from kids in college who have stuck with the series.
“You just see it regenerating because they are adventure stories. They are escapist,” he says of the books’ ongoing popularity. “I had an email from a kid today saying, ‘Thank you. At times I felt really depressed and these books helped me.’ It makes you feel incredibly humble and proud. I only set out to be an entertainer, and yet I know there are an awful lot of kids that I’ve had quite a profound effect on their life.”
While he loves interacting with fans, one place he draws the line is reading the spin-off fiction that amateurs create based on his characters and stories.
“I don’t read fan fiction,” he says. “Fan fiction is a real problem because technically it’s a breach of copyright. It’s quite a problem with authors. It’s tough because it’s a really good way for kids to practice writing and to get involved in the story.”
But for readers who need more than the pages offer, the first Ranger book is now being developed as a movie, with Academy Award winner Paul Haggis writing the screenplay and directing.
But Flanagan is keeping his pen set firmly in Araluen for now, with the continuation of his second series, “Brother Band,” also set in that mysterious land. The fourth book in those chronicles is due out next summer, with more to follow.
“I am incredibly grateful to all the kids and adults who read it,” he says of his tales. “The last 10 years have been amazing for me. Every day is just, ‘How good is this? How lucky am I?’”