If you want to understand the true significance of children's literature today, you need to visit libraries. The latest PLR figures show children's books being borrowed on an unprecedented scale, eclipsing every other kind of literature. 17 of the top 30 most borrowed authors in the UK are now children's authors:
Librarians are well placed to assess the impact that media coverage has on the public. So #CoverKidsBooks talked to four leading librarians: Dawn Finch, President of CILIP (The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals); Joy Court, Chair of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals and reviews editor of The School Librarian; Ferelith Hordon, a former Carnegie Greenaway Chair and editor of Books For Keeps; and Matt Imrie, a current Carnegie Greenaway judge and editor of Teen Librarian.
Our research shows that children's books typically get 3% of newspaper review space, despite accounting for over 30% of sales. How do you feel about this under-representation?
Matt Imrie: It is idiotic beyond belief.
Joy Court: It is shameful, ridiculous and plain stupid. Look at the ever-growing list of festivals around the country and the audiences Hay, Edinburgh, Cheltenham and the like attract. Think of the number of adults involved in the children's book world, in childcare and education, and who have families. That is quite a sizeable audience interested in this material. Why are they not exploiting all this interest?
Ferelith Hordon: I'm amazed that newspapers haven't cottoned onto the interest and the gap.
Dawn Finch: I have thought a lot about this issue and it really is quite baffling. Why would newspapers and magazines not cover children's books when they account for such large sales? It simply doesn't make sense, and of course there is practically zero coverage for children's poetry and non-fiction. I'd love a newspaper to tell me how they can afford to ignore such a lucrative section of the publishing industry!
"Why are they not exploiting all this interest?"
What are some of the consequences of this under-representation?
FH: When IBBY UK nominated Jacqueline Wilson for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, we had to create a portfolio of reviews. There were no reviews of Jacqueline Wilson in any newspaper. She is dismissed. If you had anything, it was two lines: "Another popular book from Jacqueline Wilson. A cheerful book." It's the demise of space to review material; of somebody actually doing a proper review of Jacqueline Wilson. And there are many authors like that! Many authors who are to be admired, you would be hard pressed to find anything.
DF: Coverage of children's books is ridiculously limited, and this is very damaging to literacy. Currently the lack of coverage of great and diverse books means that developing readers are mainly being guided towards mass marketed books. That is not to say that there is not a place for mass marketed books, but it should not be the only choice. Children and parents are unable to see a fair and diverse representation of what is currently available. This is tantamount to censorship as many books remain invisible behind a wall of top names – the usual suspects. How can we as a nation expect to nurture a love of reading for pleasure if there is almost no coverage of extraordinary books?
MI: It does the newspaper-reading part of the community a massive disservice, as they end up only reading about books they would hear about anyway and miss out on the chance to be introduced to something new and interesting.
"There were no reviews of Jacqueline Wilson in any newspaper"
What would be helpful to librarians? What would you like to see the media do to #CoverKidsBooks?
JC: I want it taken seriously as something which merits the attention of "the man in the street". Children’s literature is the foundation stone of our culture. How can it not be taken seriously? They will also make it easier for anybody – not just librarians – to trace books if they always give full bibliographic details including the ISBN: a number unique to that book and only that book. They should always, always give credit to a book's illustrator as well as author.
FH: I think a page a week that could be posted up in the children's library would help. It would raise awareness: here are the books that are being reviewed, for parents to look at. There are thousands of book websites; I try to look at them, but one could spend all week doing that. But just having a sheet up in the library – you look!
MI: A weekly or monthly list with titles and a précis/review. There are fewer and fewer librarians each year and those with specialisms such as Children's Librarians are often dragooned into other parts of the service leaving little time for in-depth research into current and forthcoming books.
DF: They should be asking children's librarians to contribute to mainstream media – and not just in the online editions. The lists that appear in the press (when they break through the wall) are almost always formulaic and dull and drawn from a list of "classics" that were most probably on reading lists forty years ago. Last year I wrote a list of books that your child might actually want to read and this went out with the TES. I was told that it was one of their most popular items. It is clear that parents, teachers, librarians and young people want this information, and so there is a duty of care to provide access to it. Why would they not? It's not only books that need readers, surely newspapers do too?
"Children’s literature is the foundation stone of our culture"
What difference does coverage make for librarians?
DF: With so many books being published, I can't stay on top of what is good, and nor can my colleagues. We need to be able to see what is coming out so that our shelves can be full of books that are diverse and of high quality. Librarians need this stuff on their shelves, but we are drowning in titles and professional reviews are hugely helpful.
JC: The mantra of a children’s librarian is finding the right book for the right child at the right time. As Paul Jennings said: "There is no such thing as a reluctant reader. A reluctant reader is a child for whom an adult has not found the right book yet." To do that as a librarian, teacher or parent, you have to know what books are out there and you have to read them to make that match, but it is not possible to read everything (and believe me I do try!) The next best thing is finding somebody who has read the book.
FH: It may be that the book a child needs or wants or will enjoy is not a book that you personally might want. If you haven't been able to read it, then you need the reviews. You need to know.
"The right book at the right time can change, or save, a life"
What impact does coverage have for all the people who use libraries?
MI: As a librarian who has worked in a number of environments and with many challenging young people, I know the effect the right book can have on a young person. Sometimes (usually) the right book is not a best-seller; it is a quirky, niche story that has a particular audience, and if one member of the audience is a disaffected non-reader and that book gets into their hands, it can change their world! These books usually do not get coverage and can pass by unnoticed. With no reviews to highlight their existence, so many books can be missed. Libraries that do not have professional librarians can end up with a very superficial collection that does not fully engage with readers.
JC: The library with a specialist children's librarian to advise would have been the safety net for all families, but we all know what has been happening with library closures and the loss of professional posts. Even school libraries have been closed. Yet it is within the wonderful range of books that are out there, if you can find them, that you are more likely to find that magic book to get a child started and the quality to sustain a lifelong habit of reading. All the evidence shows that reading for pleasure impacts upon life chances. This is not something that is just for fun. This is deadly serious.
DF: I can't even begin to list the number of children who have found their voice or their identity thanks to the right books. Time and time again I have hand-picked a book for a child and seen how it reaches inside them and makes them feel better about who they are. I have seen children get through divorce, death, gender or sexuality confusion, bullying, social isolation and so much more with the right book. I have lost track of the number of kids whose life has been made better by reading a book and realising that they are "normal" too. That is why it's important to have books that encompass all issues and lifestyles – the right book at the right time can change, or save, a life. We need coverage to show that these books are out there.
#CoverKidsBooks – Teachers
#CoverKidsBooks – Parents
#CoverKidsBooks – Experts
#CoverKidsBooks – Writers & Illustrators
#CoverKidsBooks – Parents
#CoverKidsBooks – Experts
#CoverKidsBooks – Writers & Illustrators
#CoverKidsBooks invites you to join in a public conversation about children's books. Leave a comment, write a blog of your own, or tweet about it using the hashtag. Tell us why children's books matter to you, and what you'd like to see the media do to #CoverKidsBooks!