Monday 23 May 2016

#CoverKidsBooks – Experts

How important is children's literature in the wider culture?  Why should the media be interested in it at all?  #CoverKidsBooks talked to some experts about these questions.

We interviewed Amanda Craig, novelist and children's literature critic for the New Statesman, and former children's literature critic for The Times and The Independent On Sunday; Natasha Harding, books columnist for The Sun; Daniel Hahn, a writer and translator who has edited The Oxford Companion To Children's Literature and The Ultimate Book Guides, and is a former Chair of the Society Of Authors; Charlotte Eyre, Children's Editor of The Bookseller magazine and Chair of the YA Book Prize; and Dr Catherine Butler, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Cardiff University, specialising in children's literature.

Why are children's books important?

Amanda Craig: You fall in love with reading through children's books.  They are an art form; they're fantastically sophisticated artefacts.  And your personality is formed by them.  When you find a great book that speaks to you, you're never the same.  These are life-changing experiences and they should be part of every civilised culture's gift to every child.   

Catherine Butler: There are two main reasons.  The first is the intrinsic quality of many children's books; it's a form that has attracted some of our best writers.  The second is that they are fundamental in nurturing an interest in reading and in shaping our sense of language, story and character – all of which are prerequisite to an enjoyment of literature for adults.  In the edifice of literature, children's books are the cornerstone.

Natasha Harding: My son is a voracious reader, and I've seen how far ahead he is because of it, on every level.  Equally, I've got friends whose children don't read, and they're not doing as well.  So I think it's important to try and get the message across about all the wonderful children's books that are out there.

Charlotte Eyre: If you catch a child with the right book at the right age, you'll have a reader for life.  And Britain is one of the best countries in the world at children's books.  If you look at the classics – Roald Dahl, JK Rowling – these are loved all over the world.  When Chinese publishers buy children's books from other countries, the number one country they go to is the UK.  It's an amazing cultural product that we have.  It's also a huge part of the books industry in general: 33% of sales.  And yet there seems to be this attitude of, "Oh, it's just children's books" – which is totally daft, really.

Daniel Hahn: I don't think people should indiscriminately read children's books, but I think people who like good books should recognise that some of the good ones are not in fact written by Jonathan Franzen.  I don't understand how you can be interested in the kind of graphic novel that is sold for adults and not think that Where The Wild Things Are is possibly the best piece of storytelling you have ever seen, because it says it's for children and doesn't have many words in it. 

"In the edifice of literature, children's books are the cornerstone"

Can children's literature be literature?  Can it be of interest to adults?

DH: I review them in the same way I would review any piece of fiction.  When the Oxford Companion came out, I kept being asked, "What makes a good children's book?"  And I kept saying, "It's what makes a good book!  It has to have the right words in it, and they have to be in the right order, and there is nothing more mysterious than that." 

AC: I treat it as seriously as I treat literary fiction or biography or any other form.

NH: Absolutely it's literature!  It's all writing.  Actually, I think it's harder to write for children, because you have to be succinct; you don't have 50 pages to draw your reader in.  And children's books can be really enjoyable for adults too.  I love reading them myself.  I mean, how phenomenal was Wonder?

Why is media coverage of children's books important?

CB: Most children's books are bought by adults, and for this reason alone it's important that children's books are reviewed and more generally covered in adult media outlets such as newspapers.  Even if children's books were only read by children – which is assuredly not the case! – adults would need the resources to be able to choose wisely.

CE: At the moment, only a very few books get talked about, and all the rest get ignored.  Bookshops are closing down, libraries are closing down, so children don't have as many options there.  A really good newspaper article can help guide parents in the right direction.  They can find this stuff online, of course, but newspapers are read by people who don't know that they're looking for children's book reviews, and I think that's really crucial.  Children's books need to be talked about where they're going to reach people who weren't necessarily looking.

DH: I think probably we have the right book for anyone out there, but how they find it if we only ever review the same few books is slightly problematic.  I think Julia Donaldson is wonderful, but I don't think she is in fact the only person writing picture books.  With more space, there's space for more range. 

NH: I'm not necessarily saying 7 year olds are reading The Sun, but their parents might be, their aunts, uncles, grandparents.  And as much as there are amazing blogs out there, would a 70 year old know how to find a blog about books?  No, they probably wouldn't.  So that's why it has to be in the newspaper, and as a newspaper, I think we actually have a responsibility to cover children's books.  I don't think we can go, "Oh well, maybe next week…"

AC: I think the problem with a number of national newspapers is that they're edited by middle-aged men who have studied history and politics at university, and they've gone into newspapers because that is their passion, and the only books they are interested in are history and political biography.  Those can be perfectly interesting – but what this overlooks is that there is a whole huge audience for newspapers which consists of people who have children or grandchildren, and people who read the books pages are particularly interested in finding books for them.

"As a newspaper, I think we actually have a responsibility to cover children's books"

Can you think of an example of coverage making a difference?

AC: I was always told that when I reviewed a book, it would go up a lot in sales.  I know championing people like Anthony Horowitz, Cressida Cowell, Michelle Paver made a difference.  I picked up The Hunger Games when nobody else was touching it.  It had a terrible jacket, and I made it Book Of The Year, and people were slightly embarrassed.  They said: "Amanda, are you sure this is a serious book?" And I said, "Yes! This is it!"   That happened because I kept pushing it.  When I get passionate about a book, I get very determined that as many people as possible will hear about it.  I was one of the first people to review Harry Potter, and I was told by JK Rowling's agent that she's got that review stuck to her wall! 

NH: I'm always a bit dumbfounded when people say to me, "I've seen a massive surge in sales," but lots of people have said it.  Holly Smale, who writes Geek Girl: I was the first journalist to give her an interview, and she's always said to me it made a massive difference to her career.  Apparently it does really help.  But my thing is, if I make a difference to one child a week – if one child's book is bought on the back of my page – I feel like I'm doing something positive.

Our research shows that children's books typically get 3% of newspaper review space, despite accounting for over 30% of the market.  How do you feel about this under-representation?

CE: It just shows that the media haven't moved with the times.  If you speak to someone like Barry Cunningham, who was the first editor of Harry Potter – he famously told JK Rowling not to give up the day job.  No-one wanted to publish children's books then, because they thought they weren't selling.  But there've been huge developments.  Business is booming.  The industry is growing every year in terms of sales.  This year, already, we're 7% up on the first part of 2015.  So the fact that the media's still got this idea that it's this small, irrelevant industry – they just haven't caught up. 

NH: It's a real pity that it's so low, because the market is so vibrant, and there are so many wonderful books out there.  You could never say, "I couldn't find a children's book this week!"  I do think that all the newspapers and the magazines should have some kind of children's coverage – even if it is just one book a week – but something regular.  I think that's the key: regularity.  Because people then look for it.

AC: I feel absolutely outraged and I think they need their heads examined!  It's heart-breaking, because every parent and grandparent and teacher longs for children to fall in love with books, and how are they going to do that if they don't know what books to get? 

CB: I see an unfortunate tendency on the part of some (perhaps rather insecure) adults to try to prove their own maturity by actively denigrating literature for the young.  I will take the opportunity to quote CS Lewis on the subject, from his 1952 essay, On Three Ways of Writing for Children: "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."  That nails it, I think.

"Business is booming.  The industry is growing every year"

What would you like to see the media do in order to #CoverKidsBooks?

AC: I would like to see at least a page every week devoted to children's books. Maybe they should do it on a different day; don't do it on Saturday, do it on Monday, when there's no news.  Why not?  Anything that gets it going, why not?  And also think about the people who write these books.  They're really interesting, they've often got fascinating stories to tell.  They're worthy of being interviewed in their own right. 

DH: The thing I'd most want is for them to treat it the way they treat other things.  And do more!  The more the better.  And everywhere.  Big TV shows!  I would love someone to do a six-part history of British children's literature: Alice In Wonderland to the present.

CE: It'd be nice to have a bit more critical coverage.  All industries need healthy criticism.  I also think the media should pay more attention to children's books as a business.  There's the idea that "It's for children, isn't that sweet?" – whereas actually, there are multi-million pound businesses behind this, with very well-paid publishers flying all over the world selling British children's books, because they're one of our finest cultural exports! 

CB: It's important to acknowledge that there has been some progress.  I don't think we'll ever go back to the days when, for example, children's books were officially ineligible to win the Costa Book Award.  All the same, it would be nice if they were seriously considered for the Man Booker, too!  We all owe it to good books of whatever stripe to recognize their quality.

#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! 

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