Having recently given theatre critic and broadcaster Libby Purves the push, The Times has now done likewise to the distinguished children’s book critic Amanda Craig. Does it matter? Well, enough for the Society of Authors to write a letter of protest and for over 114 well-known writers, including Philip Pullman and Frank Cottrell Bryce, to add their voices to the campaign.
But they’re writers, aren’t they? You would expect them to look after one of their own. What about ordinary people? As one such person, I’d like to speak up and say I think it matters a lot, and I think that over the last 12 years of work as librarian of a primary school, I’ve earned the right to have a view on the subject.
The school where I work is nice, middle class and generally privileged. Nevertheless, many parents and even some teachers feel they haven’t really got the time to encourage children to read as widely as they would like. The days of browsing public libraries as I did as a child in the 1960s, picking up half-a-dozen books a week, are becoming a thing of the past. Partly that is due to library cuts, and also because parents find it difficult to make time for such unpressured Saturday morning activities. In these days of wraparound childcare, that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
There are, of course, an awful lot of children’s books getting published. Are they any good? Some of them are brilliant. But authors are at the mercy of publishers, who are, in turn, at the mercy of the market. Branding has always been a force in children’s fiction (look at those interminable Blyton series) but never more so than now. These days, syndicates of talented writers find themselves subsumed into the identity of a Daisy Meadows or an Adam Blade (Beast Quest), churning out formulaic fiction with a gender bias that would have horrified progressive parents in my childhood. A child can read a Rainbow Magic book every week for two years and never venture onto anything new. For slightly older kids, in this web-driven age where concentration spans last seconds, the next step is likely to be something dominated by cartoons and five wacky fonts on each page.
That’s not necessarily bad. I happen to think Diary of a Wimpy Kid is pretty good, and Cressida Cowell’s wonderful How to Train Your Dragon series takes the formula to inspired heights of boy-friendly lunacy. But anything that becomes a formula is in danger of discouraging experimentation, and the only way most kids are going to get the chance to do that is through a library. Even reasonably well-off parents are understandably reluctant to spend £5.99 three times a week on books their kids will either race through in one night or discard completely.
And that is why we need knowledgable, experienced reviewers like Amanda Craig. Yes, there’s the Internet, and literary festivals. But it’s not cheap taking your kids to a literary event, even if you manage to resist their pleas to buy the books. Unbiased literary criticism is vanishing from the general press, in favour of lack of innovation in a market-driven culture. Only a few weeks ago, in a wonderful speech, Neil Gaiman was pleading more eloquently than I ever could for children’s fiction to be taken seriously as an absolutely vital part of an innovative and imaginative culture. The sacking of Amanda Craig is another nail in the coffin of such hopes.
- A champion of kids’ books (standard.co.uk)