There’s been quite an outcry against the celebrity-author dominated list of giveaway titles for next year’s World Book Day. It’s a big deal, because for many people bookshops are unknown territory (they may only see books on sale occasionally in supermarkets in their neigbourhood). This is the only book their kids will own all year and if you think that isn’t a big deal come and watch the scrummage when they’re handed out on the day.
So does the celebrity issue really matter or are a few luvvie writers just crying foul?
I’ve always been able to see both sides of this argument but the tectonic plates of my attitude are starting to shift. On the plus side, some celebrities really are good at connecting with children and writing excellent books. Others can certainly turn in a competent job as part of their personal brand, with or without editorial assistance (a hornets’ nest I’d rather not dig into here).
So I’m not declaring war on all children’s books by people who started off being famous for something else. And anyone who grew up reading Enid Blyton or The Hardy Boys will know that the endless, formulaic series has been a staple of the sector for a long time. But the intellectual property of huge corporations is so deeply interwoven into children’s cultural landscape these days that I think some questioning of this trend is legitimate.
Robert McFarlane, writing this week in the Guardian, points out that a recent survey showed that many children are far more confident naming fictional Pokèmon than native wildlife. What bothers me even more in my own work is seeing how magnetic the effect of a well-exposed franchise is on children. Sit them down for a story and they cannot concentrate – their eyes are drawn hypnotically to the Star Wars book behind you, so much so that I actually put such titles out of sight. And don’t get me started on Peppa Pig.
It’s almost as if children need these characters to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of a library and reassure them that they are safe there. For some, I suspect that sitting unsupervised watching Peppa on a screen has taken the place of the comfort of sharing a story with a loved grown-up. There are all sorts of reasons for this, some political, some economic, and just blaming parents isn’t fair when libraries are closing , work is more scrappy and casualised than it’s ever been and books are unaffordable for many. Nor should we overlook the reality that for children whose first language is not English an international franchise can be a useful bridge.
The problem is that professional children’s library provision is in such terminal decline that in many cases the gateway drug has become a substitute for the whole experience of reading for pleasure. To persuade a child to try something new takes time. I am responsible for 18 classes a week in the three school libraries I manage. Sometimes all 30 kids come in together without adult support. With the best will in the world, if kids are clamouring to know where the Star Wars books are I will end up, at least sometimes, shoving one into their hands and moving on. I have had class teachers clamouring to know why the entire class isn’t back in the classroom after less than 10 minutes.
This is the climate in which we need to understand the prevalence of branding, which is now ubiquitous in the numerous literacy initiatives that exist. Running a book club on top of your duties as a class teacher and literacy co-ordinator? Thank God, you can download some colouring in sheets from the latest heavily promoted bestseller. You may long to start a discussion group for literature in translation, using the wonderful Pushkin Press list, but it simply isn’t going to happen.
I’ve seen it in book shops too. I’ve wanted to scream, “Don’t you know those books are written by an anonymous syndicate, that your child just likes the glittery cover or the superhero franchise, that they will be consuming the McNuggets of literature – £4.99 gobbled up in five minutes – when over here there’s real nourishment?” But you’d need someone sitting there all day to really make a difference.
Hence my conflicted relationship with any book or series that is described as a “phenomenon.” I’m certainly not going to stand between kids and their desire to read Marvel origin stories or Tom Gates. It’s not my place to undermine their genuine reading preferences and force classics on them against their will. But I wish there was time for more children to enjoy having that conversation. Letting big corporations have the last word on something as important as a child’s literacy is never ideal.