Life in the kid-lit bubble

Every now and then someone will bemoan the difficulty of getting published if you happen not to be a celebrity. This week The Guardian have pointed out their proliferation in the field of children’s books, and lamented the way it restricts opportunities for talented mere mortals to get a look-in.

There is certainly some justification for this complaint, although I doubt very much whether the 1950s or 1960s were a golden age completely devoid of this kind of thing. Children have always loved long, crushingly formulaic series of books and seem to need such repetition to build up reading stamina. We may not have called Enid Blyton or The Chalet School brands, but undoubtedly that’s what they were.

There’s also the point that some celebrity writers are genuinely talented people; if you are already a famous stand-up comedian you’re likely to be extravert, good with words, and in tune with children’s sense of humour. So good luck to David Walliams. Some people are just good at more than one thing. Annoying if you’re plugging away at the day job, but undoubtedly true. I draw the line at George Galloway, however.

In fact, the marketing of children’s books is becoming ever more inventive (some would say desperate). This week I received 100 sample chapters of a new book for KS2, and the offer of a possible free copy if I agreed to post pictures of “happy children receiving the books” on social media. Chatterbooks is colonised by publishers offering creative craft kits for school and library book groups, and if you don’t tweet your pictures and appreciation you will probably be overlooked next time around. Whether we like such strategies or find them exploitative and creepy, there is undoubtedly a thriving and growing market in children’s books and a vast selection of beautiful ones around.

So all is well. Not quite. If all you ever do is follow the feeds of leading lights in children’s literature, you may get that impression. Anyone can be sucked into an online bubble and such bubbles soon inflate with indignation at the thought of their denizens’ ideals not being universally accepted. Some people would call such communities elites. Elites are not necessarily defined by vast wealth and sojourns at Davos. They can be driven by idealism, creativity and education. That doesn’t make them bad. But it does make them risky.

So I welcomed it when bookseller Leilah Skelton weighed into the kid-lit celebrity debate, pointing out the reality of book availability, selection and purchase opportunities for the majority of children in Britain today and their parents. “Can you imagine the only access to physical books being a Tesco chart?” she tweeted. “That’s a reality in more places than you’d think.” No wonder parents fall back on the known quantity of celebrity. Children devour books fast if they like them, and for many people £6.99 is not a trivial amount of money.

If we care at all about children’s reading opportunities we already know about the decline of libraries, book reviews in the press and trained librarians even where libraries for children exist. Leilah is absolutely right to identify these as the cultural changes feeding into the celebrity fixation. In fact, she doesn’t go far enough. Even in school libraries, there’s little money for anything other than donations and of course this only entrenches social inequality. Even if, as happened with one of my schools, you manage to stock a library with high quality titles, it will be a long time before Star Wars and Disney stop dominating your children’s book choices. Because that’s what entertainment means to them. They recognise what they see on screens.

Is the solution to ban the cheap and cheerful stuff? That’s likely to leave many of your children unmoored and overwhelmed with choice. The older they get, the more likely they are to walk out of the library completely rather than try to navigate it. That’s not because they are stupid, it’s because it’s not a place they are used to being in. If you put me in a shop filled with fishing tackle or motorcycle accessories I’d feel the same way. Over time, if you get the chance to work with them in small groups and resist the continual drip-drip encroachment of musical instrument storage, intervention groups, Y3 forgetting to tell you they’re out doing the Romans this week and losing Y5 and Y6 to SATS cramming for half the year, you will build up the trust to the point where they might try something unfamiliar. Opening the library is a great start. Eternal vigilance and a thick skin is useful if you want it to survive for long enough to make a meaningful impact on reading culture in the school.

There will probably always be wonderful children’s books around for those lucky enough to have access to them. But they are the tip of a huge iceberg of deprivation. In our little ivory towers we mustn’t lose sight of that. And we mustn’t despair either.

 

The importance of analytical reading

We all know how important it is to read to kids, and to start young. But the way we read is important, and more subtle than we might think, argues Bill Murphy in this excellent article. They are not just passive containers for stories. They need to engage in dialogue with adults about them, and that is how they learn.

If pushed, I think most of us would agree that such close shared reading builds empathy. Kids need to be able to imagine a situation from another person’s point of view, to walk in the skin of someone unlike themselves. Incidentally, we don’t grow out of this and it’s tempting not to move out of our comfort zones, as I recently discovered when I went to see Moonlight. Realising how unmoored I felt by an all-black cast gave me new insight into the importance of diversity in children’s books – how does a four-year old black girl feel when she’s confronted with the overwhelmingly white world of Princess Poppy?

Empathy has to be good, right? Well, yes and no. How many of the people who were moved by the photograph of little Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on shore went on to vote for politicians who denied asylum to unaccompanied Syrian child refugees? Emotional intelligence is rather different. It includes analytical skills, looking at the whole picture, at evidence, possible strategies, problems and outcomes. It means asking not just, “Do you think the duck feels sad?” but also, “The fox seems nice. Do you think the duck should believe him? Why not?”

In my work in school libraries, I involve children in these conversations all the time and their perceptiveness frequently surprises me. A good story is full of fork-in-the-road moments, all of which have consequences. And picture books abound in clues that, if decoded, yield vital background information. When we read to a child, we are inviting them to decode that information and theorise about where it could be taking us. Yes, empathy is involved; we can all feel sorry for the little ladybird that doesn’t fit in because she has no spots, or the little girl desperate for a kitten who ends up taking home a gorilla from the zoo. But why doesn’t it work out to keep the gorilla as a pet? Seeing the way he trashes a suburban kitchen, and why the gorilla isn’t happy, carries highly significant life lessons.

It seems that at the moment we are confronted daily with the awful consequences of people determined to maintain a coherent ideological position in face of all reasonable evidence. Too much reliance on feelings can lead into dark places, and the idea that you only have to believe something badly enough and find others who feel likewise to construct your own perfectly valid reality. I wonder if the large numbers of young children who don’t get exposed regularly to language and conceptual development through reading are contributing to the problem.

There is far too much passive consumption of entertainment. Cinema and TV can be wonderful but the emotional beats are frequently heightened and signposted in letters a hundred feet high. Ambiguity is rare, and far too many children are watching without any accompanying person to help them interpret what they are seeing through loving, open-ended discussion. The school day is crammed and even schools with libraries struggle to fit in every class for even one story time a week. After years of austerity, the effect of neglected maintenance is becoming all to apparent in the decline of roads and the built environment around us. The neglect of our children’s inner world and analytical faculties may not show up right away, but we ignore it at our own risk.

The diplomatic guide to book donations

 

If you announce you are going to set up a school library, before long someone will say, “Why don’t  you ask people to donate books?” If you build it, they will come. And if you announce it, they will donate. Oh boy, will they donate.

I have to tread carefully here, because I am truly grateful to many people for their generosity in providing wonderful, high quality books for the school libraries I’ve been associated with. Having said that, let’s look at the nostalgia element a little bit.

I’ve worked primarily with middle class, 30-60 year old donors. Many have fond memories of books they loved in childhood. They want today’s children to have similar experiences. Unfortunately, though, today’s children live in a very different world. I work with a good few high-ability readers but in 15 years I have yet to hear of one making it all the way through the original edition of Winnie the Pooh, let alone Peter Pan or Anne of Green Gables. There are simply too many words, too great a density of text to image, and too great a remove from cultural reality, for most modern children to engage with, especially when a Disney DVD is only a click away.

Please, think carefully before donating classics. It’s sad to say this because I’ve had donations of beautiful, highly-produced books that must have cost a lot of money. But I have one library with four copies of The Wind in the Willows on the shelf. And I suspect that is where they will stay.

Social attitudes have changed beyond recognition since these books were published. Children have a natural suspension of disbelief and I’m sure many of them can enjoy Paddington completely untroubled by the Brown family living in Bloomsbury with a full- time housekeeper. But a book that unquestioningly accepts imperialism, that is condescending towards ethnic minorities, patronises the working classes, or perpetuates unhelpful gender stereotypes may not belong in the modern school library. (Okay, we do have a few Enid Blytons, but the Malory Towers ones have all been rewritten, you may be surprised to hear). You may feel that this amounts to political correctness gone mad, but modern schools have to work within certain ethical and cultural constraints, and the person to argue with about that is not the volunteer who has taken on stocking the library.

I have to confess that occasionally the reluctance of some children to engage with what I consider to be good literature has shocked me – much less so than a few years ago, but I still baulked at being asked to stock World Wrestling Foundation annuals and collections of the world’s 1,000 grossest fart jokes. People like to think their donations will steer children to the heights of edifying reading. Maybe not Kipling, but definitely Michael Morpurgo.

Morpurgo is awesome. He is, however, the kind of writer that people think children should like, rather than the sort they naturally want to read. He doesn’t go in for wacky fonts, fart jokes and comic book illustrations on every page, for one thing. He can be just a little worthy and didactic, and is often best introduced as part of a topic on the Second World War or similar – once discovered in this context, there are some children who will adore and devour his books. But they do tend to be the ones who love reading anyway.

It all boils down to what a school library is actually there to achieve. Is it to provide children who already read with more and better books (a worthy aim, of course) or to break down the resistance to reading that many kids, particularly older boys, instinctively feel? If you can subscribe to the first aim but flinch from the second, then you may feel uneasy at the thought of giving libraries money to spend on those rubbishy Tom Gates or Wimpy Kid books that Theo or Lily would have whizzed through in 45 minutes. Let alone a wrestling annual. I sympathise. I have been there myself. But it might be the latter that sets a reluctant reader, desperate not to look un-cool in front of his mates, on a life-changing reading journey.

Does that mean people shouldn’t donate? Not necessarily. Support is always welcome. And it’s nice to find a home for the books your children have outgrown. But if there’s someone in charge of the library, do ask what’s needed first and try not to take it the wrong way if you find your offering in a local charity shop. If you are leaving carrier bags full of books in the school reception area (or the book return box), thanks but add your name at least because it’s nice to say thank you. And maybe if you are thinking of spending money, how about donating some to pay for the plastic covers that will prolong the life of all those lovely books? Or if you have time, offer to come in and read to the children instead? If you really want them to know the joy of good old fashioned classics, that’s the way to make it happen.

The 100 books “every child should read”

Here is a list, recently published by the TES, of the 100 fiction books that every child should read before leaving primary school:

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/100-fiction-books-all-children-should-read-leaving-primary-school-–

The first interesting thing about this list is that it’s in an educational journal rather than a parenting magazine. That in itself speaks volumes about what we expect of teachers today. When I was a child, if a child never read a decent book it wasn’t automatically considered to be a failure on the part of the teaching profession. But let’s pass over the causal link between impoverished reading choices and the wholesale closure of local authority libraries for the moment. That’s a whole separate post.

I’ve been running a primary school library for over 15 years. It’s an affluent area, the school is continually oversubscribed and the local population statistically one of the most highly educated in the country. So we are not talking about cultural deserts here.

Nevertheless, I read this list with slack-jawed astonishment. I have dealt with many very able kids who read voraciously, but never encountered one who willingly made their way through the entirety of Black Beauty or Treasure Island. I didn’t even get around to Treasure Island myself until my late 40s.

Culturally, the list is contradictory enough to give you vertigo. Treasure Island and Kipling sit cheek by jowl with a token contribution from Benjamin Zephaniah. Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, set in a 1940s independent girls’ boarding school, rubs shoulders with the admirable gender-neutrality of Tyke Tyler. Unbelievably, there isn’t a single mention of Harry Potter, yet the entire Skulduggery Pleasant and Artemis Fowl series are in there.

I’ve had parents complain that Skulduggery Pleasant really isn’t suitable for primary school age children (It’s about a dead detective, by the way. A skeleton, since you ask). I’ve also had teachers politely turn down Mr Men anthologies (the entire Roger Hargreaves canon makes the cut), on the grounds that they are stereotypical and reductive. Now all these decisions are to some extent controversial. Nevertheless, the fact that the list bristles with books that could be deemed offensive for all kinds of reasons, by different people, illustrates the difficulty of ever producing a definitive list of this kind.

Does it really matter? After all, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And that’s all this list is – the opinion of the unspecified teachers consulted. We aren’t told anything about the way that the question was phrased – were exhausted teachers at the end of another long day put on the spot and asked to remember a book they adored as children? Were they working in the independent or the state sector, were they retired, were they gay, straight, Muslim, evangelical Christian, etc? Before we take pronouncements like this seriously, we should bear that in mind.

So I repeat, does it matter? Yes, I would argue. It matters because anxious parents and educational professionals will take it seriously. Some will use it as yet another stick to beat teachers over the head with, demanding to know why children haven’t yet encountered the complete range of unmissable classics (or protesting strongly about the casual racism and cultural appropriation of some of its most cherished inclusions). There are a lot of worried parents out there, and they share their worries very readily with teachers, a profession where morale is already pretty much at rock bottom.

And meanwhile, the kids most in need of a varied, accessible range of books, and quality reading time with carers, will muddle through as best they can, increasingly under-resourced because the public libraries and Sure Start centres that provided such a valuable starting point for a love of learning are closing left, right and centre.

I’m not even sure that teachers are the best people to ask about the books children ought to be reading. Shouldn’t that be librarians? I know some brilliant teachers but they value my role because they freely admit that they haven’t time to keep up with children’s literature. They’re too busy ticking boxes.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 15-plus years as a librarian, it’s that there is no point whatsoever in trying to force Kidnapped down the neck of a kid who’d rather be reading Beast Quest, or The Railway Children on a seven-year-old devoted to Tom Gates. How many adults would read widely and happily if they were continually being berated for not tackling War and Peace?