The Curse of Peppa Pig – why kids crave brands, not books

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.

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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.

 

 

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.