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 Price of Knowing What Happens Next – or the dilemmas of a school librarian

I will shortly be coming up to my 15th year as a primary school librarian. It’s a job I very much created and developed ex nihilo, and I think it would be interesting to reflect on how it has changed in that period of time.

When we began, with £400 worth of books from the PTA, open for half an hour at lunchtime three days a week, it was an amateurish operation and very much a “nice to have.” On the whole our children are already fairly well supplied with books in their homes, and their parents have the resources to take them to book shops and libraries. Libraries were much better resourced than they are now, although our Labour city council has protected them from some of the more drastic cuts seen elsewhere. We still have a branch library, professionally staffed and regularly open, a few minutes’ walk away from school. Sadly, our superb local children’s bookshop closed a few years ago, unable to compete with soaring overheads on the high street of our trendy city suburb.

Our principal source of funding for books and running costs other than my salary is the PTA, who usually give us £1,000 a year. This is very generous and many schools couldn’t possibly afford it. Their aim in so doing is that they want pupils to have as wide a selection of attractive books as possible, encouraging them to explore and read above and beyond the National Curriculum, to learn that reading is the gateway to knowledge and creativity. My mission, primarily, is to make that happen.

Two factors have recently begun to put increasing pressure on the use of that money, and I think they are symptomatic, in their own small but sinister way, of the increasing inequality in educational chances for all children. One is that class teachers have begun to approach me more frequently for help with resourcing topic work. National Curriculum topics are changing more frequently than they used to, and each change brings the need to buy in books and other resources. School budgets for these resources are under ever-increasing pressure.

On principle, I regard meeting these needs as one of the most important and enjoyable aspects of my work. But there is a subtle change between a library stocking extension material to encourage children’s independent intellectual and imaginative exploration of a subject, and a library supplying the basics for classroom learning. Most teachers in my school try not to cross this line, but the temptation is always there. If I had £5,000 a year this would be no problem. But I haven’t. A complete series of the Alex Rider books, complete with protective covers, plus duplicates for the first couple in the series to meet demand and the inevitable missing copies, can easily consume 5% of my annual budget. And every textbook on the ancient Romans I purchase means one less Caroline Lawrence mystery to inspire the children.

Pressure from the other direction is also noticeable. A parent recently came to me to say that her 11 year old had developed a three book a week habit. He was devouring Antony Horowitz’s entire output and on average a £6.99 paperback was lasting him two days. Desperate to know what happened next, he’d gone to the local library to find that there were 14 copies of the next in the series to serve the entire population of Manchester. His chance of finding out what happened next within the next six months were remote.

So I bought the series. He will recommend it to his friends, and that’s great. And then they will ask what to read next, and series after series will follow, hopefully. That’s my job. It’s what I love to do. But it’s increasingly expensive.

Children’s literature is going through a golden age, but increasingly it’s about brands and series. A child discovers a series, not just one book. It may be one you can pick up for £14.99 from The Book People, but there are plenty of parents who couldn’t justify even that expense, and that’s where libraries should come in. And if I am noticing these pressures building up even in my relatively affluent little neck of the woods, I can’t help wondering how kids are managing elsewhere. I hope they have lots of thrilling books to discover, because certainly those books are out there for those who can pay for them. But I do wonder.

The Story of a Rather Silly Man

Yesterday David Cameron dropped in on a struggling South London school that has recently been transformed, thanks to an army of volunteers working one-to-one with the children several times a week under the auspices of the London Evening Standard campaign Get London Reading. Officially, he was there to open a new library underwritten by a Ukrainian billionaire, furnished by Selfridges and stocked by five leading publishers, who must have been pleased to find a tax-efficient way to offload some of their surplus stock. In an apparently spontaneous development, Cameron even bumped into the House of Commons Sergeant at Arms, Jill Pay, who is one of the volunteers.

What does a Sergeant at Arms do? Well, Mr C explained to the children, “…if you want to stop us politicians talking rubbish…and passing crazy laws…just keep Jill here.”

So perhaps the appropriately named Ms Pay could have a word with him. Perhaps she could tell him that if he really means it when he tells parents, “However busy you are, read to your children,” he could stop libraries from closing, and support Bookstart, an effective programme that gets books into the hands of very young children, and almost collapsed when its budget was threatened by a £13m cut last year. Perhaps he would arrange for people on Jobseeker’s Allowance to volunteer as reading helpers in local schools, not just for an hour here and there, but for long enough not just to start up a library, but to run it.

Because that’s the problem, Mr Cameron. The 1,500 books that have been donated to St Mary’s will languish on the shelves unread, or disappear entirely, if nobody is being paid to look after them. Yes, I said “paid.” Volunteers come and go. Who is going to find the money for a database so the school actually knows where those books are, and when a class in Y3 is doing the Ancient Romans next term you can find the right resources for them? You can get a purpose-built package , but it’ll cost you a more than a grand to install and several hundred pounds a year to run. And believe me, you’d need a lot of volunteers to do the equivalent on 6 x 4 index cards. I know, I’ve tried.

Oh, and while you’re at it, Mr Cameron, could you do something about the way that the school day is so tightly structured that teachers struggle to find 20 minutes a week for a class of five-year-olds to come in and choose their books? Yes, their parents could do it after school, but someone has to be there and see where those books are ending up. And, by the way, the parents of the kids at St Mary’s speak 27 different languages. I’m sure the ones who are struggling with their English will get a lot out of Five Children and It and The Blue Fairy Book (both Folio Society titles, by the way).

Mr Cameron, do you know what your children are actually reading? I don’t mean when you nip home early for a publicity stunt. I mean, what they’d choose to read? Because if they’re anything like the kids in my school, it’ll be Diary of A Wimpy Kid, Star Wars Adventures and the Daisy Meadows Rainbow Magic series. I’d be willing to bet that none of the publishers donated those to St Mary’s, and why should they? They’re businesses, and those books are selling in millions to children whose parents can afford to buy them. By all means encourage every child to aspire to the heights of the Folio Society classics, but it won’t happen overnight. Particularly if there’s no money to pay a librarian, the teachers are too busy to help children make suitable reading choices and the local library closed months ago.

It’s so much easier to make parents feel that it’s all their fault that their children are failing, isn’t it? Perhaps Ms Pay could have a little word with you. Because, you know what? I think you’re being rather silly.

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Boggarts and Witches

Pendle Hill, in Lancashire, England. To the ri...

Thanks to JK Rowling, many people now know what a boggart is. There was a time, however, when you needed a Lancashire heritage to understand the word. Lancashire doesn’t have a lot to offer the world other than the dubious delights of Blackpool, which I won’t go into here. Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste and leave it at that. But Lancashire is indelibly connected with the notorious witch trials of 1612, when twenty people, sixteen of them women, were hanged at Lancaster Assizes.

The witches were associated with Pendle Hill, a humpback-whale shaped mountain on Lancashire’s eastern border. Pendle has retained its dark associations to this day and is still a popular place of pilgrimage at Hallowe’en, though I suspect the majority of brave souls who venture there are curious rather than practising pagans or Wiccans. It’s an area with much to offer tourists in the way of natural beauty and a colourful history.

Pendle is the setting for the fourth book in Joseph Delaney‘s “Spook” series, the first volume of which is soon to be filmed as “The Last Apprentice.” (Presumably they thought Americans might misunderstand the meaning of the word spook, which has nothing to do with espionage in this context, though it retains an aura of mystery). In Delaney’s slightly AU seventeenth-century Lancashire, the local spook was the man you turned to if you were having a bit of boggart trouble. His was a harsh and lonely existence, shunned though needed by his fellow men, out in all weathers and frequently fasting in preparation for life-threatening battles with dark powers. In Delaney’s slightly softened world (the books are aimed at older children and young teens), there are people who hang witches but the Spook prefers to bind them indefinitely in pits, where they exist on worms and try to wheedle passers-by into bringing them better food so they can build up their strength. I’m not convinced that is a kinder fate than hanging them, but one of the strengths of Delaney’s writing is that he shows how difficult it can be to form straightforward moral opinions about people. In fact, one of the main sympathetic characters is a reformed witch, and it’s always a matter of debate whether she’ll succumb to temptation and if she can be trusted.

Cover of "The Spook's Apprentice: No.1"
Cover of The Spook's Apprentice: No.1

The Spook’s apprentice is a twelve-year old boy called Tom Ward, from a remote farm on the Lancashire moors. As the seventh son of a seventh son (and a very unusual and mysterious mother, who is clearly not all she seems), he’s able to see things that other people can’t, and the books follow him through adolescence as he learns his dangerous craft. So far, so Harry Potter, but these stories feel very different. Rich in atmosphere and local detail (which is precisely why I love them) they are very firmly rooted in the folklore of this part of the world, and their historical context. There’s something simple and elemental about them which contrasts with Rowling’s sophisticated world-building. Trying to compare the two is pointless – both are excellent in very different ways.

Lancashire has always been remote, wild and unknown. In post-Reformation times it was a hotbed of recusant Catholicism, possibly due at least in part to its proximity to three large rivers facing Ireland, the Mersey, the Ribble and the Lune (from which the county town of Lancaster derives its name). Preston, the settlement on the Ribble, is probably a corruption of Priest-town, and the conurbation associated with the Mersey needs no introduction.

Shakespeare In Lancashire?

There is a theory, argued by E. A. J. Honigmann (Shakespeare: “The Lost Years” – 1985), that has Shakespeare located in Lancashire in the household of the powerful, Catholic Hoghton family.  The link between faraway Lancashire and Stratford, as this theory has it, would have been Shakespeare’s last schoolmaster John Cottom.  The theory is based on rather circumstantial evidence found in a Hoghton will, asking his kinsman to take care of “…William Shakeshaft, now dwelling with me…” along with references to plays, play-clothes and musical instruments.   The theory has it that  Shakespeare was engaged by the Hoghtons as a schoolmaster on Cottom’s recommendation (Cottom being a Lancashire native living near the Hoghtons) and then began, naturally, participating in their private theatricals, and then passed through the Stanleys (who had many holdings in Lancashire) to Lord Strange’s men, a theater company with which Shakespeare was definitely associated.  The theory is presented convincingly in Honigmann’s book, but cannot be demonstrated with certainty.


There’s a school of thought, promoted by Michael Wood among others, that Shakespeare’s family were closet Catholics and, for that reason, he was dispatched to one of Lancashire’s great houses as a tutor during the “lost years” between the birth of his children and his first successes in London. His name, or something similar, is mentioned in connection with a troupe of players in a will, and both Rufford Old Hall and Hoghton Tower claim a connection. However, given the inconsistency in the spelling of names at that time, this appealing theory is difficult to substantiate. To claim, as Hoghton Tower does on its website, to have been “visited by Shakespeare” is taking poetic licence a bit too far.

Anyway, back to Delaney. In the fourth story of his series, “The Spook’s Battle“, the action centres on Pendle and I’ve had a lot of fun finding out how accurate the historical background is. The answer is, surprisingly accurate – there really was a Malkin witch clan and a Malkin Tower where they met with other local clans and allegedly took hostages prisoner. (Macbeth is almost contemporary, so that might be where Shakespeare got his Grimalkin from). The local squire, Roger Nowell, really did exist and did his best to take a rational view of the events, though the more cynical would argue that his motives had more to do with stamping out Catholicism and earning royal favour.

I have always preferred life in the South of England, but there’s something deep in my DNA that stirs when I see wonderful names like Anglezarke in a novel, and it seems to me that this series is a real find. It captures something fundamental about the character of this windswept corner of England, and it’s a great read, too. I nearly jumped out of my skin when my daughter tapped on the window as I was engrossed in it last night!

An Awfully Big Adventure – the influence of Peter Pan on the Doctor and Rose

Inspired by a viewing of “Neverland” – which offers an extremely sanitised and revised reading of JM Barrie’s relationship with the Llewellyn-Davies family, who inspired “Peter Pan”, I’ve been digging around in Barrie’s life and works.

It makes for creepy reading. According to a recent account by the writer Piers Dudgeon (“Captivated”), Barrie was impotent and deeply scarred by his mother’s slide into depression and rejection of him after the death of Barrie’s older brother at the age of 13. There is even a suggestion that Barrie might have been unwittingly responsible for the accident that killed his brother; whether or not this is correct, Barrie was clearly an emotionally maimed individual who was never able to form non-exploitative and healthy relationships. His effect on the Llewellyn-Davies family was largely tragic; of the five boys he unofficially adopted, no less than three eventually committed suicide.

That aside, for it’s a huge and fascinating subject in its own right, I found myself reflecting on the continuing myth of Peter Pan, the boy who is incapable of growing up, his strange relationship with the blonde and nurturing Wendy and the very English note of melancholy that surrounds their story. The novelisation, and to some extent sequel, of Peter Pan, “Peter and Wendy” is available on Wiki as an opensource document. I’ll confine myself to a few observations on its final chapter, “When Wendy Grew Up” and the links this has with “Doctor Who.”

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This is Eric. We’ll come back to him in a moment.

One of the great pleasures of my job (librarian in a primary school) is that I can come out of the closet and declare myself a fan from time to time.

We’re running a promotion with Waterstones called The Big Book Bank. Here’s how it works. A child brings in a favourite book. You give them a sticker and they write a review of it. They leave the book on a display stand for others to enjoy and get a Waterstones voucher in return.

Anyway, I thought I’d get the ball rolling. So I picked one of my favourite science books, George’s Secret Key to the Universe and wrote the following review:

“This is a brilliant book. It’s written by someone who’s very clever (for a human) and it tells you all about things like space and black holes. The pictures are great. There’s a man called Eric who has a computer, Cosmos, which is a bit like my TARDIS. It can take you anywhere in space, though it’s not so good at time travel yet. I think Eric is a great character. He has spiky hair and wears glasses to make him look even cleverer than he really is. There is a nice pig in the story too. But pigs should not be sent into space. It frightens them.”

Then I just left it on the trolley and waited for the reaction to come in. My lovely Headmaster bought into it totally and stood there for a while telling sceptics, “He can get in anywhere with his sonic screwdriver. I’ll leave a few jelly babies around tonight and see if we can catch him.”