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 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.

Food Banks and Libraries – better together?

books

The recent all-party inquiry into food poverty in Britain is a calm, compassionate and eminently sensible document, and in his forward the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton, puts his finger on precisely the reason why so many people in our society are falling into desperate straits. It is more than a matter of falling incomes and rising prices for housing and utilities, though certainly these are a huge factor. It is a problem with the changing structure and values of our social landscape:

We live at a time when many of the givens by way of family life, social networks, friendship groups, and self-help infrastructure are simply not there. This means that the issues people face relating to hunger and food poverty are exacerbated and heightened because there are hardly any of the ways and means that once did exist for people to support each other. We believe that the rise in the use of food banks is a sign of the breakdown of this core value in our society. We see it as evidence that many people are living individualistic and isolated lives, and the natural and vital relationships between people do not exist as once they did. To use shorthand, the glue that once held us together and gave life to our communities has gone.

Without wanting to fall in to the trap of talking of a golden age when we all lived in cosy terraced streets with our auntie around the corner and everyone knowing each other’s business, these words are so true. Rampant, uncontrolled capitalism has made us into the iSociety, where people have to navigate a shifting, complicated, ever-changing landscape of temporary casual jobs, short-term privately rented housing and volatile family relationships.

Like most middle-class people, I suspect, I’ve read case studies of poverty and thought sourly, “They can always afford a mobile phone.” One thing I appreciated fully for the first time as I read this report was how difficult it is to navigate modern society, and particularly to search for employment, if you don’t have regular, reliable access to the Internet. Jobseekers are told to apply for a minimum of 15 vacancies a week or lose their benefits. They may have travelled long distances to the Job Centre, paying bus fares they can ill afford, but the tools they need to fulfil these demands aren’t necessarily under the same roof. Internet cafes and local libraries are disappearing – when you do get to one, you may well face lengthy queues for computers, slashed opening hours and a printer that nobody knows how to fix. None of this is trivial when your income depends on it.

The Report recommends that food banks become the centre of a network of social services; this makes a lot of sense to me. Libraries are the ideal local vehicle for delivering this model and, far from closing them down, we should be opening more and giving them more to do. Imagine, for a moment, a library, a Job Centre, a Sure Start centre and a food bank, all under the same roof and open for sensible hours with somewhere safe and warm to leave the kids while you get the help you need. Instead of grumbling that poor people don’t know how to cook, or fill in forms, or speak English properly, open a place where they can access classes in all these things. People who are preoccupied with their day-to-day survival don’t have the time and energy to trail across town to parenting workshops or healthy cooking courses, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy such activities or benefit from them if they were provided in a way that speaks to their needs and acknowledges their dignity.

The people who staff food banks already have a proven track record in delivering services that offer people hope, compassion and dignity. We should be building on this, and local libraries are the ideal place to do it. We should be turning the boarded-up retail units in run-down high streets into centres where people in need can get help that starts with food parcels, but moves on quickly to practical, long-term solutions. If you are poor and unemployed, so much of your life is spent trailing around to desperately needed sources of help, possibly with miserable small children in tow, and queuing up when you get there. That doesn’t need to be the way it is. There’s no reason, other than a society-wide lack of vision and compassion, why the local library can’t be expanded to offer everything from welfare rights advice to a community allotment, and somewhere safe to leave your kids while you help out on it and grow healthy food to take home.

The purists may protest, “But libraries are about books!” That’s true, but not entirely correct. Libraries are about knowledge, hope and opportunity. There are many ways to present these things. And certainly a library without books, including ones that entertain and inspire as well as inform and educate, would be a sad place. However, the best way to improve literacy is to get children reading, as widely and as early as possible. Small children are, given half a chance, promiscuous consumers of books, and that’s exactly how it should be, but books do cost money. They need libraries, and they need to be able to associate books with fun, adventure, warmth and safety. Many children live in homes that are cold, dark and miserable, even dangerous. In a perfect world, that wouldn’t happen. But at least if there was a place they could go called a library, where Mum stopped crying and occasionally smiled, where you could get something to eat and sit in a corner reading stories with her, those kids are going to start their school life feeling that books have something to offer them. That’s the first step on the road to a future free of poverty and filled by hope and aspiration.