Monday 3 June 2013

So... Why Don't We Take Children's Books Seriously?

Earlier today, outgoing Children Laureate Julia Donaldson (author of The Gruffalo and Room On The Broom) asked a question in the Telegraph: "Why don't we take Children's Literature seriously in the UK?" (for those of you who want to read the article, here's the link). So, after reading this earlier today and thinking it over, I wish I can say I know the answer. Why does German newspaper promote a two-page spread in newspapers, promoting a new kids book? Why is it when a journalist in the New York Times say that YA books were too dark, the internet exploded using the hashtag #YASaves, spearheaded by US author, Maureen Johnson? Why don't we, the United Kingdom, take children's literature seriously?

I think the answer comes from a quote British author, Philip Pullman, said in a BBC documentary "Harry Potter and Me", which was aired on UK TV in late 2001, which talked to JK Rowling about her life and Harry Potter (the quote is taken from Accio Quote!):

One mistake that adults used to make about children's books, is to think that children's books deal with trivial things. Little things that please little minds, and little concerns about little people. And, so, nothing could be further from the truth. Quite the contrary, it's been my observation that a lot of highly praised adult books, or highly successful adult books, in recent years have dealt with the trivial things. Such as "Does my bum look big in this?" or "Will my favorite football team win the cup?" and "Oh dear, my girlfriend's left me, whatever am I going to do?". Whereas the children's books have dealt with ultimate questions: "Where do we come from?," "What's the nature of being a human being?," "What must I do to be good?" These are profound questions, very deeply important questions. And they're being dealt with. Largely, not in the books that adults read, but in the books that children read.

And this is the problem, in my opinion. The attitude that children's books are little things to please little minds.

Book sales have decreased in the past years, baring ebooks and children's book (for the sack of this blogpost, I am including YA and New Adult into this bracket and the broadest sense). So why the industry has promoted eBooks and eReaders but not children's books?

Before I go any further, I am NOT saying the publishers are at fault here. I'm not. It is an attitude that we ALL have. This is what we need to change: people's attitude to children's literature and, in some people's cases, change their whole attitude to literature in general.

So how do we that? Simple answer: I have no idea. We can suggest ideas and theories till we are blue in the face, but we can't. I have ideas and theories, which I am going to talk quickly about, but I feel I have to say the following: to change an attitude isn't a quick fix. We can't click our fingers or wave a magic wand and BAM!, the attitude has changed. It won't happen over night. It will take time. It couldn't months, year, decades, a lifetime to change to attitude.

So, what ideas could I throw at you? If I'm honest, most of these are going to be crap, but I am going to said them so, at least, we can start the discussion about this and figure this out together.

1. Nurseries and Primary Schools: Before all you teachers out there get furious and march to my house, I love and respect you. And with everything you are currently doing plus what the Education Secretary is doing, the last thing you guys probably want is some blogger who thinks he knows better than you to say "you're not doing either". You are doing MORE than enough. I know your jobs are stressful and some/most of you are pushed to your limit, but to change an attitude, you have to start young. You have to show children that books are fun and exciting and that children's books are just as valuable as adult books. What if once a week, a class gets together for a readalong or a class has quiet time where the child reads quietly to themselves.

2. Parents Reading: I know parents are stressed and, sometimes, you have very little time to sit down with your child. But there are reports out there (which I can not find) that say doing this is not only good for the children but good for the parent? If you spend five or ten minutes with a child, reading out loud, this couldn't not only change the child's attitude but your own.

But both of these don't change the attitude we have now. That's the seed that changes it in years to come. What about now?

This leads me to this: THE MEDIA. That's right. The Media. And, to make it easier, am going to focus on four areas in Media: TV, Radio, Movies and Internet.

Ok, think of all the TV and Radio adaptions of books. All book adaptions for the television. Right, think of only the children adaptions. Now, tell me, apart from at Christmas and Easter, when have you watched an adaption based on children's book? Hardly never. And shows where someone is reading out loud is on preschool shows or channels are part of "The Bedtime Hour", which is meant to help children get ready for bed.

Also with TV and radio, how many shows are there about reading? Only a handful and, even then, the readers are reading/review adult novels. Not children, but only adult. Again, this is the same with book awards. Not just children book awards, but adult as well. How many of these are aired on British TV? How many of these are aired on mainstream channels? And at primetime viewing? if you can't think of any, this proves my point.

A few years ago, there was a surge of book groups forming because of TV hosts Richard Madeley and Judy  Finnigan. On their Channel 4 teatime show, they formed a book group. This became unexpectedly successful. The pair have continued their book club when they did a show on the channel Watch and afterwards when they joined forces with bookseller, WHSmiths. This is still happening. They even started, when they joined forced with WHSmiths, a children's book club. This got little to no publicity.

Movies are more fair. There has been a upsurge of adaptions lately taken from books, both from YA and adult. But, is it my imagination or don't they tell you it's based on a book in the trailer? It feels rare sometimes, when you watch a movie trailer, you see the words "BASED ON THE BESTSELLER NOVEL BY [INSERT AUTHOR'S NAME HERE]". It's happening more and more now, compared to a few years ago, but you still have to hunt round to discover if a movie is based on a book.

The Internet... my, you are wonderful. The internet has changed everything. You have reviews on bookseller's website, there are blogs dedicated to children's books and reviewing them, vlogs, podcasts and webcasts, Facebook and Twitter, websites dedicated to fandoms of book series like Harry Potter, Twilight and other book series out there. But, unless you are a fan of a book, you won't know of these. You have to go hunting for them.

So, you may say, what is needed is publicity to put it in the public eye? And that's true. Why can't a topical show such as This Morning or The One Show do a book club and, once a month, have a show dedicated to that month's book, regardless if the book is classed as children or adult? Why can't book awards events (like The Man Booker Prize, the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, the Blue Peter Book Awards, etc) be aired at primetime like Channel 4 airs the Turner Prize? Why doesn't BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 4 have shows where children's books are talked about, reviewed and reading promoted? Why can't local radio stations have shows where local authors, publishers, reviewers (ranging from "real" reviewers to people who blog and vlog reviews) and the general public come and talk about books? Why can't a "Book Doctor" be on TV/radio/internet and answer questions from the public that range from "I read this author and love them. What are your recommendations?", "How can I get my teen to read?" to "Is there any good books for a 4 year old about spiders?"?

*takes a deep breath* And we come to the problem I have had: WHY? And HOW? WHY do we have this attitude towards children's books and HOW do we change it? And, if I am completely honest, I have no idea. It's not, like I said before, something we can change overnight. And it's not sometimes we can change on mass. On some level, the attitude we face is personal. But for us to face a attitude we have, sometimes we need a trigger. Sometime we need something for us to realise that we have this attitude/issue/problem/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, and face up to it. And with children's books, there seems to be no trigger at the present moment.

So, what can we do? Do we wait for something to happen? No, of course not. Go to your local library or nearest bookshop and LOOK at all the children's book (again, I use children in the broadest sense to include YA books and New Adult fiction). And, maybe, if we do this, if we stop and spend time with them, this will slowly cause a snowball effect which means children's books could get the same publicity as its adult counterpart. In some people's cause, you do this now. In others, they might need a TV show to say "We're going to be talking about this book..." to make people treat children's literature in the same way as adult literature.

My thoughts as I try to figure out a way to end this post: keep reading. Enjoy reading what you love reading and don't let anyone tell you differently.

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic post.
    I encourage my students to use the public library as well as the school library. I show them book trailers to aid their imaginations and try to use books easily accessible to them.
    However, the public library has few resources for Young Adults, what they do have is not displayed well (a circular stand stuck in the corner) and when I have asked about new books I have been informed TEENS DON@T READ!!!!!!
    How are we supposed to improve things when the facilities available have attitudes like that *sigh*