Friday, 8 March 2019

World Book Day week - how can children find books they really love?

by Paula Harrison

Cupcakes with book covers - a perfect combination! Pic taken at a SCBWI party.

The week of World Book Day (and often the week before and after it) see many authors scurrying around the country armed with notes and power points and a myriad of props, ready to entertain and inspire lots of children during school visits. I've been doing a bit of scurrying myself and enjoying the chance to meet readers which is always brilliant at any time of year. Seeing so many children in such a short space of time, gives me lots of opportunities to find out what they're reading, what they think of books and generally reflect on who I'm writing for.

So I wanted to blog about all this and I have a few thoughts in no particular order...

Firstly, I think access to books and access to a wide range of books is a problem and probably one which is worsening. When asked what they like best to read, many children will list the same books on the bestseller lists - well there's a reason that they're bestsellers! Dig a little deeper and I've found that the children referencing these books often own few books or own none at all. They know the book through borrowing it from the school library or being read to in their class. They're not always getting the opportunity to try out a broader range of books on different topics and genres. This also has implications for diversity in books which we know is already a problem that many publishers are trying to address.

It feels to me as if the range of books being presented to many children is narrowing. I think this is a problem for young readers and could disadvantage them in the future. Not everyone likes the same kind of thing. Yet if children are being offered the same small range over a number of years they may never develop the same love of reading as they would have if they'd been offered the chance to try a wide mix. They may never find that particular kind of book that they love so much it turns them into a reader. Children should choose from all kinds of family stories, nature stories, stories with fantastical kingdoms or fairy tale characters, and more! Where are these alternative books? They're already out there, actually. There's a huge range of different children's fiction and non-fiction being published that's fantastic quality. Publishers are continuing to try new ideas and new voices in the hope of a book breaking through. But I worry that in the current climate they will eventually narrow their lists and the range will narrow for good.

So who are our readers and what do they want? Going round schools, many of whom also have book fairs during WBD week I also noticed that I'm not just writing for the children. I'm writing for the parents and grandparents who buy the books and influence their children's decision. Some may prefer a name they know or a celebrity name which gives them a sense of safety. They feel they know what they're getting when they part with their money. So is there a way that we can help parents and grandparents feel more reassured when they take a chance on a book their child wants even though they don't recognise the name? I think booksellers and librarians have an important role here, making recommendations and writing those little notes on the book shop shelves - something that I have seen working in my local Waterstones book shop and something I know many indie book shops do so well.

So we as authors are not just writing for children, but for parents and for the gatekeepers - the publishers, booksellers, librarians and teachers that may champion our story. I've heard writers talking many times about how they worry their book may not be picked up because it's "too quiet". In other words, it doesn't have that big commercial hook. I would argue, that certainly in the middle grade book (aged 9 +) category it's the "quiet" books where a debut author may find a space for themselves. Those writers who have carved a living by writing the "big commercial hook" type stories - often humorous stories in the vein of Roald Dahl - are having the tougher time. That space has been taken mainly by celebrity authors who lend their name to books that are often ghost written.

This is a book shelf at a well known supermarket, picture taken by a fellow writer. All one kind of book. All celebrity authors.
Image may contain: 1 person

So where do we go from here? How do we continue to offer children a wide range of books so that they can learn to love reading with all the benefits that brings? I don't have all the answers to this but I believe libraries must play a crucial role in solving the problem. Lots of us have been trying to fight for libraries for a long time but we must keep going - this issue is too important for us to give up.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Inheritance Books - the books we cherish by Addy Farmer

International Book Giving Day has happened every year since 2012. It's a wonderful initiative, dreamed up by Emma Perry from My Book Corner as a response to the startling statistic that 1 in 8 disadvantaged children in the UK don't own a single book.
The positive impact of book ownership on children’s literacy engagement and its association with high mental wellbeing further contributes to the evidence base for promoting book ownership for all children and young people, particularly those with most to benefit, including boys and children and young people from lower-income homes. National Literacy Trust, Book Ownership Report 2018
Bravo to Emma's team for all the good work getting books into the hands of these children! My excellent SCBWI Central North ninja-ed away getting, Littlest Magpie, by Gill Hutchison and Carol Daniel into small hands.

Image result for littlest magpie
The irreplaceable Gill Hutchison - a SCBWI star

Maybe you have your own stories of book donations. It would be wonderful to see more support for the work of International Book Giving in 2020. We can all be book ninjas!

Image result for ninja
join Emma and be a book ninja but maybe without the sword
IBG day got me thinking. There's a great programme on Radio 4 on Saturday mornings called, 'Saturday Live'. It's fun chat and a bit rambly, (I really like the part where listeners phone into tell their stories of the kindness of strangers) and there's also a section called Inheritance Tracks. Here, various celebs talk about the musical track they cherished and the music they would pass on. Why not Inheritance books? Our house is weighted down with books. We've run out of bookshelves and now they have spilled out  onto the floor at the top of the stairs and they line the hallway. I'm not moaning - I'm very comfortable with this level of bookage BUT I would struggle to think of just ONE favourite book from my past and one to pass on.

But I will. 

Meanwhile, I asked the excellent SCBWI community about their Inheritance books. THANKYOU ONE AND ALL!

Fiona Barker Am I allowed 2? Yes, Fiona, you are allowed two.

I would gift That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton because it is wonderful to read aloud and do all the voices. I think it’s the quintessential picture book.

And second I would gift The Church Mice and the Moon by Graham Oakley because it represents a genre of books that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Painterly, detailed, very funny, rich illustrations and an equally detailed, funny and rich text with a high word count but no chapters. An absolute joy! I return to it time and time again and it always delivers something new 🤩 
Ah! I must look these up!

Teresa Taylor I would have to return to The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery Illustrated by Michael Foreman because I feel it has so many profound lessons about life and it has wonderful illustrations.

Rita Lazaro Little Prince! Always!

Image result for the little prince
Timeless classic 
Kathryn Evans What a lovely idea! Erm...I think mine would be Dr Xargles Book of Earth Tiggers because it’s hilarious and joyful and true . Both my children loved it and if I’m lucky enough to have grandchildren I know they will to.
I love this as well!

Sarah Ziman The Outsiders, The Hobbit, Rebecca, Cold Comfort Farm 
Angst, fantasy, mystery and hilarity, you've chosen it all, Sarah

Vicki Spreadbury The Owl Service, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Snow Spider.
Alan Garner was my favourite when I was about 10. The Owl Service was such an incredible and yet troubling book!

Sheila Corbishley Little Women, Greengates, All The Light You Cannot See

Image result for all the light you cannot see
What a brilliant title!
Alison Lingley Watership Down. Just finished listening to it again as an audiobook and remembering the first time I read it aged about 8 or 9. I couldn’t put it down and had my paperback copy for years until it wore out. 
Oh, gosh. Books you wear out like teddy bears. Ours was Neil Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls, our youngest was OBSESSED with it

Sally Poyton Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C O’Brian.
I loved the 1980’s animated film (The Scret of Nimh) then read the book as a kid. I read it to my children a few years ago, and that’s what they wanted to dress up as for WBD. (Plus due to this I ended up being called a smug parent on a national newspaper website - oh joy! 

What it's all about

Gillian Bowes Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. Fired my imagination...
Isn't that the best? When you find out that you're a story teller as well?

Gill Vickery Anne of Green Gables - my father’s favourite book as a child and then mine. I read it every year.
That's lovely, Gill! I always have an urge to read A Box of Delights come Christmas

Heather Kilgour The Barbapapa books.
Ah! You made me remember Barbarpapa! Thankyou! I used to love those books as well, Heather

Jane Clarke Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame made me laugh and cry - and never question that animals can talk
Of course, Jane!

Nicola Thompson Squares Ender’s Game - love sci-fi, and this is the classic.

Gill Vickery Nicola Thompson Squares fantastic book! I think Speaker for the Dead is even better.

Ann Brady - Author I have the Dorothy Dunnett Lymond series of books which I may take with me to my grave so I can reread them in the after-life???
Great idea, Ann! Books as grave goods! 

Marie-Claire Imam-Gutierrez Enders Game, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Harry Potter, Narnia x

Image result for Enders game book

What a fantastic selection! 

Rhian Howells The Caravan Family by Enid Blyton. My mum used to read it to me and my sister at bedtime. When we bought our own caravan we always talked about it xx
Living the story - love it

Jenny Moss Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. My dad read it to me soon after it came out. My daughter now loves it too.
I absolutely love these.

Helen Jones Tom's Midnight Garden and The Box of Delights
Me too, Helen. Christmas isn't Christmas without The Box of Delights 

Misha Herwin The House of the Paladin by Violet Needham.
Another treasure for me to find!

Paula Harrison The Dark is Rising and Little Women.
There it is - I really loved The Dark is Rising

Helen Jones Ooh, I loved the Dark is Rising
Me too! It was probably the book I most wanted to be inside when I was young 

Linda Nicklin Heather a book about a horse.. more gritty than black beauty, sadly out of print, she nearly died in a bog... her friend did... I'm still sad. Anne of Green Gables... a girl with spirit who didn't fit in.
Books about animals are my bete noire - hem-hem

Alan Gidney The Gauntlet, by Ronald Welch, read it in 1961 and kick started a love of historical fiction. Anything by Philip Pullman today, including his shorter stories e.g. The Firework Maker's Daughter.
Excellent, Alan!

And for me? It has to be 

Image result for The Dark is Rising
Scary, fantastic and I was the hero
and to pass on

Image result for Dogger
Love, family and small BIG things of life

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Confessions of a backtracking author: on Brexit and writing Fated

by Teri Terry

serious face...
I’ve personally always had a kind of horror of message books: where you can see what the author thinks in a heavy handed way, as if the characters only serve to get across the author’s own agenda. Readers should be allowed to draw what they will from a story, not be told what to think. I also truly feel that my characters are their own people, to the extent that I don’t always – or with some of them, even often – agree with what they think or do. 

ER … 

Well, that may have been my starting point. My tenth book is about to come out, and along the way when I was writing the others I was actually really surprised to find how much personal stuff creeps in – things that worry me, scare me, or personal issues. In my first trilogy – Slated – the main character’s memory has been wiped, and she’s trying to fit in and work out who she is in an unfamiliar place. I’ve moved around countries and continents all my life, and it’s safe to say struggling with identity is personal. 

But I still haven’t ever chosen a story deliberately to work out personal stuff – it just kind of happens. And I most definitely would never, ever write something to get a message across. No way. Not going to do it.

ER …

Let me take you back in time to the morning after the Brexit vote.

I have such a clear memory of sitting on a train early that morning, on my way to a book award (the Amazing Book Awards, Sussex), thinking – what the flipping fire trucks (insert expletives of choice) just happened? I felt shell shocked. I hadn’t slept. I felt like I couldn’t take in what had happened. I felt completely … FREAKED out.

if only the bell worked
There was a group of teenage boys on the train opposite me. Three of them were saying, what the hell has happened? One of them was explaining it – quite well, I thought.

And I remember thinking, even though this totally sucks, it’s done something. It’s made young people like these ones say what they think, be aware, be seriously pissed off, even. Understand how important voting is in being part of a democracy.

But how can it be right that people my age have voted (or not voted, or protest voted) and had such a profound effect on young people’s lives like this? They’re not old enough to vote, but they’ve been saddled with what has been decided for them? And it just seemed so WRONG.

Later that day I was in a taxi with a bunch of authors on our way to the ABAs, trying to work out what happened. How can we just go on and talk about books like they are important after this?

I felt this way, too. But I also thought – and still think – that books and thinking and talking about stuff are SO IMPORTANT. 

My crystal ball works too well;
sorry about that
When I wrote Slated, I never, ever thought leaving the EU was something the UK would do. I wrote Slated between 2009 and 2011, before Brexit was even a word. The backstory to Slated was that the UK had left the EU, closed borders, and became isolationist. Wide spread chaos and rioting followed. Underage students were blamed. There were executions and imprisonments until a medical procedure – Slating – was developed to deal with underage criminals. Memory wiped, they were assigned to a new family for a second chance.

During the lead up to the Brexit vote I’d started to become obsessed with the idea of writing a prequel to Slated: one that showed how the world in Slated came about; how a democracy likes ours could disintegrate into something else.

I’m not British by origin. I’m Dutch/Finnish/Canadian/Australian who landed in the UK and called it home way back in 2005. It IS home to me, but I’m not sure I have the right to say how it should be, how it should be in Europe, when I’m so new to being part of it – even though I know how I feel about it all. 

When Slated was published in 2012 I remember reading some reviews that said the UK would never leave the EU, and even if it did, they couldn’t imagine the rest of it.

Well, welcome to 2019

So, here comes Fated - a book I felt driven to write. It is more truly dystopian than anything else I’ve done. It does say what the author thinks through her characters – though hopefully not in a heavy handed way, or in a way untrue to her characters. They do live and breathe in my heart and mind and I hope I’ve done them justice. 

And I really do think that one person CAN make a difference – even if it isn’t now. Even if it takes a while.

Trying to make a difference is worth it, no matter what.

And there is only one way that I know how.

It's taken me a while to come to terms with having backtracked on things I believed in before. And it's OK. None of us live or write in a vacuum. Pretending the things that enrage, engage and inspire me to write don't exist would be counterproductive, shortsighted and completely daft.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Check Your Privilege Before Changing Lanes - A White Author Reflects on Diversity

By Nick Cross

Photo by Gerry Machen

Diversity. Inclusion. #OwnVoices.

Terms like these seem ubiquitous in publishing at the moment. I’ve been spending a lot of time researching and submitting to US agents, and nearly every one has a prominent statement about how they’re keenly looking for diverse writers, characters or themes. Simultaneously, white writers are told to “stay in their lane” and not attempt to cross cultural boundaries by writing about non-white characters. Faced with this kind of evidence, some white writers may freak out, imagining that minority groups are coming to take away their opportunities and livelihood.

Some of this overreaction is ignorance or racism, pure and simple. But there’s also a lot of misunderstanding involved. We writers tend to be emotionally fragile types, whose earning opportunities have been continually eroded. Getting a foothold in the publishing market is extremely difficult, and staying there is harder still. Very high quality writing can fall by the wayside, while opportunistic celebrity-fronted filler rushes up the sales charts. So, after a while, every new change to the market can feel like a threat, even when it's something absolutely vital like increasing diversity.

Let’s be honest though, we are way overdue a change, particularly in the UK market. The CLPE Reflecting Realities report, published last year, uncovered the following statistics:
  • Only 4% of the children’s books published in 2017 featured BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) characters
  • Only 1% of the children’s books published in the UK in 2017 had a BAME main character

As someone working in publishing, these statistics make me feel genuinely ashamed. If you consider that the Department of Education reported in 2017 that 32% of school-age children were of minority ethnic origins, the stats look even more appalling. We are failing a huge number of children here.

Why has this happened? A lot of people have pointed their finger at the composition of the UK publishing industry itself. I’m a white, middle class person employed by a medium-sized publisher (with a small children’s list), and we absolutely have a diversity problem. Rather than just be part of that problem, though, I’ve spent the last year trying to figure out how to be part of the solution.

Photo by Lydia

The external impetus for change in publishing has mostly focused on ethnic and LGBT diversity. Readers and writers from marginalised groups have been lobbying for representation for many years, but the advent of social media has meant that their voices have begun to be heard. Within publishing however, this external pressure doesn't seem to have had anywhere near as much impact as the publication of the gender pay gap data. Publishing is a heavily female-dominated environment, which has meant that employees who are already inside the industry have been able to quickly put pressure on upper management.

From these small beginnings, I've found it fascinating to watch how anger over the gender pay gap has catalysed into a broader movement for good. In my company, awareness of the gender pay gap led to a discussion of other pay gaps: between white and BAME workers, or between employees of different class backgrounds. A colleague set up a diversity and inclusion (D&I) group in our department and I joined in. In a few short months, we've tackled subjects such as unconscious bias in recruitment processes, improving outreach to minority groups and making sure the employees we already have feel included. Company-wide D&I groups have since followed, and I’m involved in those as well.

I certainly wouldn’t claim to be a D&I expert, and I’ve got used to sometimes being the only white guy in the room. But that’s fine - my role is to listen and learn, not to talk over everyone else. My years spent being the token male in a room full of female writers were obviously training me up for exactly this task...

My most important takeaway so far is that most white non-diverse people (myself included) have a LOT to learn. We have all sorts of ingrained privilege and unconscious bias to work through, a process that’s bound to throw up some very uncomfortable realisations about ourselves. We must confront the fact that we didn’t reach our station in life through personal merit alone, but that the scales were always tipped in our favour.

All this soul-searching might sound terrible, but I’m here today to tell you that it’s great. Really great. Because, as a writer, a large part of our success comes from the ability to empathise. And like charity, empathy begins at home. The better you know yourself, the better you can know others.

Understanding your blind spots is an essential prerequisite to moving out of your lane. How can you hope to write truthfully about people from other cultures, unless you can override the unconscious assumptions you make about them? It’s not enough to just flip a character in your story from white to black and assume everything will just work out. Because that character carries your unconscious biases onto the page with them. Know thyself and then do thy research. A lot of research.

The diversity debate is, I sincerely hope, not going away. Certainly, it’s going to take publishing quite a while to change its ways. Which means there’s going to be plenty of opportunity for all of us to learn and grow and become better writers in the process. One thing I’ve found is that the deeper you get into D&I issues, the more overlooked groups you find. What about the physically disabled? Or those with mental health issues? Or those with autism, Asperger’s or other non-neurotypical conditions? There is enough human variety to keep any writer busy for a lifetime.

After all, how many more books about white middle-class children does the world need?


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

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