Saturday’s conference was fabulous and exhausting. Fabulous because of enthralling speakers and discussions. Exhausting because there was no let-up for the brain. Every session, and every conversation in the breaks, was intensely thought-provoking.
Jullia Eccleshare opened proceedings with a fascinating talk on the importance of children’s book reviewing. Press coverage of children’s books is much smaller than it was twenty years ago. Social media now play a vital and welcome role in alerting children and adults to children’s books. Online activity, together with literature festivals and the like, have totally changed the way children engage with books and authors. Communicating with an author online, or seeing one live, gives a valuable sense of ownership. But help is needed to navigate the vast numbers of children’s books being published, especially given the decline in libraries. Informed criticism by independent experts supports readers, publishers, authors and booksellers. Reviews put the writer and the reader together. Without them, some great writers and great books will be lost.
Jane Ray and Dianne Hofmeyr were on next, giving us a beguiling insight into collaboration in children’s book production, particularly theirs over Zeraffa Giraffa. How interesting – and pleasing – that there is now more communication between authors and illustrators than in the past, and how lovely to hear the extent to which they adapted to each other’s ideas and research.
Several speakers during the day made reference to Ursula Le Guin’s compelling cry for writer freedom, and against the commodification of books. Nicky Singer made a heartfelt plea for more risk-taking in children’s publishing. She lamented the swing from editorial to marketing power in children’s book production. When she adapted her successful play about climate change, Island, into a novel, publishers turned it down. It was ‘too quiet’, meaning, apparently, that it could not be succinctly summed up for marketing. It could not be easily branded. And it was ‘too literary’. Beatrix Potter would not get away with the word ‘soporific’ in Peter Rabbit these days, Singer wryly observed. In desperation, she turned to crowd-funding, and Island is now a success. But the process took nine months of her life, and ‘if I don’t write, I die a little.’ We heard too about her struggles to adapt Wind in the Willows. Diktats came thick and fast from the publisher, over vocabulary and content. Weapons were not allowed because of the US market, nor hams, because that would stop sales to the Middle East and to schools here with large Jewish or Moslem populations, she was told. She has refused to sign the contract for the book because it contains gagging orders. I find it deeply disturbing to learn that these are now commonplace in children’s publishing.
A school librarian in the audience pointed out that children’s publishers try to protect an innocence that does not exist. Children know about the real world. And they do not want blandness. They are capable of understanding unusual vocabulary and sophisticated ideas, and appreciate them. In the course of the day we heard repeatedly of assertions from publishers about what children and teenagers would read about and what they wouldn’t. And of authors being told they must not use particular words or concepts because librarians would not then buy their books. These notions anger me. They are disrespectful of young people, who certainly do not all want dumbed down books, and they are disrespectful of librarians. As a librarian by profession, and as someone who has worked with and trained huge numbers of librarians, I can say with confidence that the vast majority do not want books dumbed down either, and seek not to censor, but to open doors to books. There is a massive library problem, but it has nothing to do with gate-keeping. Swingeing cuts in both the public and school library sectors will have a devastating effect on children’s reading.
Parallel sessions followed. I listened with interest to Siwan’s Rosser’s talk about the relative merits and demerits of translating English children’s books into Welsh versus original Welsh material. Yan Zheng’s exploration of the challenges and opportunities provided by story apps and touch-screen was fascinating. There is no point to a touch-screen adaptation of a story if does not add anything to it, she said. Many story apps pose problems in terms of narrative flow, and do not sufficiently utilise touch-screen potential. I’m a huge fan of children’s book-making so was very pleased to hear Kerenza Ghosh on the impact of a programme involving reception and Y1 children. Creating their own books increased their engagement with books and reading, and their confidence.
What a privilege after lunch to listen to the president of International IBBY, Wally de Doncker. He talked about IBBY’s desire to help every child be a reader and the organisation’s work on combating illiteracy over sixty years, and he issued a truly scary warning: that reading and good literature could become the preserve of an elite. Disadvantaged children must have access to books and reading, he told us. ‘Books and reading save lives. They enable children to become whole after terrible experiences.’ We live in a golden age of children’s literature, and ‘children’s books are a country’s best ambassadors’.
Clémentine Beauvais, who writes children’s and teenage books in both English and French, then gave an absorbing analysis of national differences in publishing attitudes and practices. French publishers are unconcerned about commercialism, and happy to publish ‘quiet books’. Unlike British publishers, but in common with most other nationalities, they are prepared to produce radical, ideological books. Beauvais’ French publishers accept a wide range of writing from her. (When she told them her latest book was going to be in verse and based on Eugene Onegin, the reaction, almost unbelievable from a British perspective, was ‘OK, cool’.) In the UK, publishers want only books from her that fit a particular branding model, and only here is her content questioned. One UK publisher said to her ‘I guess British kids are not very sophisticated’, an assertion Beauvais rejects and abhors. She has plenty of experience of gagging orders in the UK, none in France. There is one problem in France though: the derisory payment that authors receive. Perhaps the state in both countries should play a role in children’s publishing, she suggested. A very French idea, it seems to me.
A big change after this, as translator and children’s book expert Daniel Hahn divulged the adaptations he made to the Brazilian picture book Happiness is a Watermelon to bring it to a British market. To say the translation was not a literal one is very much an understatement. All credit to his publishers Phoenix Yard and to the illustrator and author Stella Dreis for accepting his very radical and very effective treatment.
Next up, a publisher panel: David Maybury from Scholastic, Barry Cunningham from Chicken House and Anna McQuinn of Alanna Books. None take on books that will not generate sales, but their approaches are very different. In Maybury’s view it’s too easy to say that big publishers like his only publish brands and established authors. However getting every book noticed is a major challenge. Marketing now, he said, is about getting books into prime position in bookshops, book launches, YouTube and authors’ school visits. Chicken House publishes lots of new fiction and new authors. For Cunningham, marketing includes plentiful communication with authors from the earliest stage, word of mouth from teachers and librarians and concentrating on the physical object. (Chicken House books hint at taster pages.) Publishing just one book a year, McQuinn has a deep relationship with her authors and illustrators, and editors overseas. Her US editors were unhappy with an image of breast-feeding in a book. Negotiation led to a successful compromise: an ambiguous picture that was instantly recognisable to, and greatly valued by, breast-feeders. All three speakers acknowledged the huge changes wrought by the internet and social media.
The final session was a discussion between Cunningham and Melvin Burgess. They talked about the controversies Junk, Doing It and other Burgess titles provoked. Notably, none of the commentators who objected to the books had actually read them, Burgess said. Teenagers, on the other had, appreciated their honesty. The gatekeepers to children’s books are not necessarily teachers and librarians, as is often asserted, but senior managers, the local press and angry parents. Publishers should not only think about commercial success.
An amazing day! Scintillating sessions, and lovely to meet up with colleagues old and new.