This weekend I’m at the 2016 Federation of Children’s Book Groups Conference (FCBG16). The theme this year is Building Bridges: Forging Connections and Growing Readers. And of course the aim of everyone here, be they booksellers, publishers, authors, librarians, or teachers is to grow readers – to encourage young people to read for pleasure.
But another question has popped up too – in many of the panel sessions, and that is – what are authors of children’s books trying to achieve? Of course, all the writers admitted that first and foremost they write for themselves – for their inner 9, 11, 14 year old selves, for the book they wanted to read, because as writers, that’s what we do.
And yet there’s also the secondary part of writing, which is the readers. How do we pull them in? And once we’ve opened that door and hooked them, how do we keep children coming back for more? The perennial question in the children’s libraries I work in is ‘What shall I read next?’, and the perennial playground question is ‘What should I buy/borrow for my child to read next?’ Governments pay heed – if we get rid of the librarians, who will hold open that door and not let it swing shut in the child’s face?
Horatio Clare, author of Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, was very clear that whatever underlying message might be embedded in a text, or whatever else an author sets out to achieve, the dominant intention must be to entertain. For otherwise, of course, who would read the books?
Of course in today’s age, as Mike Revell, author of Stonebird, pointed out, it’s also about instant gratification. The hook must be there from the beginning. When today’s kids switch on the Playstation, an ‘other’ world is built immediately – the child can see it all simply by pressing the on button. With books, the reader has to work a bit harder – it takes longer to become immersed and that is a key challenge for today’s authors.
One of my key messages in my role as a reading consultant is that parents should limit screen time and its instant gratification. If a child is bored, they are more likely to pick up a book. It’s not likely to happen if they are sat in front of a screen with a console in their hands.
For Katherine Rundell (Rooftoppers, The Wolf Wilder), books were a crutch to lean on, a safe place to be, even a way of being – not an escape but life itself – an affirmation of who she was as a child, “a finding place, not a hiding place.” It’s also a totally immersive activity in an age dominated by interruptions – especially the bleepy kind. Katherine Rundell compared reading to walking a tightrope – it’s not something from which you can afford to be distracted.
Authors of children’s books are also trying to broaden horizons, not to limit children’s potential for discovery – booksellers don’t genre segment children’s books in a bookshop because no one wants to be pigeon holed as a ‘fantasy’ reader just because they liked Maurice Sendak as a pre-schooler, or The Hobbit as an eleven-year-old. Much as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the different worlds within was a gateway to fiction for Shane Hegarty (Darkmouth), so ideally children would explore all the different universes of literature before making up their mind what they like.
This includes illustrated books too. The children’s book world is showing an increasing prevalence of illustration, and with the appointment of Chris Riddell as children’s laureate, more and more illustration is being incorporated into fiction, even older fiction. Shane Hegarty believes this is a consequence of adapting to a more visual generation. Even when children have been enticed away from a screen to read a book, it helps if the book has illustrative qualities along with the text.
The author/illustrator Curtis Jobling (Max Helsing: Monster Hunter) agrees that visual storytelling is relevant. Especially with those who, like author Phil Earle, sigh heavily when presented with a very long text-heavy book. And being visual doesn’t have to equate to light-heartedness. No one would argue that graphic novels such as Maus and Persepolis deal with light topics. Phil Earle (Superhero Street) was strident in his views that the danger for many is that they view comics as boiled down to just those few ‘kapow’ moments at the end – the last bit of the drama in which the sucker punch is dealt, rather than concentrate on the plot, the darkness, the conflict that comes before.
“There’s a big resistance in some schools in which they see pictures as being just for infants. But they’re not. Pictures can accentuate the storytelling and the depth of the reader’s experience.”
For debut YA authors, Harriet Reuter Hapgood (The Square Root of Summer) and Sara Bernard (Beautiful Broken Things), one of the purposes of their fiction is reassurance. Teens don’t want educational or didactic fiction, but perhaps they do want affirmative and reassuring fiction. And so there is a responsibility on the contemporary YA author to present truths in their fiction. As the teenage voice becomes culturally more important in our era, so the responsibility lies more heavily.
Not that authors of children’s fiction want to provide all, or even one, of the answers. But (with thanks to Julia Bell) as Chekhov said, “the task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.” The authors here are certainly doing that in droves.