A Visit to The Children’s Bookshow

Was it unfair to split the audience into cats (Judith Kerr) and dogs (John Burningham)?

In actuality, Nicolette Jones of The Sunday Times did point out the similarities between Judith Kerr’s work and John Burningham’s work. They both had huge success with their debut books, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Borka respectively, and Nicolette Jones also showed the audience slides of the little detailed parallels between the two illustrators’ work – depictions of a cat and dog peeing, a baby in a blue romper – much to the amusement of the audience of school children.

This was on September 29th, at The Old Vic Theatre in London, where I was a guest at The Children’s Bookshow, a charity that runs an annual tour of children’s authors and illustrators around theatres and venues in the UK for schoolchildren.

John Burningham set quite a high bar for illustrators back in 1963 when he published Borka. Not only was he the first to win the Kate Greenaway Award for a debut picture book, but his was also the first children’s book that Jonathan Cape published. It wasn’t to be the last. Unique it may have been, but it also depicted a now well-worn trope in children’s literature – that of a child, or in this case a goose, who doesn’t fit in.

Judith Kerr’s Tiger also boasts enormous longevity, with its now familiar warm domestic scenes, and like Borka, shows great sensitivity in the emotions it depicts and elicits.

And whether it was discussing first signs of a promising career, their work, or their travels, both illustrators showed their warmth and zest for life in Friday’s conversation.

Kerr’s childhood has been well documented, most particularly of course, in her own novelised version of her life, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. She speaks about her escape from soon-to-be Nazi Germany, talking about the near-misses in life that dictate how the future turns out:

“I think of the people who didn’t get out who would have given anything to have a small part of the life I’ve had.” Her modesty glimmers through in every sentence as she speaks of the glare her mother gave her for almost giving them away to the passport inspector on the train:

“I wasn’t the most intelligent child,” she says, but she was clearly talented, for her mother had the foresight to save her childhood drawings, bringing them with her in a small suitcase from Germany.

Burningham too, has travelled extensively, although his journeys were mainly contained within the UK. The one place he hasn’t visited is the fictionalised place he references in answer to a well-worn question. As with many children’s authors, he’s often asked where he gets ideas from, and he says his favourite answer to that was the person who said, “If I knew, I’d go there.”

He may not have been to the land of ideas, but it certainly seems as if he has. His latest book shows the quirkiness and specialised way of thinking that many of the top children’s authors and illustrators possess. There is a purposeful naivety to his drawings, but also an idiosyncratic approach to the storytelling which enables him to see things from a different point of view – Mouse House explores the plight of a mouse family when a pest controller is called in by the human parents. The children of the house write a warning note to the mice, enabling them to leave before their execution. Of course, as with many children’s critics, Nicolette Jones reads into this the plight of refugees, perhaps echoing the experiences of Kerr, who is also on stage, recounting her refugee childhood. But it is this very quality that distinguishes Burningham’s work – the ability to read the narrative whichever way one is inclined.

For both illustrators, there is no end to the ideas they have, as proven by their prolific output. Whether inspiration is taken from true-life occurrences, such as Kerr’s father, who for a short time attempted to adopt a seal, retold more kindly in Mr Cleghorn’s Seal, to Burningham’s take on the world around us in such books as Whaddayamean, an exploration of arms control and pollution.

Both infuse their books with their own sense of humour, which comes across in conversation too. Be it stumbling into the illustrators’ world, or failing illustration class at the Central School of Art (Kerr is the latter), they both approach illustration as a privilege and an honour, and are delighted to still be practising the art – Kerr is 94, Burningham, slightly younger at age 81. They are both still working, and still promoting children’s literature, especially to the noisy and enthusiastic audience at the Old Vic, as Burningham says, “I don’t worry about the ideas running out, I worry about time running out.”


An interview with the CKG Judges

ckg judges blog tour 2016

The CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals are the UK’s oldest and most prestigious children’s book awards. This year’s winners will be announced on Monday 20th June, and today I’m delighted to host an interview with some of the current judges, Sioned Jacques, CKG Chair of Judges, Tanja Jennings, CKG Judge for YLG Northern Ireland, Martha Lee, CKG Judge for YLG Wales, and Isobel Powell, CKG Judge for YLG West Midlands. To visit the website to see the shortlists, click here for the Carnegie and here for the Kate Greenaway.

What are the key things you are looking for in a winner?

ML: When looking for a winner for both the Kate Greenaway and the Carnegie we have to adhere strictly to the criteria. So when reading each book and then discussing and judging, at the front of our minds is whether each book meets the criteria.. 

IP: A book which makes a real impact on the reader with a story and characters that stay with you long after you have finished. If a book doesn’t have that quality then it can’t be a winner. It is also about the quality of the writing, this doesn’t mean being overly verbose or with a highly complex vocabulary. Instead it means that the writing flows and doesn’t get in the way of the story being told. That the style of writing fits beautifully with the type of book and the characters dialogue is real and believable. 

SJ: The key components are based on the strict criteria that as judges we have to look for in a book. They include distinctive style that’s appropriate to the subject, whether it’s literary style for the Carnegie or illustrator’s style for the Kate Greenaway. Characters and plot are also important in considering a Carnegie winner. Are the characters credible, how do they interact with others, do they go on a journey for example and do they act in a way that’s reasonable for their personality within the remit of the plot. The plot should flow smoothly and have a satisfying ending, though this does not necessarily mean a happy or positive ending. The book needs to be a complete package that leaves you with a sense of satisfaction and of having gone through a real experience. The most outstanding books stay with you for weeks, months, years after you’ve read because they have an impact on your thought processes. 

How much do the children you work with in the library influence you?

ML: In terms of the children I work with influencing the judging process – this doesn’t happen at all. We stick strictly to the criteria when analysing a nominated title. In my everyday job within the library, children influence me all the time, from the books I read myself to what I order for our collections, but I guess in turn this would have an influence on what I would nominate each year for the award. 

IP: I don’t work directly with children as I run a school library service so I work more with teachers and school librarians. Because part of my job is about recommending books to schools for all age groups and abilities I do read a wide range of children’s and YA fiction so I think this helps me bring a lot of reading experience to the judging process. 

SJ: Other people’s opinions of the books, whether children, young adult, colleagues or friends have no influence whatsoever on the decisions I make while judging and deciding on a winner. It’s all about how well the books fit against the criteria. I have a very keen Carnegie shadowing group this year with strong opinions about the books, but they’re often judging with their hearts which we can’t do as judges. However, I have found that they sometimes decipher text in a way that I hadn’t considered which will make me look at the book again against the criteria. 

In your opinion, is there such a thing as a ‘trend’ in children’s publishing – would one year be dominated by fantasy for example?

ML: I guess you do get ‘trends’ in children’s publishing but I think a library environment is completely different and as it’s librarians who nominate the books for the CKG award a trend wouldn’t necessarily come through in the nominated titles. Although I do find it strange that we have three books with ‘lie’ in the title this year! 

IP: You do certainly get clusters of certain types of book, normally as a result of there being a bestselling book in a particular genre. However, although that does happen, the way that the CKG books are nominated by librarians you do get a real range of genres submitted which means that this effect is negated somewhat. 

SJ: There are always a few books, particularly on the Carnegie nominations lists, that have similar themes, e.g. death, friendship or this year lies. Dystopia books were very prominent a few years ago. I don’t think trends are as obvious for the Kate Greenaway list. However regardless of trends and themes the Medals recognise outstanding writing or illustration in children’s literature and each book is judged against criteria that can be applied to any genre or theme. 

How do you balance your own personal taste with being a judge? For example, if you hate historical novels, would you ever pick one as a winner?

ML: This is very difficult and it took me a long time to get used to divorcing my personal taste and judging the book according only to the criteria. You have to be fair to the book and author, and judge the book solely on the criteria, just because you might not be a fan of historical fiction does not automatically mean it doesn’t deserve to be on the list because of your personal taste. I know I sound a bit repetitive but every book is judged according to the criteria and has nothing to do with personal taste. 

IP: One of the great things about being a judge is being forced out of your comfort zone and having to read books that you would otherwise put to the bottom of the pile! As a judge I have found that there are nominated books I have had to read that I would never have picked up otherwise and then found myself loving it. We are all human though and enjoying books is a personal thing, so to help mitigate that referring to the criteria as you are reading helps you to keep considering the book from that more objective point of view. 

SJ: Due to the strict criteria, personal taste cannot be taken into consideration. The fact that judges have to read all the books regardless of personal taste is a really good way to appreciate other genres that previously you may not have enjoyed or appreciated. As for considering them as a winner – of course – if the novel has ticked all the boxes in terms of the criteria and is outstanding then it deserves to win whether it’s a subject or genre that you don’t enjoy. For me personally one of the advantages of the Carnegie in particular is that it expands your reading interests, I’ve found that I can read a well written novel in any genre now whereas in the past I would have chosen books in a specific genre or on a specific subject because they would interest me. The Carnegie also makes you realise that there are well written books and not so well written books regardless of genre or topic. 

Do you pay any attention to the author/illustrator and whether they are debut writers/illustrators or more established?

ML: No, we judge all the books that are nominated equally and pay no attention to whether they are debut or established.  Everything is judged fairly and equally. 

IP: For me it makes no difference, I am looking at the book being considered, not any past work or reputation. In fact it is great to find a new author or illustrator and be bowled over by their creation and equally great to read a well-established author or illustrator (whose work you may not have previously liked) and have your perception of them changed. William Grill won the Greenaway award last year and was shortlisted against many well-known illustrators. When we were judging the winner the fact that this was his first book made no difference, we were judging the amazing quality of his pictures and the way they brought the story of Shackleton to life. 

Do you try and pick a range of genres for the shortlist – poetry/non-fiction/sci-fi/realism – or is it completely on merit – i.e. one year could be all fantasy fiction?

ML: No we don’t pick different genres so there’s a mix, everything is judged on merit according to the criteria. 

IP: The shortlist is completely about merit, there is absolutely no attempt to falsely engineer a list with a range of genres, styles or age groups. Everybody who reads the shortlist should be confident that they are the best books written for children and young people in the last year. 

TJ: The books that are selected for the shortlist are chosen completely on merit. They are all outstanding potential winners. Titles meet strict criteria on style, characterisation and plot. If a range of genres appear it is serendipitous because it makes the list eclectic. 

Do you ever feel you need to ‘censor’ your choices – not pick a winner with excessive swearing for example?

ML: Definitely not.  

IP: The CKG judges have never shied away from controversy; they are willing to choose any type of book as the winner if it is of outstanding literary quality. We are only interested in selecting the best books we can and you only have to look at previous shortlisted and winning books to see that censorship is not our thing! 

TJ: Training encourages judges to stick rigidly to the criteria. Personal preferences do not affect decisions. In some instances swearing can be an integral part of characterisation in the novel as was the case with Conaghan’s ‘When Mr Dog Bites’. Readers should also be encouraged to make their own choices about what they want to read and not be curtailed by censorship. 

How did you get chosen as a judge?

ML: I joined my regional YLG group for professional development and obviously because I have a passionate interest in children’s books. One of my fellow colleagues was sitting on the judging panel when I joined and hearing her talk about it just sounded amazing so I asked to be put forward to be the judge for the following year and happily I was accepted. 

IP: I have been on the West Midlands YLG committee for a number of years and when we came to choose the next representative to be a judge I put my name forward and was selected by the other committee members to take the role. It is a great honour to have had the chance to be a judge and it is an experience I will always cherish, even the stressful and difficult parts! 

What’s the best thing about being a CKG judge? (and the worst)

ML: I couldn’t pick just one thing as being the best, there are so many amazing bits: meeting and making friends with your fellow judges, being able to sit down, read and discuss books as part of my job, meeting favourite authors, reading all the amazing books that are nominated, let alone the longlisted and shortlisted books, getting sent proof copies of books, being more involved professionally in the industry and of course attending the winners ceremony. The worst, although I wouldn’t call it that I would just call it the hardest, is having to read all the nominated books in a certain time frame. I think this year it was 162. It’s definitely the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done (and that includes studying for a BA & a MSc!). 

IP: The best thing about being a CKG judge is feeling part of something so prestigious and historical; to know that the books which I helped choose as the winners will be remembered for years to come as part of the CKG roll of honour. The worst thing about being a judge is choosing a winner! It is so difficult when you are faced with so many amazing books and the discussions around the judges’ table can be long and very passionate.

With many thanks to the judges for giving their time to be interviewed. 



Growing Readers: FCBG Conference 2016 Part Two

Sunday morning’s conversation at the FCBG16 began with a question. Prue Goodwin, doyenne of the dissemination of children’s literature, asked about the title of the conference. Were we growing readers (adjective) or were we growing readers (verb)?

The answer of course, is both. But more than that, because we are promoting reading for pleasure we are actually growing humans. Piers Torday (The Last Wild Trilogy) was keen to point out, in his inspirational lecture, that the benefits of reading for pleasure stretch beyond the educational, social or literary – that the key to books is humanity.

One of the reasons children’s literature retains such a resonance after childhood – the influences of Harry Potter or Aslan or Pooh stretching into adulthood – is that these books are read whilst we are growing our imagination, our cultural heritage, our background, our consciousness, our moral compass. When we were young.

daniel hahn boy top mountain

In Daniel Hahn’s excellent Sunday morning interview with John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), both writers spoke about the moral imperatives growing from Boyne’s war books for children. The posing of moral dilemmas, and the resulting conversations and controversies. Boyne’s latest children’s book, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, investigates the susceptibility of young children to brainwashing – it’s about a boy residing in Berghof with Hitler’s servants. It explores character – that people aren’t born good or evil, but that they can be swayed, and lends itself to a discussion of when bad actions become a personal responsibility. These are big questions for children’s books – but that’s exactly what authors need to be doing – asking children these big questions, while their brains and imaginations are still forming. What better time to develop a moral compass than in childhood?

The Last Wild

Piers Torday’s The Last Wild trilogy also poses some pertinent and tough questions. At what point do we sacrifice our comforts for the sake of the environment? If we know that it’s possible for a creature to become extinct in the next ten years (such as elephants in the real world) what action can we and should we be taking? If we show children a fictional world in which all animals are extremely rare and on the brink, and the world as we know it has changed, then it can be an inspiration that shapes their lives. It can start the ball rolling in their formative years and get them thinking about real world scenarios – as well as entertaining them with a brilliant story, and evoking emotions that they will never forget.

And that’s the key – authors are posing questions to children and growing them into thoughtful people. As someone once said, children who read become adults who think. Children’s literature can start to build a moral compass, and from that children learn to have moral courage.

And it’s not just text that lends itself to this purpose. Once again the topic of illustrations arose with author SF Said and illustrator and author Jane Ray. In an ever visual society, children need to recognise the importance of decoding the visual, just as much as decoding text. Images are given just as much prominence in the adult world as text – in newspapers, websites, and obviously television where the image dominates. Any child watching the news learns to disseminate the information firstly in a visual format, and then with text.


SF Said’s Phoenix is a thrilling and captivating science fiction novel, but it is also a story about humanity. It too inspires feelings and thoughts about moral courage, self-sacrifice, fighting for what’s right. But Dave McKean’s images are an integral part of the story – helping to tell the narrative, complementing the text.


So it’s puzzling to many in the children’s books world that images are dismissed by many adults as being ‘babyish’. The illustrator Jane Ray made the point that unfortunately “when something is expertly and simply done it looks easy – the value is reduced” in the eyes of the adults. Of course anyone looking at Shaun Tan picture books, or even my book of the week today – The Journey by Francesca Sanna – can see that expertly produced picture books can be equally read by adults and can be as influential and challenging as full blown 300 page texts.

In the end, the best children’s books are so influential because they teach empathy and humanity not by instructing but by inspiring. Authors and illustrators nourish children’s imaginations, morality, and ethics by osmosis. All wrapped up in a beautiful story.


Building Bridges FCBG Conference 2016

logo FCBG

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.



To Win or Not to Win: Book Prizes

This week two major book prizes made announcements in the children’s book world. The Carnegie/Kate Greenaway (CKG) announced their shortlists (the children’s equivalent of the Booker, let’s say), and Waterstones announced their Children’s Book Prize.

Both produced antagonism and discussion – the CKG, because of its heavy leaning towards YA, an issue picked up by Fiona Noble in The Bookseller, who asked if there should be a section for the younger children’s fiction (as I, and the Americans, like to call middle grade). There was less contention over the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, which already has three categories – picture book, younger fiction and older fiction.

My Brother Superhero

By the way, the winners of the Waterstones prize were David Litchfield for The Bear and the Piano, David Solomons with My Brother is a Superhero, and Lisa Williamson for The Art of Being Normal, with My Brother is a Superhero winning overall.

Book prizes are tricky beasts. Are they like end-of-year book lists – sent to provoke disagreement? Are they solely for rewarding merit – and if so how do we really judge one piece of subjective artistry against another in any sphere of the arts? Or are they about money?

In March 2014, a study showed that winning a prestigious literary prize equalled a sharp downturn in ratings on review sites by readers. Is this because readers have higher expectations of those books, judge them more harshly when they read them, and so ultimately feel let down, or are readers reading books that they wouldn’t otherwise have chosen, and actually aren’t suited to?

Winners of prizes may sell more books, but the reader’s judgement or criteria for buying a book shrinks to one determining factor – that it won a prize. Is it bought for kudos rather than for the other qualities that might make it attractive to the reader? Qualities a reader usually applies when choosing a book, such as subject matter, style, author loyalty, etc.

Amanda Sharkey, an academic behind the study, states:

“As a result, readers who read prize-winning books tend to be disappointed…nor even simply because they have higher expectations for prize-winning books – but rather because many readers who are drawn in by prize-winning books tend to have tastes that are simply not predisposed to liking the types of books that win prizes.”

To the book trade, does it really matter if a reader finishes the book they’ve bought and enjoys it? Publishers love to stick stickers on the front of books announcing which shortlists they’ve made it onto, which prizes they’ve won. It’s a commercial reality that prizes equals prizes. Frances Hardinge not only won the children’s book prize at the Costa this year for her book The Lie Tree, but also the overall prize (well-deserved, and a brilliant book in my opinion) . And her publisher reported an increase in sales by 350 per cent in the three weeks after the win.

Publishers choose which books to put forward for most prizes in the first place. Are they likely to put forward not only ‘good’ books, but books which follow a recent trend, or books that seem more likely to carry forward that sales impetus? For example, do publishers put forward more YA titles for the Carnegie than middle grade books, knowing that YA sells well at the moment? It’s just a thought. When The Lie Tree won the Costa, booksellers frequently stocked the title in the adult section of the bookshop, or the YA section – whereas its category is borderline middle grade to YA (suitable from 12 years). Although interestingly, it’s not the publishers who put forward books for the CKG – every member of CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) nominates two books for each award.

But in the end, it’s the judges, not the publishers, who decide the winners. And who are they? It depends of course on the competition. In the children’s book world, this can be hugely contentious. Are we asking adults to pick the best children’s books? Are they best placed to judge what a five-year-old, or a ten-year-old likes? Or are we choosing a book with the most literary/illustrative merit, not just the most popular? Which people can best judge – those who sell the books – those who stock the books in their libraries – teachers – or even, *whispers*, the children themselves?

Of course in the end it’s subjective. We are judging artistry, not maths. One can argue endlessly about the great writers who never won awards – why did Faulkner never win the Pulitzer? Why did James Joyce never win a Nobel Prize?

Even the Ancient Greeks gave prizes for literary merit – regularly awarding prizes for best tragedies and comedies at their festivals. And I bet there was as much contention as there is now – Medea, for example, was only awarded third place.

In the end, it’s about recognition. I know plenty of authors who have their work published and then worry that their publisher made an error – authors are full of self-doubt! So it’s lovely to be rewarded for one’s literary prowess, or ability to make children laugh, and then have sales spike too. (The prize money helps – most authors earn very little).

And publicity – the more we talk about books, the more we celebrate books and writers, the more attention we draw to them, and spread the word about reading and books, then hopefully the more we inspire children to read. Because books are “dreams that you hold in your hand” (Neil Gaiman).



World Book Day Offerings

World Book Day 2016

World Book Day happens every year in the UK and Ireland, and next year will be held on 3rd March 2016. Many children will take part by participating in some book-led activity in school. They may dress up as a favourite character, have an author visit, or discuss favourite books at school. This is great. As a children’s book advocate I’m delighted to have these days/weeks in our schools to promote reading. This is A GOOD THING. And for children it’s an opportunity to take their ‘£1 off’ or free book voucher to the local shops and pick one of ten exclusive books. For some children this is their only opportunity to own a book. According to the National Literacy Trust, 15.4% of children don’t have a book of their own.

What’s the aim of these ten books? Is it to put books into the hands of those 15.4%? Is it to provide a familiar landscape for children to navigate, or give them another title by their favourite author? Or is it a chance to broaden their horizons – make them reach for a book that they might not have otherwise picked – to explore the huge vista of children’s books available? Last week the ten books for next year’s World Book Day were announced. And although my heart rose at the opportunity for young adults to read a book by James Dawson or Rainbow Rowell (those lucky things), my heart sank a little for those key stage 1 and 2 children.

Because from the huge wealth of children’s literature, the ten books on offer included these three: A Star Wars book; a celebrity author book – The Boy Who Could Do What He Liked by David Baddiel; and a Roald Dahl book – The Great Mouse Plot, which is an extract from his autobiography Boy.

Firstly, if reading the Roald Dahl spurs a child into reading more Dahl at Key Stage One, I sincerely hope it’s The Enormous Crocodile or The Twits, and not Boy. I don’t want to spark a huge debate about censorship and reading ages, but frankly, I would recommend Boy as a 9yrs+ read, not for Key Stage 1. Secondly, with McDonalds giving away free Roald Dahl books with Happy Meals for the next few weeks, I wouldn’t want our children to think that the only children’s book author is Roald Dahl.

Why, when limited to just ten titles, are we going for a celebrity author, a film and merchandising brand, and a Dahl extract? If children walk into a WHSmiths on their high street, these are the authors who already get top billing. I’d love people to think beyond Roald Dahl, David Walliams, and David Baddiel when they think of children’s books. There are so many wonderful books out there.

Also, why aren’t there any ethnically diverse authors or illustrators featured? With momentum growing to portray our multi-cultural society in children’s books, and to show children that you can be a writer regardless of your background, this is the opportunity to do so. Those ten books are a wonderful chance to give attention to lesser known authors – those with equal or even higher quality narratives and illustrations. Lastly, what about non-fiction? I know plenty of children who are happily introduced to reading for pleasure through non-fiction rather than fiction, and yet none is featured within this ten.

Saying that, I applaud World Book Day for the work they do, and for including such treasures as James Dawson, and Kes Gray’s Daisy, as well as Sue Hendra’s Supertato, because no one could possibly resist Supertato: Hap-Pea Ever After.

A School Author Visit

I don’t remember meeting any authors when I was a child. My school had a well-stocked library with a librarian, and I do remember checking out books from there and the public library, and discovering a host of intriguing and exciting fiction and non-fiction on the bookshelves, but I don’t remember having a Book Week or author visits. We certainly didn’t dress up for World Book Day. That only started 18 years ago, and I left school before then. In fact, one of my favourite authors was Noel Streatfield – I didn’t know until after I left school whether Noel was a man or a woman – it didn’t matter. The author was largely anonymous, a system only for finding a book on the shelf, or reading more of the same.

For the next generation though, authors of books are REAL, alive (most of the time) and KNOWN. They may go to a school that encourages author visits, or attend book signings at a local bookshop or library, or attend literature festivals, such as the Southbank Imagine Children’s Literature Festival and meet authors in person. Suddenly these authors become celebrities (Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz), or in some cases, celebrities become authors (David Walliams, David Baddeil, Helen Skelton).

Authors have always been fundamental for writing, but now they have become fundamental to the reading process. On a cynical basis, I would attribute this to both increased marketing strategies and our celebrity culture. Authors are expected to provide a profile, whether it be on social media or in public life, as well as carrying out a fair bit of their own selling. For authors of children’s books, this often means visiting schools (which also serves a dual purpose as it creates an extra revenue stream as most authors make very little money from the sale of their books).

Pity the author who doesn’t have a SPARKLING personality or isn’t good at public speaking – by association they may tarnish their books. For those who can tell a good joke or strum a guitar they may gain a whole new audience for their stories. And after all, didn’t our storytelling all come from an oral tradition anyway? The notion of a writer scratching away with quill and ink in an impoverished attic was always rather Victorian.

What do children gain from seeing an author of a book? Not every author is as famous as David Walliams or Jacqueline Wilson, so what do the children think when it’s an author whom they’ve not heard of, with books they’ve never read, and are only prepped by their school the week or two before the visit?
Of course there are certain benefits that are readily talked about – it creates an excitement around reading, and books of all kinds not just by that author – it can inspire children, as passion for reading is something that is caught, not necessarily taught – and it can provoke children to write creatively themselves, believing it to be a ‘job’ they could do. These are all hugely important. This is something that the Patron of Reading scheme delivers in particular – you can read about them here.

I quizzed some school children recently about author visits. Why does it have to be an author of a published book? Surely a librarian – someone with knowledge of books, a good reading-aloud voice, a passion for literature and knowledge of the book market could equally well do a school visit, read books and inspire children. They admitted it wasn’t the same. For children, and I would argue adults too, there is something hugely special about seeing the author’s name in print on the front of the book – and if they are standing in front of you holding their product, then that’s something particularly special. It’s even better than Sir Tim Dyson vacuuming in front of you. But there was something else that came up that was surprising and special. Although any teacher, librarian or visitor could deconstruct a book – guess what came next, ask questions about the narrative, speculate on different endings and meanings – only the author had the ‘absolute’ truth in his head.

Having the author there to question on the story is like being able to get a glimpse inside someone else’s brain – in their dreams and imagination, in their feelings and reveries. The author is the only person who won’t reinterpret the book but has the ultimate interpretation of it – can discuss its origins and machinations, its complexities and issues, the versions it went through before its finalisation, with total authority. And then, and this is the bit that finally made me giggle – the children felt they could properly critique it.

I’ve yet to come across a school that didn’t heartily embrace the author who had come to visit – children who didn’t come away with a renewed vigour and warmth for reading, and a special place in its school library for those coveted signed books. If you’re an author, do a school visit, and if you’re a school, invite an author in. It’s mutually beneficial.


Children’s Literary London

My favourite activity is sitting at home in my little leafy patch of London reading a book. However, sometimes, according to my children, we have to leave the house. So here are my top tips for having a children’s literary day out in London this summer.

Lost and Found

Discover a story: The first place to grab our attention is The Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford, East London. Their current summer exhibition is the Wonderful World of Oliver Jeffers. You can actually step inside his books, immerse yourself in props from the illustrations, including the rocket, the penguin, the boat etc. It’s very hands-on, and it really lets the smallest children relive their Oliver Jeffers’ books obsession. There’s an outside story garden to explore too, as well as craft and story sessions.

Visit a good bookshop
: As if I didn’t have enough books already *waves from behind a towering stack* there are some beautiful bookshops to explore in London. Of course there’s Waterstones Piccadilly, the biggest bookshop in Europe – head for the second floor to find the newly expanded children’s department. I adore Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street – if ever there was a bookshop to entice you to browse this is it. Also, you can’t miss Foyles in Charing Cross Road, in its fairly new location. It’s Independent Bookshop Week this week, so for children’s books, you can try The Alligator’s Mouth in Richmond, the Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill, and Bookworm in Finchley Road, Tales on Moon Lane in Herne Hill, South-East London, or Pickled Pepper in Crouch End. Check them all out on Google, as they often have author events, craft sessions or storytime for children.

tiger who came to teawhen hitler stole pink rabbit

Celebrate a great author: Judith Kerr A Retrospective is currently touring England, and this summer alights at the Jewish Museum in Camden. We’ve yet to do this one – it only opens on 29 June, but I have high hopes. Judith Kerr is an author who reaches out to children of all ages, from her Tiger and Mog stories to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. This is an exhibition touring from the Seven Stories Centre in Newcastle, so should be a good one. Opens 29 June.

Visit somewhere that has a copy of every book printed in the UK: Anyone who loves books has to feel a bit of an affiliation with The British Library. This is definitely one for older children though. There is an exhibition on the Magna Carta until September, but their ongoing exhibition, Treasures of the British Library, showcasing the actual manuscripts of famous authors from Shakespeare to Austen, as well as the Alice in Wonderland handwritten original are enough to inspire any future budding writer, and awe literary enthusiasts.

alice in wonderland

Go to Wonderland: If you’re into Alice, you should also try Adventures in Wonderland at the Waterloo Vaults. Led through snaking paths into the labyrinth of wonderland by a guide, and entertained by actors dressed as the various characters from the story, this is a compelling piece of moving theatre. Children of all ages, including grown up ones, will love the disappearing Cheshire Cat, the bounciness of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and be charmed by the Mad Hatter. The crew behind the show have put a great deal of creativity and imagination into creating a wonderland under Waterloo; it’s a remarkable feat and you truly feel ensconced. There’s a daytime show for children, and an evening show for adults. During the day, if you’re feeling decadent, you can also sample a real Alice Tea Party at the Sanderson Hotel in Oxford Street with their Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea.

the rest of us just live here

Meet an author: For teens and those into young adult literature, one of the most exciting events this summer is the YALC, which is happening on July 17-19. It is a celebration of young adult literature, brought to fruition by the last children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, and now managed by BookTrust. It takes place at the London Film and Comic Con at Olympia, and includes authors such as Judy Blume, Cassandra Clare, Derek Landy, and Patrick Ness, and there’s a Harry Potter party. You can find a full schedule of panels and workshops and events on the website, although tickets sell out fast.

harry potter

Take the Hogwarts Express: Not only can you visit platform nine and three quarters in Kings Cross Station, but you can also venture a little further away from the centre and go to the Warner Bros Harry Potter studios. Even if it’s more film than book, JK Rowling’s magic pervades the site – with the Hogwarts Express, the Great Hall and more. This summer they’re concentrating on the food in the films – you can eat Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.

The twits

Travel further and be a twit: If you’re feeling really adventurous you can leave the cosy of the city for Great Missenden and visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre – this is well worth a visit – the museum takes you through the life of Roald Dahl and then has an interactive gallery focusing on his writing, encouraging you to get creative too. You can see Roald Dahl’s writing chair, dress up, use touchscreens to tell stories, and attend a storytelling session. It’s good fun, although really for children who already have a good knowledge of his work and are happy to get involved.

stig of the dump

Learn to be an illustrator: Lastly, if you’re attracted to children’s books by the illustrations, you might want to visit Quentin Blake’s House of Illustration in Kings Cross, where there is currently a Ladybird by Design exhibition featuring nostalgic Ladybird book illustrations, or attend one of their monthly family workshops led by professional illustrators. There’s also celebration of children’s illustration at The Illustration Cupboard; their summer exhibition concentrates on the work of Edward Ardizzone (Stig of the Dump, The Little Train). Beware though, it’s very tempting in here to get swept away and want to purchase your very own children’s illustration.

Lastly, there’s a neverending stream of children’s books being turned into theatre in the capital – from Matilda and Charlie to Hetty Feather, Aliens Love Underpants, Pinocchio, Horrible Histories, The Gruffalo, The Railway Children, War Horse…to mention a few.

Or, you can just stay at home and read my book of the week. As I will be doing today….

FCBG Conference: Inspire

logo FCBG
Last weekend I attended the FCBG Conference. The FCBG aims to promote enjoyment in children’s books and accessibility of those books to all – as well as attempting to put the right book in the right child’s hands. The theme of the conference was ‘Inspire’ and I was inspired in three ways.
its about love

Firstly, by those who seek to examine fresh ways of looking at narrative in children’s publishing and what can be achieved. From the award-winning narrative apps, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, of Nosy Crow Publishers, presented by their supremely dynamic MD, Kate Wilson, to the spoken word artist Steve Camden (aka PolarBear), author of Tape and the soon to be published It’s About Love, who introduces his young adult novels with performance poetry. See here. In fact, understanding and being able to decode narrative is critical for a child’s development of empathy. And taking time to be engaged in a narrative and not be easily distracted can contribute to a child’s wellbeing. The writer Nicola Morgan explained that a big report on offline/online reading will be published in about 2017/2018, but that it is notable that reading offline does lend itself to fewer distractions. Everyone at the conference pointed to print books as an integral part of the narrative process as well as whatever other technologies we may apply. Books I’m looking forward to from Nosy Crow in the near future include There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins, the next in the Wigglesbottom Primary series by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor, and My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons. Reviews to follow.
Theres a Bear on my chair
Secondly, I was inspired by people working within the children’s publishing industry and others I met who are simply sharing their incredible book knowledge. Philip Ardagh is passionate about books and writes some startlingly funny ones. I’m hoping to review his book The Unlikely Outlaws soon, and he has also written a funny series called The Grunts, and Awful End. Sophy Henn and Rob Biddulph spoke about creating their picture books, PomPom Gets the Grumps and Blown Away respectively, which I’ve reviewed previously. Click on the titles to read my reviews. There was also much to learn about non-fiction titles, and I had a lovely chat with Nicola Davies who told me about her new theatre venture at the Hay Literary Festival. Nicola bubbles over with enthusiasm when speaking about her books, which weave a narrative structure within non-fiction to create spellbinding titles. One of my favourite titles of hers is The Promise, a picture book that seems to use osmosis to seamlessly transfer the author’s love for trees and nature onto the reader. Not only that but it imparts the idea that just because a child has a difficult start in life, it doesn’t mean that the rest of life will be equally difficult.

The Promise

Lastly of course, it is all about the power of the book; the power of the story to tell you that you are not alone, and as Frank Cottrell Boyce (author of The Astounding Broccoli Boy) put it “to break you free of the prison of the present”. Getting the right book into your own hands can inspire you in the same way that putting the right book in the hands of the right child can inspire them for life. Frank Cottrell Boyce revealed that simply reading Heidi empowered someone he knew to understand that happiness was a possibility for them despite all their hardship. On a lighter note, Steven Butler (author of The Wrong Pong) realised that reading might be for him after all when he realised that it was possible to put the word ‘knickers’ in a children’s book – he discovered it in Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes!
the wrong pong

I came away with MORE knowledge about children’s books and subsequently a better idea of which books I can recommend for your child. It’s about getting children reading. You can access the FCBG website here.

Harry Potter Book Night

Potter1Harry Potter2Potter3
In 2007, more than 1,000 people queued outside Waterstones Piccadilly, Europe’s largest bookshop, to get their hands on the final saga in the Harry Potter series. Tomorrow night I’ll be revisiting that bookshop to celebrate the first global Harry Potter Book Night and the release of the series with the new cover illustrations from Jonny Duddle. A marketing ploy you think? Yes, indeed, it’s time for Bloomsbury to re-release the series with a new modern look, and to create a moment, a day, to celebrate the brand. For me, there’s nothing wrong with that at all – Harry Potter (or rather JK Rowling) has redefined children’s literature. She started the ball rolling for a groundswell of readers who wanted more children’s literature and wanted it recognised in its own right as a major genre.

Since 1998 when the Potter books first burst onto the scene with their modest print run, children’s books are finally being celebrated. In 2000, The New York Times created a special children’s bestseller list alongside their adult one, as Harry Potter was squeezing out so many other titles. In 2002, Phillip Pullman won the overall Whitbread Awards for his children’s book, The Amber Spyglass, beating all adult titles. In 2014 children’s book sales were up ten per cent against a book market that was generally about 2 per cent down.

What did JK Rowling do in Harry Potter that had such an effect? The magic of Harry Potter works on many levels. It invokes the age old conflict of good versus evil. It consistently and continually poses mystery – everything is a question that JK answers pages later. Why can Harry hear snakes? What happened to Moaning Myrtle? And the third component is the voice – the ability of the author to step inside a child’s head and understand the nuances of friendship, the emotions involved, and the frustration with the adult world – to eke out the bonds behind certain relationships – loyalty, trust, and empathy.


JK Rowling is not the only writer to do this, other writers before her wrote wonderful children’s books – so did she just hit the zeitgeist head on – was she in the right place at the right time? Barry Cunningham, the man credited with finding JK Rowling, had been asked to set up a Bloomsbury children’s book list only a couple of years before the manuscript was submitted. He had previously worked with Roald Dahl, amongst others.

Not only did the Harry Potter series rejuvenate the children’s book market, it also enticed adults into reading again. It was an easy read for grownups who had long abandoned reading for pleasure of any sort. And reading is habit-forming. Harry Potter doesn’t only reach across age ranges, it also breaches the gender divide. Although JK Rowling was encouraged to be named as JK on the cover, not Joanne Rowling, because the publishers thought that books about boys written by a woman were not going to sell, it seems it no longer matters. Harry Potter has reached girls and boys, men and women, from 8-80 yrs.

This Thursday is Harry Potter Book Night. It’s an event created by Bloomsbury to celebrate Harry Potter and introduce him to the next generation of readers. Many many schools, libraries and shops throughout the country are holding parties – it’s a great excuse to celebrate children’s books.  I’ll be tweeting from the event at Waterstones Piccadilly, and blogging again tomorrow after the event. Have a great Harry Potter Book Night for those that do.