The Literary Echo Chamber

Haruki Murakami said that “if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” Much has been made recently of our political echo chambers. How we read an article that we agree with, share with those friends we keep who tend to agree with us, and they in turn share back to us articles with which we agree. Then algorithms on Facebook and other social media sites spew us similar articles with the same viewpoint, thus reinforcing our thoughts. We live in our own post-truth bubbles.

This isn’t my fabrication of an echo chamber. Social scientists Walter Quattrociocchi, Antonio Scala and Cass Sunstein found evidence that people share their favourite narratives or spin on what’s happening, form a group of people who think similarly, and not only that, but resist information or don’t read that with which they don’t agree. Depending on who you believe, this liberal bubble contributed to how Donald Trump was elected President.

But it’s not just political echo chambers. Is this working into the way we view literature too? Are we contained within literary echo chambers? Are we all reading the same books?

There’s a clear correlation across the main newspapers and magazines as to which books are reviewed – I see the same titles again and again. And yet in 2013 the UK published 184,000 new books. The big hitters – David Walliams, Paula Hawkins, JoJo Moyes pull away from the rest of the crowd, selling in their droves. So are all Londoners on the tube thinking the same thoughts as they read the same books? Are they all reading the one being turned into a film, republished with the revised film still cover?

I’m guilty of this too. I can only review the books I’m sent – and as a children’s book reviewer I get sent what the publicists want me to highlight. I do try to request titles where possible, especially niche ones, and I have done this in the past. Also, I don’t get sent the really big sellers – such as David Walliams, as they don’t need my small promotion. And I used to go into my public library and review books that were published years ago and have been slightly forgotten. But now that public library has shrunk to the point of not stocking a sizeable variety (or it has closed completely).

And with newspapers themselves in decline, reviews are squeezed and so fewer risks can be taken by reviewers. And bloggers too tend to navigate within the waters of self-imposed social media echo chambers.

Jonny Geller, literary agent at Curtis Brown, even warned that what’s perceived as a more ‘difficult’ book might not even get published, as large publishers are afraid to take risks, and smaller publishers can’t afford to. In fact publishers would quite like lots of us to be reading the same book – the larger the print run, the smaller the printing costs. So winners of book prizes and books of the year do particularly well – but they tend to be safer books. The cost of entering the top book awards (which give a huge boost to sales) can be prohibitive – as much as £5000 a book if it is shortlisted.

Does this restrict the publishers in what they are choosing to publish altogether? Are we shrinking our narratives at the start – publishing only those titles that might make it into the mainstream, win the awards, and speak to the zeitgeist? How can we change the zeitgeist if we’re not taking risks?

And the buying public – well I’ve spoken before about the shopping algorithm literary echo chamber. Amazon will suggest you titles that like-minded people have bought – in fact if you choose a Costa shortlist title, it suggests the other shortlisted titles, and eventually if you follow the algorithm through, you end up back at the beginning. It’s very hard to get led off on a tangent – unless you go into an independent retailer and ask a knowledgeable member of staff for one of those ‘difficult’ titles.

And then there’s the effect this is having on our confidence in our opinion. Am I wrong if I dislike the book of the year, the winner of the Booker? One of the top ten reasons children give for not reading is that they are worried their opinion will be deemed wrong. It is hard to be the dissenting voice in the crowd. And it’s not just children who worry about having that different opinion from the masses – on more than one occasion I’ve seen a book (and in the genre I like and read) massively promoted, and lauded by critics and bloggers, which I personally think is pretty average, or even worse.

Of course, on the flip side, there’s nothing wrong with a shared narrative. Children love to read the same book so that they can share thoughts with each other, just as the idea of book clubs has such hold because you can eschew your opinion among book-loving people and talk about the same books. Although it’d be interesting to see how many book clubs are composed of like-minded friends, and how many are set up on purpose to have dissenting and different voices and viewpoints.

Some of my personal favourite books are the ones hiding at the back of the bookshop – or the ones you have to specially order because they’re not even stocked on the shelves. A winning picture book for me last year was Flood by Alvaro Villa – one for older children that illuminated in stunning full-bleed illustrations the devastating consequences of a flood on an ordinary family. I was surprised that Alone by DJ Brazier (one of my top books from last year) and The Boy Who Drew the Future by Rhian Ivory didn’t receive more attention in press and bookshops. Or The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold, which didn’t seem to garner much attention in the run-up to Christmas last year, and thoroughly deserved to, whereas of course The Midnight Gang by David Walliams with its stymied characterisation and stereotyping, did rather well.  And some authors rely on backlist sales. But I’m falling into the same trap here, because once I’ve read a hidden gem, I want to tell the world about it. I’d like everyone to read it and glean the same joy I did. Echo chamber after echo chamber.

Why not share this article with all your like-minded friends? Or pick up a book you wouldn’t normally read?


School Libraries: the best bang for your education buck

Next week marks the end of Malorie Blackman’s tenure as Children’s Laureate. I will be sad about this, not only because Malorie has been a terrific laureate, but because she strongly advocated for school libraries. She has asked on numerous occasions why it is mandatory in this country for every prison to have a library, but not every school.

In fact this month also marks a year passing since the publication of the report, The Beating Heart of the School, by the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group about improving educational attainment through school libraries and librarians.

But in the past year I’ve seen more and more school librarians being made redundant, and visited more schools in which the library space is simply a bookshelf in the middle of a corridor, or schools in which the sole person looking after the library is a mealtime supervisor who merely ‘tidies shelves’.  There are obviously budget and space constraints, but it would be good to stop using these as excuses and start trying to re-prioritise.

I’ve banged on before about how reading improves a child’s chances in life. Studies in the US point to the fact that students in schools with effective library programs learn more, get better grades and score higher on standardised tests than their peers in schools without (American Library Association). Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education (Institute of Education, 2013). Students who have access to and use school libraries are more likely to hold positive opinions on reading – they are twice as likely as non-users of libraries to say they enjoy reading. Also non-users were three times as likely to say that reading was boring.

Researchers have also found that spending £100 per primary school pupil on books has a greater impact on average test scores across English, maths and science than the same amount spent on ICT or staffing (Open University/Liverpool John Moores/Liverpool Hope University). According to statistics from Booktrust, 61 per cent of primary schools spent less than £10 per pupil per academic year on library books. In fact Britain spends less money on books in secondary schools than any other developed country.

Statistics from last year show that 1 in 4 children cannot read well by the time they leave primary school, and it’s increasingly evident in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. For these children in particular, school libraries are their only access to books.

There is still no data available on the number of school libraries, particularly in primary schools, nor of numbers of librarians or expert staff (although scant data has emerged that between 2012-2014 280 school librarians were cut from the system); meanwhile the number of school library services (council run bodies who provide expertise and resources to schools on children’s books) continues to dwindle. A 2007 Booktrust survey showed that two thirds of primary schools who did have libraries did not staff them with a librarian, library assistant nor a teacher. It’s important not just to have a stack of books, but to have a trained expert who can disseminate information gathering to the children, who can recommend the right sorts of books, and can demonstrate how important reading and love for reading is.

There’s a great deal more to being a school librarian than tidying shelves. Turnover of stock, preparing welcoming library displays, book competitions, involvement in the wider book community, author visits, recommendations, repairing broken books, replacing lost books, advising the school on books for use in the classroom and topic work, explaining how research is done – how information can be sifted and gathered, providing a safe haven in the school – a quiet contemplative place to study, showing love for reading by example, knowing the children’s book market and the range of titles available, reading with the children, leading book discussions….

Back in 2011 there was a campaign from the National Literacy Trust to promote school libraries and a plea to stop school libraries services from closing, as without a qualified librarian or expert in children’s books, the SLS was some schools only option. Despite this, it is still not a requirement of OFSTED to consider libraries in their reports. School librarian Caroline Roche said that on Ofsted inspections librarians need to “jump up and down saying: Look at me.”

If the government wanted to eradicate illiteracy, or even just promote reading for pleasure, all our schools should be centres of excellence for reading; it should be as important for a child to have a school librarian as a school teacher. And it would also take some of the burden from those teachers – who wouldn’t have to compensate by also attempting to be experts in children’s literature and information services, but have, on hand, an expert of their own.

Yet it doesn’t seem as if progress has been made. I can’t find data on which schools have staffed libraries. Anecdotal stories tell me that librarians are a dying breed. And we cannot rely on volunteers. Well-meaning grandparents can’t fill the gap of an expert. Charity book donations may stock a school library full with Enid Blytons or Roald Dahl books, but it’s time we taught our children there’s a book out there to suit everyone, and a welcoming person on hand to help them find it and love it. Maybe if we gave more of our school children access to and advice on books, we wouldn’t need to be building all those prisons, complete with their own libraries.



Why Do We Buy the Books We Buy?

Last week the children’s author Anthony McGowan made a controversial statement when he tweeted that book blogging was a commercially pointless endeavour. He said that it doesn’t have a big impact on sales of books. Then a seminar at the London Bookfair agreed that with regards to book blogs it’s not about direct sales but about creating a buzz. I disagree, having consistent anecdotal evidence from my own experience and other bloggers that it does point to sales (although not huge…most children’s authors have never had huge sales). Of course it all depends on who is reading your blog. My blog is read mainly by parents, teachers, librarians and carers looking for book ideas.

But the controversy did make me question why I buy certain books and not others. And this is why

National Press Reviews: I avidly read several newspapers’ book sections each weekend. However, there are only certain reviewers with whom I tend to agree, so I take more notice of them. I also read reviews from national press online – when the links are tweeted into my timeline. Others may browse the bestseller lists for inspiration – this is not something I have ever done.

Book Displays in Bookshops: This is a lethal one. I’m often in independent and chain bookshops for work purposes and I find it tricky to leave empty-handed. Outward facing covers and display tables definitely pull me in, as do handwritten recommendations or personal recommendations from booksellers I know. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a good bookseller nearby though.

Author Loyalty: This is one of the strongest paths to purchase for me. If I liked a first book, even if not in a series, I will be far more likely to buy the next by the same author and so on. The more books I like, obviously, the more likely I am to buy another by the same author. Anecdotally, this seems to be key for many people. It doesn’t always follow – and sometimes you’ll come across a clanger, but generally this has worked for me.

Face-to-Face Recommendations: Certain friends of mine and family members share the same taste in books as myself – I will very often look up a book if they recommend it, and sometimes buy it too.

Bloggers/The twitterati: I follow a circle of bloggers/authors/booksellers on twitter and they do very often steer my reading purchases. In the same way as face-to-face recommendations, there are some whose taste I know I share. However, this community talks about a far bigger quantity and variety of books, and have great book knowledge. I think I’d be mad not to listen to them.

Price/Offers: I would never buy a book just because it’s on offer. Only very rarely will I ‘search’ for a third book if I’m already buying two and there’s a three for two offer. And yes, I ALSO use the library, but I have the book disease, whereby if I love a book I’d like to own it. Then I can recommend and loan it myself.

Search on a Topic: Very occasionally I’ll buy a book as a result of searching the topic online. For some of my writing I need to do quite extensive research, and then a search will bring back a book which I feel might be useful. Most people I know tend only to do this for their children’s non-fiction habits rather than for themselves.

Book Prizes: I do take note of which books win book prizes, especially The Booker and the Baileys Prize for adult purchases, and with children’s books, The Carnegie and the Kate Greenaway, The Guardian and Waterstones – as well as many other book prizes out there. However, more often than not I totally disagree with the winners!

Before I finish, a couple of points I must reiterate. Many of my readers have told me that they purchased a book as a result of reading about it here. In fact, more than one person has told me that I MAKE them spend money. Hey, it’s on children’s books – I’m not sorry about that! I must point out that I never recommend a book on my blog that I haven’t read myself, but do admit (and try and point out when) I have been given that book free from the publisher/publicist. I don’t only review books they send me, but often review my own purchased books. I never review/recommend something that I don’t like, even if the publisher has sent it to me for review.

To show you exactly, here are the last ten books I bought and why. This doesn’t include books I get for review, and I am not necessarily recommending these books as I haven’t yet read them all – they are my personal purchases:

  • Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
    I bought this as a present for someone else as a result of my twitterati bloggers. It promises to be subversive, dark and different. Just right for the recipient!
  • A Placed Called Winter by Patrick Gale
    I bought this as a result of a combination of factors; national press reviews, huge twitter noise, having read previous Gale novels, a feeling of not wanting to miss out!
  • Hamish and the Worldstoppers by Danny Wallace
    Purchased at someone else’s book launch because a twitterati person told me it was hilarious, because I thought my children might like it, and because it has beautiful printing down the edges of the page! And because I thought my blog readers might like it.
  • History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life by Jill Bialosky
    Research for some writing I’m doing.
  • Family Life by Akhil Sharma solely because it won the Folio prize (and it sounded interesting)
  • The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, by Daniel Hahn.
    I think this is an obvious one – it’s my speciality – I’d look a bit daft if I ignored this.
  • Third Term at Tall Towers by Lou Kuenzler
    I’m not sure if this counts as it was bought with my daughter’s birthday money on her behalf, so because it doesn’t count
    7a) Where Bear? By Sophy Henn.
    Browsing in the bookshop. (Shh don’t tell anyone I was in one again!)
  • The Unluckiest Boy in the World by Andrew Norriss
    Purchased on the back of a review by a fellow blogger. And I know the author to be a good one! I hope to review it for you.
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
    Author Loyalty.
  • Crow Road by Mary Lawson
    Author Loyalty

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.

Happy New Year 2015

book pile 4
Everyone is doing end of year summations, or new year expectations. I have read some amazing books this year, and am looking forward to reading some amazing books next year. My ‘to be read’ tower of books is likely to win the 2015 prize for tallest building in Europe. However, for the last blog of the year 2014 I thought I’d expand on my raison d’etre; why MinervaReads exists.

In my day to day existence I speak with lots of children and their parents – in the school library, in the playground, on car pool rotas, by the side of the swimming pool, at the edge of the football pitch. And in the past year the throng of voices has grown louder and louder. Children tell me ‘they used to like reading but now they don’t’, and adults tell me ‘that there just aren’t any decent books out there – there’s nothing for my child to read.’ And my frustration was growing…and growing. To add to that, near where I live, there are very few good independent bookshops; and certainly none with easy parking! Even now there are threats to close down the local public libraries.

The adults with whom I speak buy their books in one place. Amazon. And for all its wonder, speedy deliveries, and algorithms, they can’t personally suggest what a child should read. Their browse buttons point to the same books over and over, their bestseller lists self-perpetuate.

My friends know me as the ‘go-to’ person for book recommendations. So I thought I’d expand to beyond my group of friends. I’ve suggested books (successfully) to a ten year old girl who told me she didn’t read anything AT ALL (not even magazines or cereal packets). And helped parents obtain accessible books for their newly-diagnosed dyslexic child. I’ve suggested a completely different breadth and range of books to a nine year old voracious reader – books of which she and her mother were just unaware (they aren’t stocked at the local WHSmiths).

In January 2015 Scholastic Publishers will publish the Kids and Family Reading Report, Fifth Edition. From their survey they discovered that 73 per cent of children aged between six and 17 told them that they would read more if they could find more books that they like. My experience tells me this is absolutely true – and I hope to do just that. Find the right book for the right child.

On my blog I’m going to suggest books that I adore – and tell everyone to read them. I want to discover newly published books and fling them towards children who I know will enjoy them – to rediscover old classics that can kindle a spark, feed an imagination. Books that I have read to my child but can’t reach the end because there are too many tears (The Silver Sword, Goodnight Mister Tom), books over which my husband and I fight for who’s going to read it to the children (Phoenix, Harry Potter, The BFG, The Fastest Boy in the World), books that make your children laugh so much that you wake up the baby (How to Train Your Parents, Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs), books that grandparents want to buy for grandchildren – books that fit a festival or time of year – books that help you overcome fears and niggles, books that let you soar into a different world, or explain the one you’re in.

Read it for general recommendations. Or contact me for personal ones.
Happy Reading 2015

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