Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Why don't we take children's books seriously?

The bunny rabbit, whose propensity for breeding is legendary, has long served as a fertility symbol for the Spring. Bunnykins figures came from the fertile imagination of a young woman whose father, Cuthbert Bailey, happened to be the managing director of Royal Doulton. As a child, Barbara Vernon Bailey had filled sketchbooks with drawings of the countryside, and of the animals kept by her four brothers and two sisters including pigs, cows, horses and ferrets, as well as the more cuddly dogs, cats and guinea-pigs.
I don’t know if we’re the only country whose media doesn’t take children’s books seriously, but certainly the situation is different in Germany. My publisher there often sends me double-page articles devoted to the work of just one children’s author or illustrator. America also appears more enlightened. I recently read a long serious article in The New York Times about British author-illustrator Rebecca Cobb’s Missing Mummy, a book about parental loss which received not one single print review in a British national paper.

It is largely parents who buy books for their children, and if they live in an area with no bookshop or library, which is sadly increasingly common, they would surely welcome some enthusiasm and guidance from the media. I would like it if a programme such as Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour could once a month have a Book Doctor slot, where parents or teachers could ask questions like “Why doesn’t my teenage son read any more?” or “Are there any good books about spiders?”, and a panel including a children’s writer could respond.

It’s not that we don’t have any good reviewers or experts on children’s books. We have some excellent ones, and I imagine they are all chafing at the bit for more space. But often all they are asked to supply is an occasional “round-up” of children’s books, usually at Easter or Christmas. They therefore have to cram in as many titles as possible, sometimes just giving a basic plot summary, and this doesn’t make for very exciting reading.

I would like not only to see more analytical reviews, but also more features about writers and illustrators. We all remember being riveted by the story of the penniless J. K. Rowling writing Harry Potter in a café (long before the books became legendary), and there must be many more quirky tales for the telling.
It wouldn’t be hard to illustrate such features. Children’s picture books are like an art gallery, with an amazing variety of styles, often highly original. These illustrators are some of our leading artists whose work should be seen and discussed outside classrooms and children’s bedrooms. When I listen to Front Row, there is often a report on an exhibition or an interview with an artist, but I have never heard a children’s illustrator being interviewed.

It seems that a children’s author or book has to be established before they will be given any attention. Whereas a new adult book with an unusual theme or concept might get a slot on radio or television, the same is not true of children’s fiction. In my laureate role I went to at least 20 events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and, along with the parents attending with their children, was almost always captivated. But how many of those children’s authors will get a chance to talk about their work on Open Book or The Review Show, or be interviewed by a national paper?

Last year at the Bath Kids Literature Festival Axel Scheffler and I were actually interviewed by the regional television news programme. The interview probably lasted less than two minutes, with one question for each of us. Axel’s question was something like, “Why do so many books for young children’s have pictures in them?” which struck me as rather like asking a playwright, “Why do so many plays have characters in them?” But this didn’t dampen the exultation of our publicist: fancy that! A children’s writer and illustrator on television!

by Julia Donaldson, 
Children's Laureate

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