Shirley Hughes was in optimistic mood when she opened this year’s CBY exhibition at the Festival
`If there was ever any room for self-indulgence or fey pretensions in children’s books it certainly isn’t the case now. These are bracing and excitingly expansive times.
None of us has ever really wanted to be in an enclosed Noddy-land, a cosy cul-de-sac of publishing, however prettily decorated. But now at last we’re entering the mainstream. Our editors, of course, have always taken children’s books very seriously; have known that to try to essay the necessary care and accessibility of style, to deploy a hard-won and sophisticated skill with deceptive simplicity, is no mean aspiration. But now the bosses – those chaps in the beautiful suits up in the penthouse offices (whichever side of the Atlantic they may be on!) are taking children’s books seriously too. Partly, it may be, because they have studied our steady sales figures but also because they know that if we don’t prosper the future adult reading public won’t exist. And so far more resources are being made available for this joyful expansion.
But it’s worth remembering that not all our most distinguished writers and illustrators sprang into being fully armed with award-winning star quality. Many made a cautious, even humdrum start, and their development depended on having a good editor. I’m pretty sure that anyone with real talent in this field has as good a chance of eventually getting published today than ever before. And we are seeing in recent years, top-class colour printing, offered at very low prices, story books for younger children with a lot of colour (more than the 32-page limit which I thought was with us for ever) and the proud survival of fully-illustrated classics.
Some things in this business remain perennially the same. In spite of big takeovers and foreign rights sold all over the world, the best work we do will always be as a cottage industry – not in the unprofessional sense, far from it, but depending on close working relationships between writers, illustrators, editors and designers. It means meticulous attention to detail, lots of hard thinking about the typesetting, the space between the lines to encouraging reading for sense, to the ventilation and accessibility of a page, trying to make it irresistibly attractive to anyone who picks up the book. It’s exciting to think of publishers setting up a climate in which originators and in-house skills can be brought together at a very early stage to consider the book as a whole. Of course, the most precious raw material is the language – the words, the story – this goes without saying. But good children’s book publishers know that design isn’t something you `spray on’ at a late stage to make people buy things. It’s an integral part of the whole. And, as with every other industry, the public today expect a very high standard. These concerns make children’s books a spearhead of innovation to the book trade as a whole, and keeps our books (I might just as well come out with it) amongst the very best in the world.
Something else remains very much the same, and that’s the children themselves. In spite of the tidal waves of commercialisation that wash over them, their absorptions and anxieties, their games, what makes them laugh remains surprisingly unchanged. But more than ever they need a cultural bedrock, strong, sustaining, unifying, entertaining in a lasting sense. As writers, we stand or fall, as ever, by the people at the grass roots: the librarians who bring children in for storytelling, teachers who have an enthusiasm for real reading, not just getting the words off the page, booksellers who are prepared to chance their arm in a difficult world and put children’s books forward, often with limited space. And now, I’m glad to say, the big guns, the chain bookshops are prepared to do the same, not only to sell books but provide a real service for people who want their children to be readers.’
Shirley Hughes ended by reading a letter from ‘a very young reader’, Abide Hussein, from the Keir Hardie Infant School in East London. It is the sort of letter many writers and artists receive but serves to remind all of us involved with children’s books what it is really about.
After a lively summer in London including lots of associated children’s activities the exhibition is on show in Glasgow at Book Trust Scotland’s office and available for hire at £40.50 (£30.50 Friends of Book Trust and educational establishments) per fortnight plus VAT.
As usual the exhibition is based on Children’s Books of the Year 1987 by Julia Eccleshare, Book Trust, 0 85353 415 2, £5.25 (£3.50 to Friends of Book Trust and educational establishments). This year she has selected and annotated 314 books across the age range 0-teens. Usefully sectioned, clearly laid out and with a delightful cover design by Satoshi Kitamura, this is a useful reference.
Book Trust has available a poster (95p plus 55p p&p) and bookmarks (10p each, minimum order by post 10 inc. p&p) taken from the cover illustration.
`Dear Shirley Hughes,
I like the story of Dogger it has nice pictures and we was sad.
I have got the story of Dogger. We had a nice story.
My teacher liked the story too.
I said to my teacher read the story of Dogger and she said yes.
I am taking the stories home, so I can show my Mum the story.
The story was very good I saw the story of Dogger
You make the stories of Dogger good.’
Orders and enquiries to Publications and Exhibitions Officer, Book Trust, Book House, 45 East Hill, London SW18 2QZ; tel: 01-870 9055.