How do children’s bookshops help to make children into keen readers? Lots of wonderful books and friendly, knowledgeable staff are of course essential but the best children’s bookshops also offer something different and special. In the first of a new series on these very individual emporiums, Books for Keeps invited Marilyn Brocklehurst to describe a day in the life of the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre which she set up in her garden in rural North Norfolk nearly 25 years ago.
Last night there were six young stags outside the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre. No kidding! Of course children don’t come here for the stags, or the cats curled up on the lumpy settee, or the biscuit tin on the table, or the array of messages written on the walls by the likes of Jacqueline Wilson, Darren Shan and Susan Cooper, but these elements all make for a wonderful experience.
Once children have persuaded grannies, mums and dads, teachers, librarians to bring them down the lane to our secluded shop built in our North Norfolk garden what do they look for? There are the usual queries ‘You haven’t got..?’, ‘I don’t suppose you have…’ and we usually do. The popular books are all there shelved alongside a wealth of lesser known titles we hope our customers will discover.
The familiar is pounced on – Wally, Dahl, Horrid Henry, Charlie and Lola, Harry, Mr Gum and Percy Jackson – and then WE pounce (a subtle pounce of course!). ‘Have you seen this?’ (The latest Emily Gravett.) ‘This is REALLY good!’ (The Knife of Never Letting Go.) ‘We love these brilliant books, but ignore the cover – it might put you off!’ (The 10pm Question; The Worry Tree; Lob; Tuck Everlasting; Charlotte Sometimes). ‘If you like funny stuff you MIGHT want to try… (Cosmic; David Walliams.) ‘Only read this if you like a really good weep.’ (Secret Friends; A Monster Calls.)
Meanwhile parents are hunting out and rediscovering their old favourites – Teddy Robinson, My Naughty Little Sister, Uncle – and ‘that one where the rabbit dies – might have had a yellow cover’!
A 20 mile drive for Sharon Creech
Here’s what happened yesterday. A London dad drove 20 miles from his holiday cottage in Winterton with his daughter. ‘You gave her Sharon Creech last time – are there more?’ I oblige and add Hilary McKay and Journey to the River Sea. A parent arrives MINUS 14-year-old son whom she had described during their visit the previous day as non-reading. ‘He couldn’t put that book down you gave him yesterday. He read all night (Iboy). He’ll only take your advice now.’ She goes away with Henry Tumour, Being and Bloodtide. I cross my fingers!
A pony-mad girl trots in through the door. What relief – we have some excellent new pony books. I give her Nobody’s Horse and Paradise House and tell her about Samphire Song.
A distraught Alex Rider fan shambles in – it CAN’T be the end of the series! We give him Timeriders, Hive and Boy Soldier and a couple of Jimmy Coates..
A desperate Mr Gum fan – any more Gum? We tell him about Mr Gum in the Hound of Lamonic Bibber coming soon with masses of David Tazzyman illustrations and he goes off with Muncle Trogg and a clutch of other giggly stuff.
A parent comes in: ‘His teacher sent us. He’s not much of a reader. He struggles. He hates books.’ We sit down for a chat and a coffee. While the boy eats the entire contents of the biscuit tin and strokes Cato until a paw-swipe tells him enough is enough, I hunt out some Pete Johnson thrillers, The Chicken Gave it to Me, a variety of Barrington Stokes, a Tony Bradman horror. I chat to the mum about sharing, reading aloud until they are at least 14, pleasure, positive encouragement and praise.
And the best customer: ‘Recommend me something – I haven’t a clue!’ Here’s a chance to introduce wonderful stuff – One Dog and his Boy, Love Aubrey, Powder Monkey, Gatty’s Tale, Goggle Eyes, The London Eye Mystery, How I Live Now – bliss!
Our bookshop, along with many other independents like us, doesn’t focus on new titles – they are simply assimilated into the stock. We have no tables with this month’s best-sellers, special offers or piles of the latest Cherub. Our customers aren’t looking for the latest and they rarely ask us for series titles – they can pick those up in supermarkets and in the High Street. They come to us for good advice, and they trust us.
Asked about trends, passions, classics etc, I think it’s difficult to say. The child who drops in for the latest ‘Skulduggery Pleasant’ might discover Bartimaeus. The ageing Harry Potter fan leaves with A Wizard of Earthsea. Yes, we sell our share of Wimpy Kids, Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo, Gruffalos and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but we are determined that our visitors should have the opportunity to discover treasures while they are here. Children are very author/series loyal, but you’re not a child for very long. It would be sad to grow up without discovering Shaun Tan, Diana Wynne Jones, Sharon Creech, Kevin Brooks, Philip Reeve and the rest. We’re doing our bit!