While groping and bumping around the Web looking at author sites for this article, consideration of their nature has arisen. What do they do well and what do they do badly? Websites offer a variety of opportunities to authors and illustrators. These may be largely commercial, advertising themselves and their works. They may be more altruistic, giving simple access to children looking for information or suggesting ways that teachers can make use of an author’s books. Either way, more and more authors and illustrators are creating their own websites or having them created for them. Clive Barnes assesses their contribution.
I can’t hope to cover all author and illustrator sites in this small space or to be sure that I haven’t missed out a good one, so I have restricted myself to examples that illustrate some of their features.
While every author and illustrator who has a website is probably aware of its advantages in some way, some are more adept at using the technology or recognising who their audience might be. The idea of audience is probably the most crucial, for what I feel distinguishes a website from a book is its ability to communicate more directly, and to invite participation of one kind or another from its audience. So sites which are put together with only the vaguest idea of who they want to talk to, or as merely another way of displaying material already available in print, are likely to be a disappointment.
On the other hand, the potential of the web for bringing together a multitude of approaches and audiences around children’s authors and illustrators is most apparent with those classic authors whose only hope now for direct communication with us is via a Ouija board. There is a network site for Lewis Carroll (www.lewiscarroll.org) that has hundreds of links to everything you may want to know about Carroll, whether it’s mathematics, on-line texts, the illustrations (Tenniel or Disney), academic conferences or Carroll appreciation societies. There are similar sites for other classic authors, usually maintained by enthusiasts, and whether an author or illustrator is honoured in this way depends on their enduring fan base.
To find a particular author, you can begin with an individual search on the web. To appreciate the range of sites it’s best to approach through a list of links from a general children’s books site. Two of the sites I reviewed in last September,
www.ukchildrensbooks.co.uk, have lists of modern authors and illustrators. These are mainly British. To get a wider cross section of English language sites, try the University of Calgary’s Children’s Literature Web Guide (www.acs.ucalgary/~dkbrown/index.html). This has the longest list I have found, includes classic and modern authors, and marks those sites it finds especially exciting. The only problem is that it’s not been updated for some time, so some of the links are dead ends.
Modern authors and illustrators
There are, of course, modern authors and illustrators, including some of the most popular or revered in the UK, who haven’t entered this world at all, or who are content to leave websites to their publishers or other commercial sponsors. Neither Shirley Hughes nor Anthony Browne has their own site. Jacqueline Wilson has a page on the Transworld site (www.booksattransworld.co.uk) which leads to a further free fan club page. J K Rowling relies on Harry Potter fan sites and the Warner Brothers film site (www.harrypotter.warnerbros.com). This last site has nothing about the author herself, but has exciting graphics and appears to be good value for games and activities. There are a number of other sites on authors set up by fans, usually adults. Some of these work closely with the authors, like Brian Jacques’ Redwall site (www.redwall.org/dave/jacques/html), which was begun by a teenage fan. Others, like the site set up by Alan Garner’s adult admirers (www.ozemail.com.au/~zenophon/), revere their hero from afar.
On any author site, you might expect to find a biography, responses to frequently asked questions (FAQ), and details and reviews of the books, sometimes with a facility to buy them on-line. Anne Fine, the Children’s Laureate, has a site that does this bare minimum (www.annefine.co.uk). The pages on her childhood and where she gets her ideas from are culled from talks she has given in the past, and the language on the site is inclined to publisher blurb speak. Still, it’s nice to see the site recommending a visit to the library to find the books, as well as the bookshop or Amazon.
It may be that well established authors and illustrators don’t see the need to go to the trouble of creating and maintaining a site. Many of those who do see the need are seeking not only to promote the books but also to advertise their availability for school visits and other bookings. For performance poets, who depend on this income or who see it as a major part of their work, the website can function as a high class business card. A relative newcomer like Andy Fusek Peters (www.tallpoet.com) has a fine example of a polished site, sparkling with recommendations for his work, devoted to selling the multiple roles that flash across the home page: didgeridu player, television presenter and writer, anthologist, writer in education, and author. However, it’s a relatively impersonal site that would not satisfy a child looking for project information or contact with a favourite author.
Happily, there are many author sites which are devoted to fulfilling this need. The quality and presentation of little known facts can be endearingly, or irritatingly, idiosyncratic. It’s reassuring that accomplished authors, like the rest of us, asked to talk about themselves, sometimes don’t quite know what to say. Interviews with authors may occasionally dip into the facetious or the precious. Lynne Reid Banks, for instance, conducts a rather arch interview with herself (www.lynnereidbanks.com). In general, there’s a balance of entertainment and information on these sites, and a desire to communicate with children.
Occasionally, more pointed intentions surface. Lurking behind the innocuous title, ‘A Day Visiting Schools’ on the Diana Wynne Jones site (www.leemac.freeserve.co.uk) there is a description of all the indignities and slights suffered by her at the hands of discourteous staff in schools: salutary reading for us and cathartic writing for her. More useful for prospective hosts are writers like Tim Bowler (www.timbowler.co.uk), Julia Jarman (juliajarman.mcmail.com), and Beverley Naidoo (www.beverleynaidoo.com) who are clear about what they can offer to schools and what they require by way of preparation for their sessions to be effective. Julia Jarman goes further and provides hints on how her work can be integrated into the English National Curriculum, and some authors and illustrators are happy to give this kind of guidance. However, to see the extent to which ‘lesson plans’ can be drawn from children’s fiction, you need to visit an American site. It’s amazing what you can do with the Wizard of Oz (www.eskimo.com/~tiktok), for instance.
Some of these sites take advantage of the multi-media possibilities of the web. The least you would expect is the author’s smiling face and book covers in full colour. Gillian Cross’s home page (www.gilliancross.co.uk) has a swivelling eye to remind you of The Demon Headmaster. You can listen to Benjamin Zephaniah (www.oneworld.org/zephaniah/) reading his poems, or you can take up Neil Arksey’s invitation to shake the author by clicking on a button. His photo obligingly vibrates, gently or violently, according to your preference (www.neilarksey.co.uk). But, as you might expect, it’s the illustrator sites that make the most use of web technology.
Most illustrator sites are worth looking at, and I’ll merely highlight a few. Catherine and Laurence Anholt ( www.anholt.co.uk) use one of their latest titles, Chimp and Zee, to produce simple interactive games that build on the characters in the story. Jan Pieńkowski’s Fun and Games section includes the whole of Christmas, one of his out-of-print titles, and colouring sheets and join-the-dots that can be downloaded (www.janpienkowski.com). To see how far this kind of generosity can go, it’s worth visiting the American illustrator, Jan Brett, who has ‘1,895 pages of artwork to share with you!’ This is suitable for all occasions: certificates of reading achievement, greetings cards, bookplates and bookmarks and much more, all in colour and all ready to print (www.janbrett.com). In the UK, Shoo Rayner is a web enthusiast who has been building his site (www.shoo-rayner.co.uk) over the last few years. He has sites within sites, one of which, Alien Abduction, he developed as part of a project with three Northamptonshire schools. There’s also Craig M’nure, a ‘stinkeractive’ website, which introduces you to the flora and fauna of a special Scottish island, where you can listen to the cry of Belcher’s Penguin and witness the Lesser Squawk fall from its perch.
The illustrator site I have enjoyed most is more modest in its use of web wizardry. Colin Thompson’s site (www.colinthompson.com) is put together so that it’s easy to find your way around and has the look of his picture books. The home page is an ingenious collage of photos and objects that acts as a contents list for the site. He gives the story behind the creation of each of his books and a glimpse into his varied past. He has sections on ‘Working methods’ and ‘Drawing on the Computer’, and, true to the detail in his illustrations, provides large sample colour pictures which you can zoom into, to discover more and more. He incidentally demonstrates one way in which the web can bypass more parochial publishing sensibilities. Under a heading, ‘Dangerous Poems’, he includes the full text of poems which appeared in the Australian edition of Fish are So Stupid, but were removed from the British publication in case they caused offence.
Thompson is a British born writer now living and working in Australia, and his site demonstrates the relaxed ease with which some Australian writers are able to address their child readers and to invite participation on the sites.
Morris Gleitzman and Paul Jennings have successfully transferred a blend of mateyness, humour and concern for a child’s point of view from the printed page to the web page. On Paul Jennings’ site, the headings – news and stuff, books, about Paul, free stuff, your pages – set the tone of openness and warmth (www.pauljennings.com.au). The biographical section is written by Paul himself. It includes photos of the new home he is building on the cliffs and his sighting of a whale in the bay. Morris Gleitzman invites his readers to examine two of his school reports, and has a page where he responds briefly to selected e-mails from his fans.
Awareness of the audience
This brings me back to the points that I made at the beginning of the article: the need for an awareness of the audience and clarity of directness and approach. Many British sites aim to be child friendly, and some have a Guest Book where readers can leave comments to be displayed, but, of the British writers I visited, only Melvin Burgess, whose site (web.onetel.net/~melvinburgess) has a scruffy honesty and assumes everybody can read very small print, seems to address his readers as comfortably as Jennings and Gleitzman. Lastly, a rather more poignant aspect of the web, and a site which acts as a living memorial to a writer whose career was all too short. Paul Carter, the husband of Henrietta Branford, has created a site which celebrates her work and the work of the Branford-Boase Award (www. henriettabranford.co.uk). It is well designed and features a biography which is a model of its kind. It is a site which is courteous and thoughtful and whose frankness towards its readers is captured in an invitation to e-mail that might be a lesson to those sites that claim more but deliver less: ‘This site is very much a part-time project for me so I cannot guarantee to reply quickly to your messages. I will do my best.’ This is a site that lives up to both the talent and spirit of the author it celebrates, and it’s hard to do better than that.
Clive Barnes is Principal Children’s Librarian, Southampton City. His assessment of websites that review children’s books appeared in BfK No. 130.