A CENTENARY REVIEW
March 1980 – September 1996
Well, we’re still here. This in itself, is something of a triumph if we take note of the commentators who, nearly 20 years ago, doubted if an independent, self-funding magazine about children’s books could possibly survive on a bi-monthly basis.
* Written by experts but not necessarily for experts?
* Concerned primarily with paperbacks?
* A useful publication which aimed to be as much fun as the books it assessed?
* A non-specialist forum where all constituencies in the children’s book world – schools, colleges, libraries, publishing houses, bookshops, homes – could meet and find out more about each other?
Looking back, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have conceded the case for caution myself.
Luckily, though, it wasn’t up to me. It was the drive and enthusiasm of Richard Hill, BfK’s managing director, and Pat Triggs, its founding editor, which carried the day – converting the School Bookshop Association’s publication School Bookshop News, edited by Peter Kennerley, into the journal you’re reading right now. Also there at the beginning were Angie Hill, Jan Powling and Alec Davis, our designer, painstakingly building the company which, when Pat moved on after more than nine years of editorship, I joined in September 1989, along with Eleanor von Schweinitz as non-fiction editor and Carole Newman who looks after our subscriptions.
This editorial, then, is the longest in BfK’s history and it’s shamelessly self-regarding. Still, analysing one’s own credentials is all the rage nowadays – what’s called, in the current jargon, a Mission Statement. Provided we can resist the temptation to be plonkingly smug and remind ourselves that, allegedly, it’s when we die that our Past flashes before our eyes, some sort of progress review may be no bad thing. So what’s BfK been up to over the last decade-and-three-quarters? And where will it boldly go in future, solvency permitting?
These, from the first, have been the staple diet we’ve served up for our readers – evaluation which takes appropriate account both of the book itself as a literary/illustratorly achievement and the child-reader who’s implied, presumably, by its mode of address. All our reviewing team, of fiction and non-fiction, have regular access to children as well as books and we hope this shows … along with the fact that they’re likely to be just as busy and as professionally preoccupied as the subscribers to whom they’re offering an opinion. What all parties share, we hope, is a belief in book ownership as well as book-borrowing since the books children possess are the books they tend to re-read.
Of course,whatever we’re reviewing, what we offer is a first word rather than a last, How can it be otherwise when upwards of a thousand books of all kinds have been assessed by BfK each year? Since this represents less than a fifth of publications for children annually, a mention in our pages has always been something of a recommendation in itself … and makes our adverse comments all the more potent. Whether we’re right or wrong in any particular case, we like to think our reviews consistently demonstrate a good-humoured, up-to-the-armpits involvement in promoting reading itself as a highly pleasurable activity These days, after all, there’s increasing competition for children’s attention, both official and unofficial – an aspect our reviewing team, most of whom have also been with us right from the beginning, are unlikely to forget. If only they had more space at their disposal, though! Publishers, please note that BfK expands, or contracts, according to the advertising it carries and reviews of the latest hardbacks, in particular, have first claim on any extra pages …
According to the survey we conducted a year or so ago, these are our most popular offering especially when written by practising authors and illustrators. Whether it’s Jan Needle describing his favourite reading as a child, Shirley Hughes on the art of book design or Michael Foreman examining his own creative processes, readers have always delighted in such insider stuff – not least in the form of BfK’s centrefold, the Authorgraph. From Quentin Blake, when we made our debut, through Alan Garner, whom we finally caught up with in 1992, to Iona Opie in this very issue, these celebratory accounts of life-and-work circumstances seem guaranteed a good reception. Of course, we haven’t covered everyone who’s eligible yet, since setting up Authorgraphs is more complex than people realise – quality, diversity, availability, deadlines and welcome financial support from publishers, usually through the purchase of our front cover, all playing a part – but we’re working on it. Could the Authorgraph be developed further in terms of input specifically for children, some readers have asked? We’re working on that one.
Other features have covered … well, just about every facet of the children’s book world over the years: how books are best disseminated, mediated and promoted in a variety of different circumstances; how they can be grouped in themes or for particular readers (or non-readers); how what’s new can be made to last and what’s lasted can be made new again.
You name it, we’ve done it – sometimes, with topics that are hardy perennials, more than once. Even at their most frivolous and mischief-making, our articles may have a serious underlying purpose. The ‘OP Plea’ series, for instance, which greatly annoys some publishers, is intended as a reminder that the short-term imperatives of cost accountancy shouldn’t dominate every aspect of book supply; and our ‘Blindspot’, which creates considerable unease amongst those of traditional disposition, is an assertion of the essentially personal nature of literary-response. Just because Aesop is Aesop, a card-carrying member of our classic culture club, doesn’t mean we’re obliged to enjoy him – as Geraldine McCaughrean spectacularly refuses to do on page 31 of this issue.
And future features? Much the same mix, we anticipate … but have been wondering of late, in these days of a Nationalised Curriculum which already seems to have lowered standards of literacy, if a return to articles more explicitly targeted on book-related classroom activities is indicated. Under active consideration, this.
Ah, yes … the times they’ve been a-changing. As a journal of record, we’re bound to have mirrored the educational shifts and sticking-points of the 1980s and 90s when, all too often, the promotion of reading has felt like a sideshow – the main event being a three-sided slugging match between market forces, diminishing public provision and the demands of political orthodoxy. Future cultural historians will be able to plot the course of literacy with evidence gathered from our pages so expect us to go on telling it like it is … or, at any rate, as we honestly see it.
ISSUES AND ARGUMENTS
About a number of topics, there’s no denying, BfK has felt rather strongly: multi-culturalism, the ‘green’ movement, poetry, the ‘fictive’ aspects of non-fiction, and the need for a flexible and open approach to initial reading -including the ‘apprenticeship’ approaches so grossly misrepresented by politicians – have all engaged our attention. Subscribers may also recall a long-running fracas on the subject of Official Booklists, those corrupting substitutes for a proper literary pedagogy, on which we weren’t prepared to compromise. We were on the winning side there … but have we spoken up loudly enough on behalf of public libraries and schools’ library services? And, after a decade in which it’s been side-lined by SATs, OFSTED and the like, isn’t a return to the School Bookshop in order? There are still plenty of causes worth fighting for, Heaven knows.
THE MAIN ATTRACTION
Supporting them will be a pleasure, though. Whatever challenges lie ahead and however much we need to re-invent ourselves to meet them, expect us to go on enlisting from our contributors the same enthusiasm, humour and open-mindedness we’ve relied on in the past, the same firm conviction that to get the best words and pictures on the page, in the best order, really matters. And when this month we accept the 1996 Eleanor Farjeon Award – the best hundredth-issue gift we could possibly have received – every member of the BfK team will be amazed at being honoured for having had so much fun. Back at the beginning, in March 1980, Pat Triggs introduced our inaugural edition as follows:
‘Helpful, practical, stimulating, informative, entertaining, sometimes provocative and always enjoyable to read – this is what we intend Books for Keeps to be.’
It’s our intention still.