In 1995 Books for Keeps sent out a questionnaire to its subscribers. Reading through your comments I am encouraged, as BfK‘s new editor, to see how closely your suggestions and ideas coincide with the developments and changes that I plan for the magazine, some of which you will find already implemented in this issue.
Many of you asked for more analysis of what children actually read and more on the current state of the publishing industry to help explain the strictures within which books are published.
Children’s publishing is indeed an industry, albeit one that tends to attract workers who are more interested in the end ‘product’ in terms of its creative, cultural, intellectual, entertainment and educational value than its contribution to the bottom line. Our troubled economic times have, however, been powerfully instrumental in focusing publishers’ attention on slumping high street sales coupled with cuts in educational and library spending. The repercussions of such radical blows to the infrastructure for profitable publishing and the resulting changes in output and outlets, need to be recognised and understood by all of us (teachers, librarians, parents, etc.) who comment on or mediate between this output and its ultimate consumer, the child.
To set the context, Liz Attenborough, former Penguin Children’s Publisher, begins in this issue a series of articles, Publishing Profiles, on aspects of working in children’s publishing which help explain the background to publishing policies and practice.
I am also delighted to be able to announce that Books for Students, a major specialist book supply company into libraries and schools, has agreed to provide Books for Keeps, exclusively and on a regular basis, with Best Seller Charts based on their sales data.
This issue carries the Books for Students Best Seller Charts for January – December 1996. One of the interesting facts that they reveal is that the fiction market is still dominated by the Point series from Scholastic (‘the books my pupils want to read’ as one Books for Keeps reader commented in her questionnaire). Is the continuing appetite for such series fiction a good thing or a bad thing? Meanwhile the judges of the Marsh Award for fiction in translation report (Letters page) that ‘no publisher was prepared to paperback’ their winning title (Christine Nostlinger’s A Dog’s Life) despite its ‘distinguished text’.
You will further note a conflict between our reviewer, headteacher Liz Waterland’s, assessment of Jennie Maizels and Kate Petty’s The Great Grammar Book (‘an unmitigated disaster’) and publisher Jane Nissen’s choice of the same title (see page 14) as the book she most wished she had published last year (‘the cleverest, most imaginative book I’ve seen for ages’). A novelty hardback with pulls and flaps, The Great Grammar Book featured in the Sunday Times Best Sellers list and was one of the Bodley Head’s Autumn best sellers. Leaving aside the Right’s current preoccupation with the importance of grammar which made this publication timely, how should its quality as a children’s book be judged?
Does what our reviewers mean by ‘good’ correspond with what you the readers mean by good or indeed, what publishers mean by good, let alone children? On page 16 of this issue of BfK you will find a new series, Good Reads, of book reviews chosen and written by children – something that many of you in your questionnaire responses said that you would welcome. Two of our young reviewers give their choice, Little Women, ‘ten out of ten’.
What is meant by a ‘good’ children’s book is an issue that Professor of English and Children’s Literature at the University of Wales, Peter Hunt, will be revisiting in our March issue. The Books for Students Best Seller Charts will help to provide the kind of key background information against which such debate about children and their books should take place.
Other innovations in this issue include the introduction of an index to titles reviewed (something many of you requested) together with their star rating. This new rating system (five stars = unmissable; one star = sad), is arrived at on the basis of the review and in relation to other comparable titles and the author/illustrator’s previous work.
Non-fiction reviewing is now integrated alongside the fiction reviews into the appropriate age category. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction, particularly at the younger end, is sometimes artificially made and it is my hope that your attention will be drawn to books that might otherwise have been overlooked.
Finally, a list of the picture books reviewed which are also of interest to older readers is now given alongside the reviews for 12+ (Secondary), hopefully catering for what Jenny Morris of the Lion & Unicorn Book-shop describes (Letters page) as their ‘polysemic power to deal with serious themes which appeal to a wide audience’.
Books for Keeps‘ role in explaining and promoting the importance of books in children’s lives is even more important today than it was when the magazine was founded in 1980. My predecessors as editor, Pat Triggs and Chris Powling, were tireless and dedicated advocates through its pages on behalf of young readers and those who work with them. I now look forward to consolidating, developing and strengthening the magazine’s role for the future.