This Books for Keeps is something different. Tucked in alongside lots of information about books to help you through the festive season and beyond are some rather special features. Since Books for Keeps started we’ve introduced you to lots of people from the children’s book world. For this issue some of our favourite authors and illustrators have given us contributions as presents to you, our readers.
Robert Crowther tells you how to make a Christmas pop-up; Jane Walmsley has designed an original. Happy Christmas miniature book for you to make; Jan Needle writes about a children’s classic which haunts him and Willie Rushton offers a small slice of autobiography. Our thanks to all of them for the pleasure their work has given us as well as for their presents.
On Your Broomstick
We had quite a different present a while back from Willie Rushton – or at least from his publishers, Golden Acorn. Richard Hill and I were having a high-powered editorial meeting, round my kitchen table, when the doorbell rang (well, it croaked actually, it hasn’t been feeling too well lately). Outside our front door (it’s yellow for those of you who like to visualise in colour) stood a man from Securicor with a very long thin package. Most of the parcels that arrive at our house are square or rectangular (book-shaped in fact) so I thought it must be for next door. But no. Books for Keeps it said on the label. So I signed nineteen pieces of paper, gave them my fingerprints and three signed photographs, and the man handed it over, Back in the kitchen Richard and I looked at it. A bomb? Did we have that many enemies? We decided to risk it. Fighting our way through tape, unwinding yards of thick shiny brown paper (it was a very high quality wrapping job) we finally revealed – a broomstick. Was someone trying to tell us something -‘On your broomstick, Books for Keeps!’ But wait. Wrapped around the handle and tied with yellow ribbon was a message on parchment, with a seal and red ribbon. It was a letter from Noragunge – nice witch – inviting us to meet her and Willie Rushton and hear some tales of her Incredible Cottage.
Richard went by car. I kept the broom. It doesn’t fly too well but it’s doing a grand job sweeping up the leaves in the back yard. Thanks Noragunge. But what an elaborate piece of publicity.
Marketing books… and bookshops
Perhaps it’s because we are researching our second article in ‘The World of Children’s Books’ series but we’ve been very conscious lately of different approaches to publicising and marketing books. One ploy which seems a little odd to the naive (like us) is the tendency to promote still further books which have already had a lot of publicity and look like being good sellers without much help from anyone. This year’s IBIS Books for Christmas guide (2 million copies in circulation) for instance includes among its twenty specially featured titles the little-known Guinness Book of Records. Also up there is Jill Barklem’s The Big Book of Brambly Hedge, another facet of marketing: producing more of the successful same (or publisher’s overkill). This time they may have slipped up. The big format (16″ x 12″) with its hugely enlarged pictures completely destroys the charm of the originals which owed much to their very smallness. And there’s the problem of where to keep it. It can’t stand up (too floppy and no shelf big enough) and lying down it gets covered up, trodden on, creased or generally moved irritably from surface to surface (at least that was its fate in several test households).
Sharpening up to the need for marketing Bookshops as the place to go for books is the Booksellers Association. Research, they tell us, has shown that much of the public (66% of the population actually) are intimidated by Bookshops; they feel more at home in other stores. (Surprise, surprise’) So what is the marketing team going to do about it? Well, their main suggestion for bringing people in and making them feel more welcome is ‘eye-catching displays’. Now who’s being naive? Can they seriously believe that a bit of display is going to do anything about such deep-rooted distrust and cultural alienation? Think again lads – it’s more complex than that. You’ll have to start farther down the line. Perhaps by persuading more Bookshops to support and join with the school bookshop movement. If you can’t get them to come to you, there is another alternative. And kids in school are the customers of the future.
Christmas presents no problem
Part of the 34% unintimidated by Bookshops (though sometimes unimpressed by their service) is me. I shall be in even more than usual in the coming weeks because we always give books for Christmas. Our friends, adults and children, are used to it now. It’s a sort of institution. Establishing such a predictable pattern has enormous advantages. For starters you only have to visit one sort of shop – no more fighting your way from toy shop (what sort of lego did they say she wanted’) to Marks and Spencer (well, socks are always useful) via all those other places that never have what you’re looking for in the right size, shape, colour or quantity. Then books are so beautifully easy to wrap up.
More fundamentally, in the midst of the madness of conspicuous consumption. I’m reassured by the thought that books are such good value for money. Compare the cost per hour of reading a novel with going to the cinema or the theatre. Even a £5 novel wins hands down – and that’s if you read it only once. They are also, usually, durable – no workings to go wrong, no crunch of expensive plastic to follow a careless backward step on Boxing Day.
The reception of our presents varies. In some cases book and reader vanish reappearing protesting only for annoying interruptions like Christmas dinner; in others books are set aside with a resigned shrug or a casual glance. These, we’re told, have often come into their own only months later when competing attractions have paled or vanished. The trick is to get the right match between book and child. A difficult but endlessly intriguing challenge. And if you succeed and that success becomes part of a growing love for hooks and reading, what better present could you give anyone’.’
Two new novels
To give you something of the flavour of what’s around we invited five regular contributors to BfK to join me in making a personal choice of books to give this Christmas. Two of them, Chris Powling and Steve Bowles, have new books out themselves. Chris’s third book, The Mustang Machine (Abelard, 0 200 72764 8, £5.25), introduces into a recognisably urban setting a single element of fantasy: a superbike, the best bike in the universe, that behaves like an unbroken horse and rides up walls, across roofs, even upside down. Whoever catches it and ‘brands’ it is its master. By page 18 Chris Powling has you totally believing in the bike and very involved in the struggle that’s developing between the gang – Becca, Tim, Sharon, Leroy and Georgie, all juniors – and Dennis Doggerty – the local bully newly graduated to the comprehensive – and his mob. (Who dares call him Dennis Dogsmuck to his face? Becca does.) Large questions about bravery, leadership and competition underlie this story. But its surface is an exciting, fast-moving, frequently funny adventure with an amazingly imaginative climax – a twentieth-century challenge by ordeal.
Steve’s book Jamie (Gollancz, 0 575 03015 1, £4.95) on the other hand is about nothing more unusual than the day to day life of its twelve-year-old hero. What is remarkable is Steve’s skill in getting this onto the page. I haven’t read anything which more successfully captures the everyday encounters of ‘ordinary’ kids – their families, their friendships, their talk. It recognises too that ‘everyday life’ is a complicated mixture of drama, suspense, tragedy, comedy and pathos. Jamie is a survivor and he should be greeted with relief and recognition by kids all over the country. I just hope that the irrelevant but predictable protests about ‘bad language’ which will no doubt arise will not stop this book from getting through to those who will enjoy it most.
When you are reading our ‘Books for Christmas’ feature please remember that it was compiled from the books available to us at that time (September). We were not able to see some titles which are published this month. As a stop-press footnote, Robin Hill (16 months) would like to recommend Spot’s First Walk, Eric Hill, Heinemann, 0 434 94289 8, £3.95, which looks like being as big a success as last year’s Where’s Spot? Also a big hit with Robin just now are the Methuen Chatterbooks – small square books with colour photograph illustrations and simple storylines by Leila Berg and John Walmsley, Camilla Jessel, and Helen Piers (£1.25 each).
For all my neighbours
Thus runs the dedication to Tomie de Paola’s lovely picture book version of The Night Before Christmas. In the book you’ll find it at the foot of the illustration we’ve particularly chosen to put on our cover for this Christmas issue. We are very grateful to OUP for helping us in this. The grave formality of the family from the American 1840’s suggests a serenity so often missing from Christmas. Tomie de Paola used his own home in a small New Hampshire village as a model for the setting and the varied designs of borders which frame the pictures are based on the patterns from New England patchwork quilts, many of which he owns. The whole book glows and we couldn’t think of a better way to start an issue we’d like to dedicate
For all our readers