What a hornet’s nest the new arrangements for allocating authors for Children’s Book Week has stirred up. Everywhere I turn I seem to meet teachers smouldering with indignation at the way they are being treated. How can we plan if we don’t know who we might get? What if the author we are offered isn’t suitable for our kids? We don’t know who is on the list and who isn’t so we can’t do anything off our own bat. We just keep being told not to do anything except be good and wait quietly. And those are just some of the milder protests. The Federation of Children’s Book Groups whose members are always very active in CBW discussed a resolution at its annual conference to withdraw support from the week altogether.
In a sense perhaps this year’s author allocation system is the last straw on a growing heap of resentment. Over the years organisers of events have given freely of their energy, time and talents; all in addition to their demanding full-time jobs as teachers, librarians, parents and (occasionally) booksellers. Without these people there would be no Children’s Book Week. They do it because they think it is important and worth doing; but more than once I’ve heard comments like, ‘We’re really doing the publishers and booksellers jobs for them. And then they ask us to pay for posters, badges, balloons and stickers.’ The perk of a slightly subsidised author visit was all they got in return and now that seems to be fast disappearing and, even worse, out of their control.
Beverley Mathias who is co-ordinating the new scheme stresses that it is an experiment. The idea was to make the whole operation tidier, to prevent authors from having to travel vast distances and to take them to areas that have never been visited before. Seventy-eight people all over the country were selected from those who volunteered to be area co-ordinators. Authors and illustrators are going to virgin territory like the Western Isles, parts of Wales, and the far north of Scotland. This year, says Beverley, people won’t be able to be ‘greedy’ and grab twenty authors for one area. She thinks it is time experienced ‘eventers’ who have earned the confidence of publishers and know their way around the system stood back and let some others into the action.
The problem as it happens has been made worse because this year there are only 130 authors on offer for the 78 areas. Are authors unwilling or are publishers reluctant to sponsor the expenses of more than one or two of their list?
Children’s Book Week it seems has become the victim of its own success. ‘Have an event without an author!’ is the cry from the BMC. (And Hints for Organisers is full of good ideas.) But down here at the grass roots (apologies for the cliche) there will have to be a deal more support and recognition from the centre before that idea takes off. If there isn’t I fear more schools will be taking the line of one who wrote to us recently. ‘We are pulling out of Children’s Book Week and holding our own School Book Week in the Spring Term instead. We think we’ll get more help from publishers and our supplier – and we might even be able to get the author we want!’
Carnegie – a missed opportunity?
In a talk to the Children’s Book Circle in March Kathleen Gribble, the current Youth Libraries Group chairperson, described something of the heated discussion that goes on before the final selection of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway winners is made. She also hinted darkly that she thought this year’s selection would be particularly difficult to resolve. And when you look at the short list (see News page 28) you can see what she meant. In the end the selection committee chose books for the older age range for both awards. Hooray for picking Charles Keeping; but much as we admire Robert Westall we can’t help wishing they had come down in favour of Bridget and William. It’s a little gem of a book and for a story of this length to win a major award might well have helped to raise the general standard of writing for fledgling readers. We need writers of the quality of Jane Gardam to take the form seriously; she has shown beyond all doubt that simple vocabulary, short sentences and limited length are no bar to quality story-making. On the other side of the Atlantic attitudes to writing for young readers are rather different as Aidan Chambers points out in The American Connection (page 4).
The Special Relationship
Which brings us rather neatly to the major theme of this issue: children’s books from the USA. As well as Aidan Chambers we have an Englishman’s view of the children’s book world ‘across the pond’ from John Mason (page 12), three writers of teenage fiction chosen by Chris Kloet (page 16) and a Sound and Vision Special which includes a look at the film The Secret of NIMH (our cover features the Puffin tie-in). As if that wasn’t riches enough, an amazing piece of luck means that we have the incomparable Betsy Byars as our Authorgraph.
In May Betsy Byars came to this country for the very first time. It was a private visit and lasted only a week but Betsy agreed to do ‘one or two publicity things’. We felt most honoured when Bodley Head arranged for us to meet and interview her for this issue. She came to lunch which turned out to be several laughter-filled hours of her delightful company. She told us about her latest book, The Two Thousand Pound Goldfish, published this autumn. The giant goldfish in the sewers is the fantasy of her central character. ‘At the very end – in his mind – he wants to save the goldfish’s life and he figures out that if everyone in the city will flush their toilet at the same moment they will flood the sewer, open the floodgates and Bubbles will be washed out to sea. So there’s a long sequence in which the radio announcer is saying, ‘We are asking everyone to get to their toilets. If you have an extra toilet ask a friend to flush with you.’ And we have the countdown. ‘ – – 3, 2, 1, FLUSH!’ I had so much fun writing it, I’ll be happy to be banned.’ Banned? Well, that’s another aspect of the American children’s book scene. The moral majority it seems is very touchy about certain things in children’s books and one of them is lavatories. Margaret Clark, children’s editor at The Bodley Head (who was also with us) told us that the American publishers had just taken a picture of a child sitting on the lavatory out of Mitsumasa Anno’s newest counting book Anno’s Counting House, also due here later this year.
EB lives – OK?
One writer who is unlikely to offend the moral majority, but who has never made much of an impact in the USA is Enid Blyton. That will all be changed if Ebefilms, the company which plans to make fast-moving, up-dated versions of the Blyton adventures, has anything to do with it. Stand by America – you’ve had Chariots of Fire and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby now it’s time for Enid Blyton. Be warned, teachers and librarians here will tell you she ought to come with a government health warning, ‘This product can be addictive’. What a good time to have Sheila Ray’s detached and reasonable assessment, The Blyton Phenomenon. She gives us a taste of her new book on page 20.
I suppose if EB does take off in the States it will be a just exchange for all those books-of-the-films which British publishers (Collins Cubs and NEL are but two) keep bringing over and which seem determined to persuade children that Winnie-the-Pooh, Bambi, The Jungle Book, and Bedknob and Broomsticks were not written by A A Milne, Felix Salten, Rudyard Kipling and Mary Norton, but by Walt Disney. Not that any of these writers would be likely to recognise their creations after they have been Disneyfied anyway.
Ah well. Think of the good things like Maurice Sendak and Betsy Byars.
Have a nice day!