A new year and some gloomy faces in children’s publishing particularly among some of the hardback divisions. Sales of children’s books to the home market fell in 1982 more drastically than sales of books of any other kind. The rapid drop in numbers of young school-age children which teachers have become familiar with translated into falling rolls (evocative phrase – it always makes me think of a cascade of small baps tumbling down a mountainside) combined with drastic cuts in school and library book funds are clearly taking their toll. It’s the inability of libraries to buy hardback fiction that is having the biggest effect. Our News Page (24) reports the end of Children’s books at Chatto and a drastic change of direction at Macmillan, where they will continue to publish about 60 children’s titles a year but concentrate mainly on non-fiction. What will not get published it appears are first novels and those of a literary nature – a line confirmed by the fact that Felicity Trotman, editor for novels and picture books, has been made redundant. We all know that publishers have to sell books to stay in business but from the publishers of Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling. of Robert Westall, Diana Wynne Jones, Jill Paton Walsh, Mary Rayner and Grahame Oakley this seems a sad lack of faith in and commitment to imaginative writing.
Ironic that an issue of Books for Keeps that celebrates Robert Westall. twice winner of the Carnegie (see Authorgraph page 14). should also be announcing closure or cuts for both his publishers. Interesting to speculate whether if Robert Westall sent his first novel, the excellent and very successful The Machine Gunners, to Macmillan today they would take it on. One hopes so; one fears not.
In February The Machine Gunners comes to BBC television. An exciting challenge: but thoughts of all those eagle-eyed, enthusiastic fans of the book out there must have been a little daunting. Fortunately the producer of the serial is one of them. For our Sound and Vision pages (page 18 and 19) he talked to Tony Bradman about how he and his director went all out for authenticity, creating wartime Garmouth out of Newcastle 1982. We’ve departed from our usual practice to put a photograph from the production on our cover. It’s a joy to see television adapting a book that will not put-off or disappoint the new readers it will inevitably create. For them Puffin have a new issue with a tie-in cover.
Across the Spectrum
Another new departure in this issue is Lifeline Two, Judith Elkin’s new series on Multi-cultural Books for Children. Judith’s expertise in this area is well-established and we are sure that her concern and enthusiasm for books that reflect the many-faceted society we have in this country will interest, inform and entertain all our readers, even those (few) who perhaps (mistakenly we think) fee! this has nothing to offer them.
Not mentioned, yet, in Judith’s series; are two recently published books which together illustrate the huge range of this subject. The Village by the Sea by Anita Desai (Heinemann. 0 434 93436 4, £5.50) is a delightful story of a family in a village on the Western Coast of India. Mother is ill, father has no job and drinks most of the time so Lila and her brother Hari have to hold the family together: Lila at home, Hari in Bombay where he goes secretly to find work. All this is played out against a fight (doomed to failure) by some of the villagers to preserve their traditional way of life in the face of plans to build a vast complex of fertiliser factories where they live. It deals in an accessible form with some of the complex issues that confront the third world. (It’s based on fact.) Anita Desai, a superb writer, vividly creates characters and places which involve and engage the reader so that understanding evolves rather than being as it often is crudely packaged and presented for consumption.
Colours of Things by Althea (Dinosaur 0 85122 374 5, 95p. also available in hardback) is from another part of the spectrum. And spectrum is the appropriate word, for the book teaches the names of colours. Althea’s new collaboration with illustrator Susanne Gretz (whose Bears are well-loved everywhere) has produced a bright joyful, funny book in primary colours. A group of infants paint a frieze, each other. themselves (literally) and the floor – even the cat gets invoked. The children and their helpers are quite naturally a mixture of ethnic groups. Not to be missed.
Just as the magazine was going to press we heard the sad news that Jean Russell, co-editor of Books for Your Children, has died suddenly. For many years a Children’s Librarian, Jean Russell joined forces with Anne Wood in the first days of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups and was one of a handful of people who with her infectious enthusiasm, and warm support for all who came to join (including me) literally created a movement out of the air and kept it going and growing. It was Jean who went story-telling in the precincts of Chester cathedral in the days when those sorts of book activities for children were unheard of. Jean had a deep love for and belief in books and children. Her home in Parwich – a village in the Derby dales – where she also bred ponies (her other passion) was open to all book enthusiasts: children dropped in for a chat and a book and, like a lot of us, got guidance they were never aware of. All her life despite disability and recurrent illness she committed herself to things and got on with them. As well as BFYC she lectured. gave talks, wrote, and edited two splendid collections of original stories for Methuen. Through Books for Your Children and her regular contributions to Mother magazine. she was well-known and respected within the book world and, more widely, among parents for her knowledge and her integrity. Those who were privileged to work with her and enjoy her company quite simply loved her. If Jean will excuse the cliche – the world is a poorer place.
The Voyage continues
In our voyage around the World of Children’s Books we have reached Readerland (page 4) – a place we should all recognise. If you’ve got views about the children’s book world, as a reader or as a hopeful creator of readers, write and tell us.