Welcome to the November Books for Keeps, the last of 2021. It’s the end of a significant year for BfK; we published our 250th issue and launched a new website after a concerted fund-raising effort. We are still not quite at our target, so if you would like to make a donation, you can do so either via our Givey site or Paypal. Thank you to everyone who has contributed. We hope all our readers appreciate the new website and find it easier to navigate, and quicker to search.
2021 has been another challenging year. In the UK, it began in lockdown, restrictions only lifting in July. Year two of the pandemic has been particularly difficult for teachers, librarians, booksellers and for parents and children too. For many authors and artists, the absence of school visits, marketing tours and literary festivals has had a significant effect on their income and indeed the Society of Authors reports that it supported more than 900 authors in grants through its Authors’ Contingency Fund in 2020, giving out more than £1.3m.
Publishers have had a good year, however. After sales of physical books rose strongly in 2020 passing the 200 million mark for the first time since 2012, the invigoration of the book buying habit appears to have continued into 2021. A good time to address the ‘chronic’ lack of investment in school libraries then and not one but two campaigns have launched urging change. The National Literacy Trust has joined with Penguin Random House to call for large-scale public and private funding in order to equip 1,000 primary school libraries with training, new books and resources by 2025, supporting 500,000 pupils over the next four years. The alliance is backed by Arts Council England and retail bank Chase has also pledged its support. Meanwhile, as reported in BfK, Cressida Cowell together with the UK’s previous Children’s Laureates is leading an effort to renovate libraries, arranging for six primary schools to receive publisher donations of 1,000 books each, plus training for staff in librarianship, new furniture and audiobook technology, and wall art to make the spaces feel more appealing to children. The libraries opened in June and BfK will report on the impact and progress of both campaigns.
The publication of CLPE’s Reflecting Realities report has become a key event in the children’s literature calendar. Published earlier this month, the fourth Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature reveals positive changes: 15% of children’s books published in 2020 feature a minority ethnic character. This is a significant increase from 4% in 2017. The survey also reports that 8% of the books published in 2020 featured an ethnic minority main character, up from 1% in 2017.
The figures are to be welcomed but, as Louise Johns-Shepherd, CEO of CLPE says, ‘we are not yet at the point where children of colour have the same experience of literature as their white peers’. There is still room for improvement and the next stage in making a change to what actually gets into bookshops, libraries, classrooms and homes, is to look at who gets to write and illustrate the books; where the opportunities in the publishing industry are; who chooses what gets published, marketed, publicised, stocked and sold. There is more work for us all to do.
But finally, after a year in which we said goodbye to some of the greats of children’s literature, including Victor Ambrus, Eric Carle, Jill Murphy, Gary Paulsen, Beverly Cleary and Jerry Pinkney, how good it is to be able to celebrate two remarkable lives in this issue: John Agard, newly presented with a BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award, and Michael Rosen, 2021 recipient of the J M Barrie Award and back performing live for huge audiences of children despite contracting COVID in 2020.