Every time I get a bit of a platform I go on about how there is no national conversation about children’s books. I was on Radio 4’s Today programme along with Robin Stevens and the Carnegie winner Katya Balen. I think I said something intemperate about how – despite the fact that what’s left of the UK’s soft power and a big chunk of its tourist industry (Potter, Paddington and Pooh – and that’s just the P’s) derives from children’s books – any given niche West End restaurant probably gets more review coverage than all the new children’s books added together. Ironically, it’s a (fictional) restaurant critic – Anton Ego in Ratatouille – who best describes why this is important, ‘There are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.’ Lots of new work is being published – work that embraces the rich diversity of race, faith and neurological type – but there are only a handful of bold, brilliant critics offering to befriend it. And they have a tiny number of column inches.
Anyway shortly after I got off the show Nadia rang me and said, ‘Stop campaigning and complaining and actually do something. Like a podcast.’ We both had the great good fortune to know a sonic wizard – Geoff Bird – and before we knew it we were off on the Island of Brilliant. I can’t remember how the name came about but a fictitious island seemed a great way to frame a show about children’s books. First of all because it makes you think of all the great children’s books set on islands – from Robert Louis Stevenson through End Blyton to Kiran Millwood Hargrave (and hopefully my own Noah’s Gold). But also because a book is a kind of island in the storm toss’d sea of life. On top of that we’re having a thunderingly great time improvising the island geography. I had no idea until Nadia mentioned it that there was a fun fair on the island. And of course we have our favourite band – Ukulele Uff and Lonesome Dave – strumming up some lovely lilting holiday vibes. The podcast has Nadia and I talking about our favourite children’s books; the wonderful Emily Drabble (her voice brought to us via a magical shell) giving us a rundown of the latest releases; and interviews with our favourite writers. We had Cressida Cowell herself flying into the island on a dragon in our first episode.
Everyone knows by now that a child that reads for pleasure will not do better at school. More importantly – more importantly than anything – reading for pleasure helps build the apparatus of happiness. It builds resilience by helping create that happy place inside of us. But but but but … if you’re going to read for pleasure you need to have a choice. You need to be able to find the book that’s right for you. How are you going to do that without someone handing you the map, a boat and a compass and pointing you towards the glittering horizon. That’s what we want to be … the map, boat and compass in the adventure of a lifetime.
Discover the Island of Brilliant wherever you get your podcasts.