Spring has hardly sprung but already the children’s book world is sending up an amazing variety of shoots which show how – wildly different are the blooms and fruits it produces.
One which certainly deserves to flourish is Robert Leeson’s new book, Reading and Righting: The past, present and future of fiction for the young. In the midst of much apparent madness and not a little absurdity here is a sane and optimistic voice. If you ever pause to wonder what you are doing wearing yourself out, encouraging: children to be readers and writers, read this. It will give you a marvellous sense of perspective.
Starting with the oral storytelling tradition, the book traces chronologically the evolution of ‘literature’ and then children’s literature. The approach is that of the social historian and commentator, and present concerns and issues are examined as part of the evolving scene. The final chapter poses the question, What future for the book? We are delighted to have an edited extract from this new book as the main feature in this issue of Books for Keeps. In ‘The Age of Change’ Bob Leeson looks at the present and in particular at the part publishers, teachers and librarians play in it. His analysis leads him to two clear alternatives which he sets out in the introduction: ‘Either we work together to guarantee printed fiction, one great achievement of the modern era, a living future in a vastly changed world, or we accept that it is going into a time capsule for the edification of future archaeologists.’ For Bob Leeson, for us and we assume for our readers, the choice is clear. And like him our contacts with teachers, librarians, parents and children lead us to feel optimistic even in the midst of cuts, erosion of services, threats of VAT, philistinism in high places and statements like, ‘The USA can provide all the books we can reasonably need’. If your morale (or your consciousness) needs raising, get this book. The amazingly good news is that in paperback it will cost you only £4.95 (hardback £6.95). And as a bonus it also contains a very useful annotated booklist selected by Rosemary Stones.
It’s a Smartie-coloured yummy yummy world
Meanwhile in another part of the garden plans are being made to save children’s books from extinction with the help it seems of the entire chocolate industry. Rowntree-Mackintosh are sponsoring the Smarties Award for Chi!dren’s Books (page 22) hopefully referred tows `the children’s Booker’, and the most nausea-inducing press release from Puffin announces A Delicious Dahl promotion, prompted by the fact that it’s 21 years since Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was first published. Puffin are going in for a battery of activities designed to sell yet more Dahl, including what they call a ‘wondercrump’ joint promotion with Cadbury’s and Allen & Unwin a nationwide schools competition to Design Your Own Chocolate Factory. The winning class gets a trip to Cadbury’s Chocolate Factory, a Chocolate Tea Party with Roald Dahl and Willy Wonka, a shelf-full of Dahl books and an armful of Cadbury’s chocolates! (Details coming your way soon.) In addition there will be balloons, stickers and T-shirts ‘in mouth-watering pink and purple – to spread the tasty message’ and a celebration poster ‘featuring a delumptious chocolatey birthday cake’. According to Puffin, from April onwards Dahl will be ‘the dish of the day’. Sounds a bit like cannibalism to me. Whatever, better stock up with toothbrushes.
Actually, I left out the best bit. There’s a new edition of Charlie with illustrations by Michael Foreman (when does that man sleep?). It’s published on 9 May, just after Shakespeare Stories – Foreman illustrations and a Garfield text (Gollancz), which is superb.
Help for Parents
Back at Puffin in the editorial office Liz Attenborough is also trying her best to ensure a reading public for the future by devising a new system of categorising and labelling Young Puffins to help, particularly parents, in choosing. ‘We’re constantly being pressured by booksellers to put age ranges on books’ Liz told me. `I’ll resist that till I’m blue in the face but I do think that at the younger end parents need a bit more help. We asked Jill Bennett to help us and we finally decided on three categories: Read Aloud (for reading aloud to younger children); Read Alone (first solo reading for building confidence); and Story Book (for those with reading stamina). Of course there will be overlap but in each case we decided on the more obvious use. We hope it will make the point that children need different kinds of books for different purposes.’
Forty new-look titles will be out this year. Liz is also on the lookout for more titles for the Read Alone category – always the most difficult to find and yet the most crucial in making a child into a reader. Our survey undertaken by four teacher librarians (page 15) proved most interesting. The children were very conscious of value for money. Their teachers could well look out for titles from these hardback series being snapped up by Puffin, Hippo and Beaver. At £1.95 though, Banana Books are already hardbacks at a paperback price – and in full colour. The children approved: ‘These would last and look much nicer on my bookshelf.’ She liked the story too, so Judith Elliott, Bananas’ editor, is clearly on the right lines and doing her bit to ensure a future reading population.
Reflecting yet another aspect of the children’s book world is the new Bodley Bookshelf. Margaret Clark, editorial director at The Bodley Head, is hoping that this move to reprint modern ‘classics’ from the post-war ‘golden age’ of children’s fiction will bring about the same revival of interest as the Virago reprints did for pre-war fiction. The first six novels on the Bookshelf are by Gillian Avery (The Warden’s Niece), Jill Paton Walsh (Goldengrove and Unleaving) and Penelope Farmer. They are all novels of literary interest and well worth keeping in print. I’ve always had a particular affection for The Summer Birds so it’s a special pleasure to have it back in print and to have Paul Geiger’s lovely artwork from the cover of the Bodley edition on our cover. Eric Hadley writes about Penelope Farmer in our May We Recommend… series (page 14).
What other signs of our infinite variety? The Library Campaign is continuing to draw attention to declining services and disturbing trends; Family and Youth Concern – a society following in the steps of Mrs Gillick – is putting pressure on Birmingham booksellers to remove Jane Cousins’ Make it Happy (TES Senior Information Book Award winner) and Miriam Stoppard’s Talking Sex from their shelves; Janni Howker has got onto the shortlist for the Children’s Book Award with her first book, Badger on the Barge (page 22) and been featured in a Middle English programme (page 18). Well deserved attention. If you haven’t read her second book, The Nature of the Beast (Julia MacRae, 0 86203 194 X, £6.95), put it on your list. It’s quite remarkable and very apt for the moment. Hodder and Stoughton have published the first of what we hope will be many large-format paperback picture books at £1.95. First two titles: Leo Lionni’s Cornelius and Michael Foreman’s Land of Dreams – Super! Macmillan are hoping to emulate their success with William in reviving Evadne Price’s Jane stories. A collection, Jane and Co., will be out in April. They are hoping the feminists will approve. Also with one eye on the feminists – if we are to believe the publicity – were the people at Puffin when they invented Starlight Adventures – choose-your-own adventure gamebooks combining romance and career choices. ‘We dreamed them up in this very office,’ said Liz Attenborough. Thumbs down from me I’m afraid. Nothing liberating here for girl readers. Still they’ll probably sell – and along with Fighting Fantasy ensure Puffin’s future. It’s Swings and Roundabouts in The Age of Change.
Fingers crossed, the buzz is that books might escape VAT, Jason Connery is the new Robin Hood, and you keep writing to us to tell us how much you enjoy Books for Keeps, and how useful you find it – even if, as happened to one of our correspondents, you have to wait till you get flu to find time. Hope you’re feeling better – and thanks. It helps to keep us optimistic.
P.S. Have you ordered your copy of the Multi-cultural Guide yet?