‘Paradoxically,’ says Margaret Meek, ‘adults believe that readers need help with texts as words but assume they will understand pictures without instruction.’ The remark, along with umpteen others equally thought-provoking, comes from her new book On Being Literate (Bodley Head, 0 370 31190 6, £8.99). It’s a perfect quotation to launch our May issue which focuses on picture books. Martin Waddell, for instance, on pages 24-25 reflects on his own practices as one of our most successful generators of picture book text – and the extent to which he must accommodate shared control of the book as a whole. For the illustrator’s viewpoint, turn to our Authorgraph (centre pages) where one of Martin’s best-known collaborators, Barbara Firth, talks to Stephanie Nettell about her life and work.
And who knows more about the magical merging of word and image than Quentin Blake? When, recently, he was invited to help prepare an exhibition of children’s book illustration, his first response was to be thrilled. ‘What a lovely job, I thought. Only later did the problems of choice begin to emerge!’ See pages 4-7 for Quentin’s account of what was involved and the solutions he came up with. Problems of choice were also encountered by Betty Root when she tackled our Spring Round-Up of new picture books (pages 28-29) drawing on her years of experience as Director of the Reading Centre at the University of Reading, from which she retired recently … if ‘retired’ is quite the right word for someone who seems to be as busy as ever. Exuberant as her piece is, though, one of her concluding remarks has a sadly familiar ring. ‘Why is it,’ she asks, ‘that almost all the children in these books have white faces?’ Some battles, it seems, must go on and on being fought.
Perhaps we should expect this. According to Margaret Meek, Literacy, however defined or acquired, or used or sought is never static.’ She goes on, ‘as language and art, it changes and is changed by those who find uses for it and who, like the artists who create new books for children, actively seek to play the games of reading and writing and to change the rules.’ Margaret herself has always been sharply aware of how provisional rules are – not least the rules by which a book is promoted to ‘classic’ status. Her personal response to The Wind in the Willows, one of the most celebrated and variously illustrated of all children’s books, can be found on pages 26-27. It’s the start of an occasional series which, with BfK‘s tongue very much in its cheek, we call ‘Blind Spot’.
Net Book Disagreement
Last month, in a local high street bookshop, I was invited to sign a petition urging the government to ‘bring to an end’ the Net Book Agreement – the voluntary arrangement which, in the words of the National Book Committee, ‘enables publishers to determine minimum retail prices for their titles to encourage booksellers to buy and display a wide range over a period of time, by preventing discounting by other outlets which undercut the margins’. In this case the outlet concerned was Hatchards, owned by Terry Maher’s Pentos Group.
Nothing illegal about the Pentos tactics, of course … why should they draw the public’! attention to what it could lose in a discounting war? Why should they point out that the NBA is supported by the majority o1 the UK book world – including readers (as represented by Book Trust), librarians (as represented by the Library Association), writers (as represented by the Society of Authors), not to mention over 90% of booksellers (as represented by the Booksellers Association) and over 70% of publishers (as represented by the Publishers Association). After all, it’s not up to Terry Maher to let you in on the fact that ten out of the twelve European Community members allow resale price maintenance for books.
Maybe it is up to journals like BfK, though. So we’re sure Terry Maher will be delighted if we remind our readers that there is another side to the argument, as they’ll find out if they contact the National Book Committee on 081-870 9055. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the Net Book Agreement, and plenty who support it don’t think it’s perfect, the issues involved are far too complex to be resolved by a mere pile of signatures beneath the bald assertion that the NBA operates `against the public interest’. No, I didn’t add my name to the list.
Speaking of lists, the article on ‘Golden Rules for Critics’ we carried in our January edition (BfK No.66) brought a small avalanche of requests to join our reviewing team – along with some splendid examples of what the applicants can do. Lovely … except we have no vacancies at all at present. We’ve added the most impressive offers to what’s becoming an increasingly fat file so no more for the time being, please. Nice, though, to have our suspicions confirmed that BfK readers are a talented bunch!
Enjoy the issue.