Editing BfK, I must admit, brings a perk or two. A weekend in Rome, though, to attend an international conference of Editors of children’s book magazines is distinctly above par – not least in November when any trip south is a bonus. How many of us would be there, I wondered? What would we have to say to each other?
Quite a lot, it turned out, on both counts. The conference was the culmination of a month-long exhibition mounted by the Associazione Culturale Sintesi to promote an understanding of the nature and importance of children’s books amongst parents, teachers and librarians. ‘Information and criticism concerning children’s books is difficult to propagate in Italy,’ said the programme, ‘owing to the undoubted marginality of this sector of publishing.’ Now there’s a proposition to make me feel at home . along with all the other delegates, apparently, from France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Soon we were in the thick of shared concerns: how ‘teacherliness’ can compromise enjoyment, for instance, or the possibilities and constraints of ‘positive’ reviewing in a context where the communication of information about books, and an enthusiasm for books, is as much an imperative as assessing them. To these, and related problems, no easy solutions emerged. On Bertrand Russell’s principle that a question well put is a question half answered, however, plenty of progress was made.
Then again, there was the gossip. It’s a well-known adage that when two or three writers are gathered together the talk will be of advances, royalties and agents rather than literature. Off duty, the Editors of children’s book magazines seem to follow suit: our circulations, sponsors (if any), advertising levels and financial circumstances (uniformly hand-to-mouth) were discussed as eagerly as the seeking out of any Grand Wheezes we might be sussing (none). Disappointment that, broadly, we were sussing most of the angles and turning most of the tricks was more than compensated for by the sense of a joint purpose variously and often ingeniously pursued.
Rome looked pretty good, too.
Congratulations to the city’s Centro Sistema Bibliotecario, in particular Letizia Tarantello, for setting it all up and thereby ushering in ’92 with such refreshing Euro-wide gusto.
A Brace of Bookfairs
Here at home, ’91 was ushered out with a similar gusto for me thanks to a pair of spectacularly successful book bonanzas at either end of the country. The North Eastern Children’s Bookfair is the UK’s largest – involving more than 10,000 children and 40-plus authors, illustrators, poets and storytellers with a fortnight’s worth of events at over 100 schools and libraries across eight local authorities between Berwick and Cleveland. Jan Clements, chair of the organising committee, says that the crush on the final Gala Saturday at South Tyneside Leisure Centre on 22nd November was so great ‘we had to give up counting the family groups who paid a visit’. To find out more about this kind of enterprise, send £4.50 for their publication Read On, Write On (available from Woodfield & Stanley Ltd, Broad Lane, Moldgreen, Huddersfield, HD5 8DD; tel: 0484 421467).
Smaller scale, but hardly less successful, was the three-day Wessex Children’s Bookfair. This brought 90 schools and 4,000 children to the Winchester Leisure Centre, culminating in 30 November’s Public Day when similarly un-countable visitors bought in excess of 8,500 books – most of them signed by a string of celebrity guests with aching hands to prove it (‘the nicest possible writer’s cramp’, said one). Tribute here must go especially to Judith Lawrence of Wessex Book Supplies who died earlier in the year and to whose memory the Festival, which she first launched eight years ago, was dedicated.
An Endangered Species?
What both events had in common was the direct involvement of local Schools Library Services – as sole organisers in the North and as joint-organisers down South. Yet how much longer can we count on the energy and expertise of these specialist teams? On page 16, Margaret Smith outlines the Government’s new arrangements for financing them which, on the face of it, look reasonable enough … till we follow through the implications of her remark that ‘schools’ funds for the purchase of SLSs may have competing pressures on them, including the need for teaching staff and repairs to buildings’. See Mary Hoffman’s account on the facing page of how her own local service has been affected by these changes in funding. The sad fact is that central government has constructed a cast-iron alibi for itself should Schools Library Services disappear altogether – as some already have: the-blame can be shifted instantly to the vagaries of certain education authorities or the choices of particular schools. Small wonder Mary proposes a national campaign to save them. Worth pondering, and all too apposite in this context, is the closing paragraph to Judith Elkin’s piece ‘Moscow: August 1991’ on page 23.
Tolkien, Teenagers and Poetry
Mercifully, the rest of the magazine is less contentious. Few will take serious issue with Morag Styles’ Authorgraph of James Berry (centre-spread), Robert Hull’s assessment of current poetry anthologies (pages 20-21), Stephanie Nettell’s selection of recent fiction for teenagers (back page) or even, perhaps, Nick Tucker’s review of Winifred Whitehead’s important study Old Lies Revisited (page 19). About the work of J R R Tolkien, though, I’m less sure. Can I be alone in resisting its allure? For a more sympathetic approach to the Tolkien opus, turn to David Day’s centenary celebration on pages 4 and 5 which explores why, for millions of readers world-wide, Frodo and Co still live.
Happy Reading … and Happy New Year!