Close to 3,000 children’s booksellers, librarians, teachers and parents from all across the country crowded into the New York Hilton Hotel for three days at the end of August for a new national conference on children’s media – the `Everychild’ Conference – organized by the Children’s Book Council. The Council, which is the closest equivalent here to the National Book League but with an exclusive focus on children’s books, put together the ambitious conference “to increase our understanding of all media through which children learn, and from which they derive pleasure” – not just books, but toys, games, magazines, records, television, films and, of course, computers. The Council failed, however, to reach significantly beyond the traditional world of children’s books – almost all the exhibitors were book publishers; toy and computer manufacturers and record and film producers stayed away in droves. Despite this limitation, the conference was in many respects enjoyable, with literally hundreds of programmes to choose from – too many, some said – on everything from storytelling techniques to starting up a children’s bookshop, critical TV viewing to character licensing, evaluating toys and games to the need for computer literacy. Around 75 authors and 25 illustrators – including top names like Maurice Sendak and Judy Blume – gave talks or led discussions. Since the Council’s advance publicity and advertising failed to pull in significant numbers of the general public – parents and children – the question remains whether the conference, impressive though it was, was really only a forum of experts talking to other experts, rather than genuinely reaching out and promoting to a wider audience. But most people here seem prepared to give it another try – in two years’ time – before drawing any definitive conclusions as to its usefulness.
Everyone knows that one of the hardest things about adolescence is that communications between adolescents and their parents often break down or become very strained. Yet there is more literature being written for teenagers in America than ever before – realistic literature that deals with teenagers’ concerns fairly and squarely in honest, everyday language. If only parents would, read some of these books written for teenagers, perhaps they’d understand their own teenagers better, thought Pat Scales, a middle school librarian in North Carolina a few years ago. An 11-year-old girl told her one day that her mother wouldn’t let her read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume’s story of a girl approaching puberty, “because it’s a dirty book”, yet another parent who had expressed concern about “the kind of books that today’s teenagers are reading” had changed her mind after taking some books home and reading them herself. Experiences like these led Pat Scales to start a series of discussion groups for parents on adolescent literature. At each meeting, a discussion topic for the next meeting was chosen – peer pressure, sibling rivalry, parent-adolescent relationships, teenage sexuality, achieving a sense of self-worth, and more – and each parent was assigned a book relating to that theme.
The results were spectacular. “Reading these books reminds me of the things that I’d forgotten bothered me so much as a kid”, said one mother. A father said, “I had no idea what my son was thinking … but now that we have discovered a way to communicate, I think I’m getting to know him better”. And another mother reported, “Participating in this programme has encouraged me to open lots of conversations at home that would have been hard for me to bring up”.
Word of the scheme’s success has spread like wildfire, and Pat Scales is now so much in demand as a speaker that Judy Blume has founded a non-profit organization called “The Kids’ Fund” to enable her to travel, as well as to provide seed money to help others start up their own groups. Pat Scales has also written a “how-to-do-it” guidebook with suggested topics and book lists which will be published next year by Putnam.
A new kind of censorship hit the headlines here recently, censorship from within the structure of a publishing company rather than from outside sources. When the large Nashville-based Bible publisher, Thomas Nelson, bought the old-established New York literary firm of Dodd, Mead, Nelson executives began reading some of Dodd, Mead’s forthcoming offerings and didn’t like what they saw. Novels and poems containing words like “goddamn” and “son-of-a-bitch”, they decided, were not in keeping with Nelson’s “existing image as a wholesome publisher of books of value and usefulness”, and would hurt multi-million dollar Bible sales. Directives were issued which resulted in the cancellation of several soon-to-be-published Dodd, Mead books. One of the affected authors, who had refused to change “about 20” words in his manuscript, said: “This decision effectively takes Dodd, Mead out of the general trade book business – I don’t see how any reputable author or agent would submit work to them now”. But Nelson insisted they were “just asserting the rights that any company has in setting policy of what’s good for our stockholders and our markets”, and that “the objections of two or three disgruntled authors are not going to change our plans”.
Breaking a tradition
When President Hoover moved into the White House in 1929 he was amazed to find empty bookshelves, and this prompted the American Booksellers Association to organize a donation of books to the White House library. The practice became a tradition, with each succeeding President receiving a gift of approximately 250 books, chosen by a panel of editors and booksellers, considered to be the most significant published since the previous donation. This year, breaking a tradition now a half-century old, President Reagan did not schedule any acceptance ceremony, a fact which intrigued the American press but surprised few people.