Mairi Kidd, MD of Barrington Stoke, on the appeal of keeping things short.
Ker-thump, ker-thump, ker-thump. That’s the sound of pupils in a central London school participating in a Harry Potter amnesty. Volumes 4-7 of the best-selling children’s series of all time hit the decks as staff encourage children to ’fess up: the books may be status symbols in a schoolbag, but no one’s actually reading them: they’re too long.
The seventh Harry Potter clocks in at 640 pages, giving even ‘mega-novels’ for adults a run for their money. To put that in context, A.S. Byatt’s famously wordy Booker winner Possession runs to just 528. 640 pages is getting into Donna Tartt territory, and for my money, The Deathly Hallows and The Goldfinch share one significant feature: both would have benefited from a hard edit.
That’s something of a consensus view on the Tartt, but it’s rarer to hear criticism of the Rowling. Partly that’s because fan obsession renders Harry Potter untouchable. Partly it’s because many adult heads are full of confused ideas that children’s reading is a lot about progression and a little bit about showing off, and so long books are seized upon as a handy way to measure the former and achieve the latter. And perhaps some of those grown-up Potter fans feel that the length validates their obsession with a book primarily aimed at 8-12s.
The span of time we have to engage a child with reading is short and competition for their attention is high. Might a bad long book throw that precious chance away? For many adults life is too short for a good long book, never mind a bad one. And for a child who suspects that reading time is actually PlayStation time wasted, a long bad book may be all the confirmation required to make this an opinion held for life. A librarian at a talk I gave recently came to take issue – or so I thought – with a reference to the later Harry Potters as potentially problematic.
‘Lots of kids that don’t read plough through Harry Potter,’ she told me, her own son included.
‘Great,’ I said, ‘if it gets them reading.’
‘It doesn’t,’ she said. ‘My son never read a book again.’
We all know that we need more children to engage with reading – it develops core literacy skills, higher order thinking, empathy and life chances across the board. But studies tell us that as many as one in two don’t enjoy it. So what can we do?
We believe that we need to engage with kids’ lives and likes and interrogate our own output accordingly. I have talked about long novels, competing interests and suspicious consumers, so where are the short sharp reads to fit into jealously guarded free time in busy young lives?
Humour writers are good at short word counts, perhaps because a joke is easily taken too far. Mr Gum is hysterically funny over 15,000 words; he might become a bit much in 80,000. Reluctant readers are often recommended funny books, which is somewhat odd when you think about it – is the implication that keen readers lack a sense of humour? Perhaps the length of funny books is actually the appeal, whether those doing the recommending realise it or not.
Barrington Stoke’s own books aside, there’s not much in the way of serious short novels for young people out there. Progression obsession tends to rear its head when short novels are discussed, generally representing abject hypocrisy on the part of the adults concerned. A mum who prefers Grazia to Anna Karenina might state that a 100-pager doesn’t have sufficient depth for her child. And ‘depth’ often actually means length, so trash trumps quality so long as it’s longer. I don’t get the thinking that says that the last book in the Twilight saga is a better book than Anthony McGowan’s Brock.
Of course some children simply do eat books, long page counts pass the time for a keen reader, and there’s a place for trash in all of our lives. But common sense says there must also be space for short, high quality stories – and indeed short trash – to drown out those ker-thumps and the sound of children voting with their feet when it comes to spending time in a bookshop or a library.
Mairi Kidd is Managing Director of Barrington Stoke
The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are published by Bloomsbury.
The Mr. Gum books by Andy Stanton, illustrated by David Tazzyman are published by Jelly Pie (Egmont)
Brock by Anthony McGowan, Barrington Stoke, 978-1781122082, £6.99