Have you got a bee in your bonnet about any aspect of books? Do you sometimes feel like handing out bouquets or brick-bats to booksellers, publishers, authors, illustrators, teachers, librarians…
Here’s your chance.
Steve Bowles starts off with a swipe at
Next time you hear the old sob story about all the dreadful unsolicited manuscripts which children’s book editors receive, save the paper hankies and ask yourself why so many people believe their scribbles worthy of a publisher’s attention. Could these aspiring authors regard a lot of published material as little better than the uninspired, unoriginal dross they write themselves? I wouldn’t argue. Maybe they write that way because of things they see published.
Reasons for the low standards of kids’ fiction are legion: nepotism, various problems with ‘established authors’, reliance upon Classics or folk tales. But one major factor encouraging people’s belief that any idiot can write stories for children must be the growing trend of publishing books by Celebrities. Take The Old Man of Lochnagar. I know HRH wrote it for family amusement, that royalties go to charity, but one expects a future King to have a little pride. Perhaps worthy causes outweighed personal considerations? Yet a sponsored leap from Beachy Head would produce just as much cash. And if, like most sponsored activities, this wouldn’t constitute an outright public good, at least it wouldn’t be a positive mischief. Chances are, anyone reading Lochnagar could do better themselves and that can only harm the general standing of children’s literature.
This one-off wouldn’t signify if Celebrity books didn’t corner so much publicity, hog shelf-space in shops and divert money from worthwhile titles. Written by nobodies like you and me, many would never be published. Consider Harry Secombe’s Nurgla. It’s not Lochnagar awful; at least there’s a developing story of sorts, although the plot’s disjointed progress can confuse kids. It makes no attempt to touch their inner lives or social preoccupations as it strains to entertain, relying exclusively upon inclusion of a monster for any effect it achieves, a device which has been slave to thousands.
It shows no stylistic invention, occasionally makes references inappropriate to its audience. Yet this quintessence of mediocrity swarms in my local Smith’s.
The inescapable Frank Muir’s What-a-mess books show more awareness of the relationship between humour and style – but this can result in convoluted sentences which seem out of place in picture books. Compare the simplicity of a quality children’s author like Rosemary Wells. I wouldn’t give Muir many marks for ideas, either; reincarnating Mr Pastry as an Afghan puppy hardly warrants acclaim. Laborious, boringly repetitive, what success the books have with kids is almost entirely attributable to the artist, Joseph Wright. (The way artists can compensate for the story’s deficiencies probably accounts for Celebrities congregating among books for littlies – along with small matters like amount of time the work requires and £-per-minute return.)
Recent books by John Noakes, Clement Freud, Jilly Cooper, Pam Ayres, Nanette Newman and others could be criticised similarly. (What happened to the respect for literary standards which editors invoke so eagerly when facing demands for more working-class, multi-ethnic or anti-sexist stories?)
In hard times, temptations to take or invite books from Celebrities are difficult for some publishers to resist. Publicity is a major problem with kids’ books. (Yes, the present system needs improving but even so… ) Famous Name Authors catch the public/booksellers’ eye. Publicity creates bestsellers. But, long term, such retrograde steps will no more create a mass market than gimmicks like Masquerade. Moles tell of refusals for some outstanding children’s books before they eventually reached the light. Logic insists that other good stories must disappear for ever.
If YOU have something to say, write it down (max. 500 words) and send it to the Editor (address on page 2).