With Malorie Blackman taking over as eighty Children’s Laureate, John Dunne, former chair of the Children’s Laureate Steering Group reflects on the role as it has developed over the years.
Malorie Blackman’s appointment in June this year as Children’s Laureate was not only greeted with the usual excitement in the children’s books trade but found relevance on major TV outlets too, with Malorie appearing on everything from BBC Breakfast to Channel Four. There were multiple radio interviews too and features in the national newspapers. It was proof that what started out fourteen years ago as the ‘children’s laureate initiative’ has come of age and become something for the whole country to acknowledge.
The original idea came from a conversation between Michael Morpurgo and Ted Hughes in 1997. Despite good sales figures at the time, children’s books and publishing were viewed dismissively. The essence of their discussion was that if we could have a Poet Laureate to speak up for poets and poetry why not a children’s laureate to do likewise for authors and illustrators, and children’s books?
A steering group was set up in January 1998 and, supported with letters from Ted Hughes to influential people, began to gain support for the idea. There was some doubt about what the role should be and initial concern that the role would be too time consuming for those selected, interrupting their creative work. Financial support was crucial and was greatly boosted when the Department for Culture, Media and Sport came on board, along with sponsorship from Waterstones bookshops and publishers as well. The ‘initiative’ was launched in November, a month after Ted Hughes’s death, at the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) conference with Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary and Tim Waterstone outlining their support.
The Children’s Laureate was defined as being ‘an honour conferred for eminence in writing or illustration’, with a requirement to undertake four events per year, for a two-year term of office. Championing children’s books and reading was seen as the key aim of the post, especially where adult audiences were concerned. The remit was also defined as being UK-wide with laureates pledged to undertake events in all four home nations.
The first laureate was selected by a judging panel of people involved in children’s books chaired by the BBC’s James Naughtie. Nominations were sought from organisations within the children’s book world and a shortlist was drawn up. The decision to publish the shortlist, in order to gain publicity, was not popular with the nominees and was subsequently dropped.
Quentin Blake was appointed as Children’s Laureate for 1999-2001 at a ceremony at the National Theatre which was presided over by HRH The Princess Royal. He was presented with a bursary cheque and a personalised silver medal, specially designed by the silversmith Charmian Harris, who continues to make them for each new laureate. Quentin set the blueprint for other laureates, with media appearances, lectures and talks at literary festivals, to both adults and children. He also introduced the idea of undertaking a special project which has become a feature for his successors. Following discussions with the National Gallery an exhibition entitled Tell Me a Picture, which combined pictures and paintings selected by Quentin Blake, opened and was hugely successful.
Since then the laureates have come from different parts of the children’s books spectrum: novelists, poets and illustrators and this has enabled them to promote and publicise this area of their specialism. They have also been able to respond to wider issues such as reading and library usage and each laureate has a meeting with a government minister where these and other issues can be raised.
The commitment and enthusiasm the laureates have given over the years has exceeded all expectations and we owe a debt of gratitude to them all for their dedication during their term of office. For each new laureate there is a delicate balance between being able to continue with their own work whilst also taking time to undertake talks to different groups, visit selected libraries and schools, and respond to the media. The job of co-ordinating all this falls on Booktrust who administer the laureate, supported by the main publisher/s of the individual laureates and it is a system which works well. There is also a steering group which has a policy and advisory role.
There is no doubt the advent of the Children’s Laureate has been very successful and sales of each laureate’s books have increased considerably. The profile of children’s books is much higher since its inception, although there have been other factors which assisted in this, for example the success of the Harry Potter books. The ability to respond to the media on current issues has been welcomed by the book trade and the excitement created by laureate visits to towns and cities has helped increase the profile of local book events. The laureate concept has also been followed in other countries including: Australia, Ireland, Sweden and Wales.
Malorie Blackman brings an exciting new voice to the laureateship, writing, as she does, for a largely teenage audience. With a background in IT and an enthusiasm for gadgets and e-readers she brings a digital perspective to the foref. She’s interested in getting ‘more children, reading more’ and has a raft of ideas to make this happen. I have no doubt that she will, as other laureates have before her, make a brilliant impact and provide a passionate voice for the book trade.
John Dunne is Past-Chair, Children’s Laureate Steering Group and secretary of Ibby UK.