Picture Colm Mahady / Fennells – Copyright 2016 Fennell Photography.
I’ve always loved children’s books and now, as a children’s author about to start writing my fourth book, I read more of it than ever. But I’m finding that even though I devour books at a phenomenal rate, the recommendations keep coming in and my TBR pile continues to grow. Every day I discover a new author or story I’ve yet to explore. I’m immersed in the world of children’s books and still I find it difficult to keep up; so how about the young readers out there? What support are they getting when it comes to making reading choices? And is it enough?
The Importance of Children’s Books
Children’s literature – the entire range of books for young readers, from the youngest picture book to the oldest YA, including fiction, non-fiction and poetry – is growing every year. We’re living in a golden age for children’s books, with increasing demand. Reading is a vital part of a child’s development, impacting more than just the formative years; the books we read when young formulate future reading habits and lifelong attitudes.
I always talk to readers about books being magical doorways, and writer, Shane Hegarty’s description of the reading experience is one that truly resonates. He says, “Children’s books are time machines. Space ships. They are portals to other worlds. They transport readers into other lives, other perspectives. And they can make you feel part of something bigger, even if you are very much alone. There is something about the impact a story can have on young readers that is really something special. Just watch how they re-read and re-read the same books, over and over.”
There’s no denying that reading for pleasure has a lifelong impact and yet, despite our awareness of this, research conducted by Imogen Russell Williams reveals; ‘children’s books typically get 3% of newspaper review space, despite accounting for over 30% of sales.’ I asked Hegarty, experienced as both a journalist and a children’s author, to share his opinion on why this current imbalance situation has arisen.
“I would guess that newspapers have been slow to catch up on the interest in children’s books because of inherent bias among editors, journalists, who generally believe that they and their readers want to read reviews of books they themselves might buy. Because children don’t read newspapers (and, let’s be honest, listen to each other rather than critics) they’re not targeted through content. Of course, adults read children’s books but I’m not sure it’s seen as anything other than a curious niche interest. A huge amount of children’s culture is overlooked by the mainstream press.”
As a result of this imbalance, a campaign called #CoverKidsBooks is now calling for answers and asking important questions.
What is #CoverKidsBooks?
“Book reviews and other media coverage should be guiding the public, helping them discover the riches of contemporary children’s books. Are they?” – Middle Grade Strikes Back
Started in the UK but gathering recognition on a more global scale, #CoverKidsBooks is a campaign that looks at the discrepancy between the number of children’s books published and purchased, and the amount of coverage received in the national press. The campaign takes a positive approach, celebrating the coverage received and calling for more. It’s all about readers and ensuring that as many young people as possible can find the books out there for them; not just the top sellers.
As S.F. Said (@SFSaid), one of the founders of the #CoverKidsBooks campaign, stated during our #MGiechat on the topic (transcript here): “It’s about EVERY part of the beautiful jungle. Picture books, MG, YA, non-fiction, poetry: we love it all! Children’s books need their own space, but they also need to be part of the wider conversation, so all #CoverKidsBooks wants to do is enable the conversation and open a space for all those voices – the more the better!”
Why Do We Need to #CoverKidsBooks?
Writer Sinead O’Hart (@SJOHart) sums this up perfectly on her blog; “We need to #CoverKidsBooks on the radio, on social media, in traditional media, on the television, and get it going as a topic of conversation. An adult looking for a gift should know straight away where to find advice and recommendations. A child looking for their next read should have no problem finding just the right book for their needs, and should be able to access a library (with knowledgeable staff) and/or a bookshop (also with knowledgeable staff) without trouble.”
RTE2 Swipe Club – a great show in Ireland. More please!
With more than 8000 children’s book published every year, bookshelves can be crowded and prove intimidating to parents unfamiliar with what’s there. In addition, teachers, librarians, and anyone involved in the care of children need help locating a wider range of books that can suit all their young readers’ needs.
Hegarty explains how this can be done; “Through encouraging good journalists and critics to treat children’s culture seriously and to interrogate it as they might anything else. Through writing those pieces ourselves. Through talking about it with the passion and intelligence of the current campaign.” And yet, Hegarty also raises another important question.
“We’ve got to ask, in the age of the internet, how important newspaper reviews really are. I’ll play devil’s advocate here. Do we want newspaper reviews because we think it’s a service to readers, or because having grown up with print as a measure of validation they make us feel better about ourselves? Do we want children’s books properly critiqued, or do we just want them to be “promoted”?
To me, the answer is simple: the reason for seeking out coverage has to be about the reader. It has to be about giving children access to books and not seen as another marketing tool to boost book sales. It has to be honest, not bought. And the positive impact of #CoverKidsBooks so far shows that this can be done.
How Successfully is Ireland Covering Kids Books?
“In an Irish context, I think we have it better than in the UK,’ says Hegarty. “In general, you are far more likely to see an Irish writer (from any genre) on one of the big TV chat shows, or hear them on national radio. Eoin Colfer just did a Gay Byrne’s The Meaning of Life. Louise O’Neill and Derek Landy have both been on the Late Late recently. How many children’s authors other than David Walliams would could even dream of being on, say, Graham Norton? Much print media here also treats writers seriously, gives them space. And they regularly give a good slot to children’s writers as much as the more traditional “literary fiction” authors. It’s a smaller country, with a smaller pool of guests for radio/tv shows to scrap over. Frankly, that’s to our advantage.”
However, Hegarty also acknowledges that review space is an issue, with book review space “at a premium in Irish papers. There’s also the question of what sort of books are reviewed, with literary fiction and doorstopper non-fiction seeming to get preference. Children’s books tend to get the round-up treatment, although their nature means they sometimes offer editors useful colour illustrations to otherwise drab books pages. And they are good at reviewing homegrown books. I know from my past experience in The Irish Times that the experience and enthusiasm of a reviewer such as Robert Dunbar is seen as invaluable.”
There are certainly plenty of people in Ireland working hard to encourage reading for pleasure and make sure that children have the access they need to the widest possible range of children’s books. As writer, Sarah Webb (@sarahwebbishere), recipient of the2015 Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) Award for outstanding contribution to children’s books in Ireland, points out, “Irish schools use a wide range of children’s books in their classrooms and this is to be encouraged and nurtured. We are also building new libraries in Ireland which is so vital to building young readers.”
Hegarty highlights the important work done by “librarians, teachers, parents, readers of all ages, writers, booksellers, festival organisers. If we step away from media alone for a moment, children’s books have clearly never been in a better place. In Ireland, it’s especially so given how many writers there are now. A kid can go into a bookshop or library in Ireland now, sit in a big, colourful kids section and read a book on almost any topic – many utterly taboo only 10/20 years ago – for as long as they want to before someone turns the light out.”
I have experienced first hand the excellent initiatives in place thanks to Children’s Books Ireland (@KidsBooksIrel), including the innovative SwipeTV children’s book club on RTE2, our national station. I was lucky enough to have The Book of Learning featured on April 20th episode, with live reviews from young readers – and I received a flurry of emails from children from all over the country during the week after it aired – so there’s no doubt in my mind that media coverage has a positive impact. Write,r Niamh Garvey (@msniamhgarvey), also gives a nod to the CBI publications. She says, “I love, love, love the Inis guide to kids books, it is great for introducing you to titles, all teachers should have it.” High praise indeed and very much deserved.
So What Needs to Improve?
It’s clear that we have a decent foundation, but of course, this is just the beginning. The fact that so many people are sitting up and taking notice of the #CoverKidsBooks campaign is proof that there’s room for improvement. As Sarah Webb says “In 20 years time I hope I’m still around to report the coverage of children’s books has improved from the green shoots of 2016.
In a Middle Grade Strikes Back interview with librarians, the lack of diversity was highlighted as one major issue that needs urgent attention. “Coverage of children’s books is ridiculously limited and this is very damaging to literacy. Currently the lack of coverage of great and diverse books means that developing readers are mainly being guided towards mass marketed books. That is not to say that there is not a place for mass marketed books, but it should not be the only choice.”
How you can get involved
As S.F. Said says, ‘every single person out there who cares about children’s books can make a difference to #CoverKidsBooks. The more voices that are heard, the more likely that media will listen & give kids’ books the attention they deserve!’
In short, writers, illustrators, publishers, agents, booksellers, librarians, teachers, families, bloggers, readers are all vital to the campaign’s success. This means everyone who cares about children’s books talking about them in a public forum, sharing knowledge and skills to help young readers gain access to the bigger, wider world of magical doorways/time machines/portals that are out there.
You can read more about the #CoverKidsBooks campaign/research and follow the updates/get involved here.
This article was originally written for writing.ie