The Empty Shelves

As I was queueing in the post office, the line snaked past the few shelves of books for sale, and an all too familiar situation caught my eye. There were three shelves of books for children. Of these one was entirely filled with Disney franchise books, another had colouring books, and books of stickers, the third had books for older children. On this last shelf were nine different titles – all but one were by the same two celebrity authors. All were the same genre.

This upset me, but perhaps not for the reasons you expect. As an author and campaigner for the rights of authors, this does frustrate me because it limits the opportunity for other authors to get their work into the hands of readers, but it’s more than that.  As a children’s librarian my frustration is doubled.

Let me explain.

I have worked with children’s books and reading for over thirty years, and I have worked with many national groups supporting children’s literacy. I’ve sat on working groups looking at the development of readers, taught hundreds of teachers how to tackle reader development in their schools, and have personally taught almost a thousand children how to read or improve their reading. So you might say I know a thing or two about reading!

People often ask me what the key to success in reader development is, and the single best piece of advice I can give anyone – be it parent, bookseller, librarian or teacher – is that the first important thing is choice. A wide, free, voluntary choice.

I live in a small rural town and, like many other towns, we are a fifty mile round trip to a large bookshop. We are very lucky in that the community fought to keep the little bookshop open. Most small towns (and indeed many larger ones too) have no bookshop at all, and the only access to purchasable reading material is the supermarket, or the few shelves in the newsagent or post office. The few books available on these shelves do not represent a wide, free, voluntary choice because they represent what the supplier wants the retailer to sell. This limits the choice available and skews the popularity (and sales figures) of the book.

In my experience I would say that roughly 30% of children coming into the primary school library choose a funny book. That’s fantastic! As a genre, funny books certainly command a decent chunk of the market share, and feature highly in the national lending figures for libraries. The most popular funny books in my library were always the ones that were a bit smarter than basic fart gags. I love a funny book and am in awe of writers who can make a reader howl with laughter. However, farts are not the only fruit.

I was chatting to bookseller, Tamsin Rosewell from Kenilworth Books, and she says that the figures for children purchasing this genre of books is far lower, and says that around 5- 10 % ask for a funny book.

“Within that, they are very selective”, Rosewell says. “When a child comes into the bookshop, or someone asks for help choosing a book for a child, the first question is “what sort of person are they?” A great many want to see situations and characters they understand to be real.”

We talked about this difference between what is borrowed, and what is bought, and theorised that the reason for this may be that when it comes to ownership, and children have the choice, they lean towards a much wider variety of genres and therefore the money is more evenly spread across the board.

We also talked about the mass-market approach to publishing.

“I’m fascinated by the way today’s book market is polarising,” said Rosewell, “and which parts of it are the focus of deep discounting. The combination of celebrity books being heavily discounted on release, and the fact almost all children’s celeb books are humour, means we are in effect creating an environment in which one genre is having its perceived value reduced.”

Most primary school age children couldn’t care less about the celebrity of the author, and were more interested in the content than the author. This situation was changed when the only books available were from celeb authors. In some of the schools where I have worked, the only authors the children knew were the ones they saw on the telly, or in the supermarket. Their free, voluntary choice had been altered by their lack of choice. They had only the illusion of choice thanks to deprivation or lack of access to other reading materials.

“If we can accept that these celeb books are a brand,” Rosewell says, “then what we have is a high-cost brand marketing campaign targeted directly at children. If it is extremely costly marketing that drives high sales, then please let’s call it marketing and acknowledge that these books are often marketed well beyond their quality.

How many adult readers realise how the big retailers and publishers are manipulating them towards the books they want to sell? Are customers of those big bookshop chains aware that publishers have paid a lot of money to have that book on a display table, and even more to be displayed in the window? Do people realise that to get on those celeb book lists the publisher has paid a vast sum?

The big publishers offer huge discounts to retailers who stock their big names. I do some work in our small community bookshop, and I am stunned at how large the discounts are for some of the big celeb names. I’ve seen new children’s titles offered to us at up to 60% discount. This is very tempting for retailers because we can sell them at full price and make a tidy profit. Of course this does mean that many retailers feel they have no choice but to give up valuable shelf space to… you guessed it… the same limited pool of authors.

All of this means the entire system is skewed towards a very limited pool of authors, and this ends up with that shelf in the post office with only celeb authors, and only one genre of books. These books obviously appear at the top of the bestseller lists, and this is hardly surprising given they dominate available retail space and command marketing budgets that would make most authors weep with envy. Every year the pool of authors who are heavily pushed in this way seems to get smaller and smaller. This means in turn we have nothing here that is diverse, inclusive or challenging. Go into any retailer who stocks books as a sideline – be it post office, supermarket, train station or airport – and no matter where you are in the UK you will see exactly the same authors, and exactly the same books.

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What a well curated choice looks like in a small bookshop.

What this aggressive marketing means is that the majority of children looking at the shelves in any large supermarket or newsagent would only see a limited choice, and would probably not see anything that they can identify with. This does not mean they won’t end up owning these celeb or funny books, because well-meaning family will see these books occupying 90% of the available bookshelves in retailers and they buy them because they believe they are doing the right thing. If it’s there, it must be popular and what every child wants, right?

Wrong. It’s not what the child who favours fantasy, or real-life stories, or non-fiction, or poetry, or thrillers wants. For these children the shelves may as well be empty.

Reading for Pleasure has a whole range of wider benefits (as detailed in the Reading Agency’s report Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, a report for which I was honoured to sit on the steering group). However, to gain the wider benefits of reading for pleasure it must be two things – a free voluntary choice, and a pleasure. This means that to support national literacy and to wider spread the benefits of reading for pleasure, people must have more available choice.

My field is, obviously, children’s books, but I know that you will see the same limited pool of authors and genres for adult books. The books the publisher wants you to buy. The authors representing the biggest investment the publisher has made so they desperately need to claw back that huge advance. Publishing is, after all, a business and the book is not a sacred object, it is a product they need to shift in large quantities in order to help their business survive. We can’t blame a retailer for stocking what serves them the largest margin of profit either.

What can be done about this? I would suggest that the only person who can actually change this situation is the shopper. Tell the retailer that you want more choice, or shop elsewhere. Seek out a retailer who is not in the sway of the super-massive publisher. It’s not easy to find an independent bookshop, but you can always use Hive and order online. Independent bookstores are more able to make independent decisions about what they stock, and they can strike deals with indie publishers and often have a far more diverse and interesting selection of books. If you’re buying books for a child as a gift, don’t be influenced by the small number of same-olds in display, ask the child who their favourite writers are and then seek professional guidance on who else writes like that. A real bookseller or librarian will be able to help you. If you don’t have one nearby, you can find them all over social media or online. If you regularly buy books, I’d suggest using the excellent services of Who Else Writes Like….? This is often also available free via the digital offerings of your public library.

Which brings me neatly to the library.

If you really want your child to grow up to become a lifelong reader, they will need choice. Lots of it. The library is a key factor in turning your child into an accomplished reader – precisely because of that treasure trove of choice. Where else can your child stand in the midst of hundreds of different titles and grab whatever catches their eye for free? Where else can your child try loads of different things until they work out which genre suits them? The school and public library should be like a groaning buffet table where children can try loads of different tastes and flavours to work out what they want to feast on for the rest of their lives. When they’ve decided what they like, then it’s time for ownership. Then it’s time to make sure that every penny spent on books is heading in the direction of something they ACTUALLY want, and not just something marketing departments have told them they SHOULD want.

Avid and developing readers deserve to have choice, and in denying them choice we are also ignoring the fact that this should be a golden age of children’s literature. In my three decades working with children’s books, I can honestly say I have never seen books of such variety, and such a high standard, as those being published today. Books are published all the time in every genre that are dazzling, challenging, diverse, inclusive, magical and addictive. I read hundreds of books for young readers every year, and the standard in the last decade has been consistently rising. Once upon a time excellent books for children were as rare as hen’s teeth, today a dozen are published every month that I would consider future classics. So why are so many being published only to never find their way onto the shelves of bookshops or retailers?

I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for that one, all I know is that I read these books and I want to recommend them but they are not in any shops so people won’t find them. Given that over 95% of the coverage of new books in the media is for adult books and hardly any attention is given to books for younger readers, it’s not really surprising people have no idea how many outstanding books miss their moment – despite many being every bit as good as books from our own childhood that are considered classics.

It’s absolutely fine to have celeb books (and fart-funny books!) in the market. Many are great, and definitely deserve space on the shelves, but they don’t deserve all the space on the shelves. Choice. This is what every reading expert knows can turn a non-reader into a reader. It’s what every reader deserves.

This is why I rail against the same-old-same-old stuff on the ever diminishing bookshelves in our communities – because it matters to us all.

At least, it should.

Dawn Finch is a children’s author, librarian and community bookseller. She works extensively in the field of children’s books and writes both fiction and non-fiction for children. She is former president of CILIP (the UK library and information association) and a member of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Committee for the Society of Authors.

Her most recent publications include an educational book about Hadrian’s Wall, and a book for the School Library Association about historical fiction.

@dawnafinch

www.dawnfinch.com

Prehistory in fiction 

This is not a normal blog post. In fact it’s not a blog post at all but is instead a request. I am working on a large project gathering fiction and poetry titles for young people set in specific historical periods. As you can imagine I already have a long list, but I can’t do it all without the wonderful input of the hive mind – that’s where you come in. 

This is the first of ten posts designed to gather your input in the comments field. This thread is for children’s and YA fiction and poetry set in prehistory. Please add your favourite titles below (and feel free to chat with each other) I won’t be able to reply to everyone, but massive thanks in advance for all your help.

Remember – children’s and YA fiction and poetry set in prehistory (from any country) but as historical as it can possibly be. 

Thanks! 

A Primary School Librarian’s List Of 125 Books That A Child Might Want To Read.

these are your kids on books

The publication of yet another list of the “top 100 books” that children “should” read in primary school raised an extensive discussion on social media about the books chosen. Whilst the books on the list are undeniably classics, and books of quality, do they actually represent the kind of books that will nurture a love of reading in children, or is this instead a list of national curriculum and Amazon favourites?

To challenge that list I give you the list of an experienced primary school librarian. These books are the ones that I know have created delight in young readers and have been loved with a passion. You might not agree with all my choices (and some of them are not to my personal tastes) but these have all been loved by REAL CHILDREN who devoured them and wanted more after finishing them. These are not only books that children have enjoyed, but also ones that parents have enjoyed sharing with them. Sharing books aloud is an important way to foster a love of books and reading in a child, and no one is ever too old to hear a story.

The list progresses roughly through developmental stages, but is by no means prescriptive, and it is not in order of preference. “Top books” charts are far too subjective, and the books on this list are all great. If you need more guidance and advice on children’s reading there really is only one person to seek out – a school librarian. These titles are all for primary age children and (with one notable exception in William Grill’s Shackleton) are all fiction titles.

Just for clarification, I don’t believe that any of these books “should” be read by all children, that’s not how a love of reading works. This is list of great books that I know children have loved and, if any of them suit the tastes of children you know, then they too might read them and enjoy them. If they want to. Your list might be different, and I’d love to know what you’d recommend – please add your titles to the comments. I’m sure there are many titles that you feel should be added, so go ahead! Please do add newer books that you know have worked, and please remember to credit all creators of the work, and do post links to their websites where possible. I’ll aim to keep the comments open so that we can keep adding to it and share the list as a resource.

Every one of these books have two things in common: they are beautiful stories, and children love them. All in all enjoyment of reading is the most important thing. It’s all about what children want to read and it should never be about just ticking off a list of books that adults think children “should” read.

Hopefully you will enjoy these books too.

Picture Books (for first word recognition, first reading, and sharing)
1. The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
2. Dr Xargle (series) by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross
3. Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell and Helen Oxenbury
4. The Shirley Hughes Collection
5. Meg and Mog (series) by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski
6. The Blue Balloon by Mick Inkpen
7. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers
8. Elmer (series) by David McKee
9. Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
10. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
11. Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson
12. Smelly Louie by Catherine Rayner
13. Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan
14. This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
15. Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allen Ahlberg
16. Whatever Next? By Jilly Murphy
17. Q Pootle 5 by Nick Butterworth
18. Here Come The Aliens! By Colin McNaughton
19. Beegu by Alexis Deacon
20. Morris the Mankiest Monster by Giles Andrea and Sarah McIntyre
21. No Matter What by Debi Gliori
22. Sand Horse by Michael Foreman
23. Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley
24. We’re Going On A Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
25. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
26. Wolves by Emily Gravett
27. Mouse, Bird, Snake, Wolf by David Almond and Dave McKean
28. Jim’s Lion by Russel Hoban and Alexis Deacon
29. The Whale’s Song by Dyan Sheldon and Gary Blythe
30. Changes by Anthony Browne
31. Use Your Imagination by Nicola O’Byrne
32. The Queen’s Hat by Steve Antony
33. Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake
34. Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs
35. A New Coat For Anna by Harriet Ziefert and Anita Lobel

First Chapter Books (and slightly longer First-Readers)
36. Shackleton by William Grill
37. Monkey in the Stars by Jamila Gavin
38. The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl
39. The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson
40. Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre
41. Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
42. Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell
43. Mr Majieka (series) by Humphrey Carpenter
44. Astrosaurs (series) by Steve Cole
45. How to Write Really Badly by Anne Fine
46. Cartoon Kid by Jeremy Strong
47. My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond and Polly Dunbar
48. Nelly the Monster Sitter (series) by Kes Gray
49. Dirty Bertie (series) by David Roberts and Alan MacDonald
50. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
51. Necklace of Raindrops by Joan Aiken and Jan Pienkowski
52. Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr
53. Horrid Henry (series) by Francesca Simon
54. Betsey Biggalow (series) by Malorie Blackman
55. Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce
56. Give Peas a Chance by Morris Gleitzman
57. Cliffhanger by Jacqueline Wilson
58. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
59. Dinkin Dings (series) by Guy Bass

Moving on….. (longer chapter books and/or stronger themes)
60. Dragons of Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett
61. Emily Windsnap (series) by Liz Kessler
62. Varjak Paw by SF Said
63. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
64. Box of Delights by John Masefield
65. Great Ghost Rescue by Eva Ibbotson
66. Mr Stink by David Walliams
67. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
68. Awful End (series) by Philip Ardagh
69. Uncle Montague (series) by Chris Priestley
70. The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
71. Dream Master (series) by Theresa Breslin
72. Molly Moon (series) by Georgia Byng
73. Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
74. Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
75. Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer
76. Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin
77. Charlotte’s Web by E B White
78. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
79. The Dark Is Rising (series) by Susan Cooper
80. Chrestomanci (series) by Dianna Wynne Jones
81. Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome
82. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
83. The Owl Service by Alan Garner
84. Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce
85. Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
86. Holes by Louis Sachar
87. Last of the Spirits by Christ Priestley
88. Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
89. Clockwork by Philip Pullman
90. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner
91. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Transition books (stronger themes for transition from primary to secondary school)
92. The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine
93. Noughts and Crosses (series) by Malorie Blackman
94. Mirromask by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
95. Alex Rider (series) by Anthony Horowitz
96. Strawgirl by Jackie Kay
97. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier
98. Once by Morris Gleitzman
99. Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
100. City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende
101. Krabat by Ottfried Preussler
102. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
103. Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus and Julian Sedgewick
104. Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy
105. Book of Dead Days by Marcus Sedgewick
106. Spooks series by Joseph Delaney
107. Wonder by R J Palacio
108. Diary of Anne Frank
109. Tamar by Mal Peet
110. Maus by Art Spiegelman
111. Witch Child by Celia Rees

OH – and you can’t nurture a love of reading without poetry – so the list gets a bit longer with some poetry…
112. Puffin Book of Brilliant Poetry edited by Brian Patten
113. All the Wild Wonders by Wendy Cooling
114. All The Best – selected poems of Roger McGough
115. Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here! by Michael Rosen
116. Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl (illus Quentin Blake)
117. Wriggle and Roar by Julia Donaldson
118. The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear
119. Give The Ball To The Poet – an anthology of Caribbean poetry
120. Silly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan
121. Highwayman by Alfred Noyes (illus Charles Keeping)
122. Wicked World! By Benjamin Zephaniah
123. Nightmares by Jack Prelutsky
124. I Had a Little Cat (collected poems) by Charles Causley
125. Casting a Spell (an anthology) by Joan Aiken, Wendy Cope and others

Note – almost all of the authors on this list have a whole body of extraordinary work in their catalogues, and many of these books have sequels that are equally worth reading. Please do take the time to look up the other work of these authors.
Extra footnote– I mean no offence to any of my writer friends if I’ve left off your work! If this was a list of all of the books that I love for primary age children, I would need to buy more webspace as it would be hundreds of pages long.

Dawn Finch is a school librarian and children’s author, and is currently the Vice President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)

A new Children’s Laureate.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the announcement for the new Children’s Laureate and am thrilled that the role has been accepted by children’s illustrator and writer Chris Riddell. Chris is an outspoken and dedicated supporter not only of children’s books, but also of school libraries and librarians and he used his acceptance […]

Ask a librarian – “Help, my child has a kindle!”

Ok, so you have made the leap into e-books and decided that it’s time your child had an e-reader – what now? What on earth are you going to put on it?

Chances are your child will have very set ideas about what they want on there, but does it represent value for money, and are you giving them quality? There are thousands and thousands of free books available on Kindle and the temptation is to download a whole bunch of them and just see how it goes. However, in my experience this has a similar effect on children to wheeling in a barrow of dusty volumes and saying “you should be reading these books.” They will simply ignore them and it will clutter up their e-readers with material that they have no intention of ever looking at, let alone reading.

I have comprised a very short list based entirely on the free or under £1.50 books currently available on Kindle.

These are classics that I feel your child will enjoy, and that represent high quality yet approachable and readable material. I won’t review these, as most of them you will know. They may not match your list, and this list will certainly not include every free classic available, but these are the ones that in my experience a modern child should find accessible enough to read and enjoy.

I hope it helps.

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll (free)

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett (free)

The Complete Oz Collection – L Frank Baum (currently on at 77p for the complete set!)

Treasure Island – RL Stevenson (free)

Five Children and It – E Nesbit (free)

The Story of the Treasure Seekers – E Nesbit (free)

Enchanted Castle – E Nesbit (free)

Peter Pan – J M Barrie (free)

Wind in the Willows – K Grahame (free)

Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi (free)

Beauty and the Beast – Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (free)

The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams (49p)

The Wombles – Elizabeth Beresford (£1.50)