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

Shakespeare Week and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

This week I’m celebrating the work of Pupil Library Assistants, and also Shakespeare Week.

I am a member of the judging panel for the Pupil Library Assistant of the Year Award. The competition for the prize was very fierce and, sadly, not everyone could make it to the final seven. However, these pupils clearly all had a great passion for books and reading and took this beyond the walls of their schools. Almost all of the pupils not only worked in their school libraries, but they had also had the opportunity to take part in other schemes connected to books and literacy. One of the longlist nominees, Miranda, described a little about her volunteer work at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

I was so intrigued by this that I invited her to write a blog post in more detail so that she could explain what Shakespeare and the Birthplace Trust means to her and other pupils.  This is published here to take a closer look at the Birthplace Trust, and to encourage schools to sign up for Shakespeare Week. This runs from 16 -22 March 2015 and encourages everyone to take another look at the world’s most famous writer. So from a writer of the past…to a writer of the future!

My guest blogger is…..Miranda K. Gleaves – Alcester Grammar School

Shakespeare Week: the wonderful world of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

I’m lucky that I’m at a school where being a Pupil Librarian isn’t regarded as a bit bizarre.  Everyone accepts my love of books (I was the first ever Year 7 to get the school’s Gold Reading Challenge Award) and, definitely, my admiration of the playwright, William Shakespeare.

I was seven when I saw my first Shakespeare play (The Comedy of Errors) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. My mum explained that I wouldn’t understand every word of it, but that it wouldn’t matter.  She was right – and had to shush me as I was laughing so loudly at the almost-pantomime on stage. No-one should think Shakespeare is incomprehensible, scary or “not for them”.

Thanks to our School Librarian, Mrs Beeson, I was invited, with the other Pupil Library Assistants, on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Shakespeare Birthplace archives and instantly felt that it was the most amazing place.

Since then, I have completed a week of formal Work Experience with the SBT and two weeks with them as a volunteer.  I’ve already arranged to go back!

I’ve helped with conservation work in the archives and at the Shakespeare Houses (having also volunteered with the National Trust for four years, my conservation cleaning experience came in very handy).  I learned how to use the SBT’s unique library system to carry out research, and this enabled me to create a display for the Public Reading Room.  I should also say that the SBT archives are vast – and aren’t just about Shakespeare.  They have masses of information on the local area and my display was on the arrival of Belgian refugees in Stratford at the start of WWI.

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My display.

I’m looking very carefully at the Wolf Hall adaptation on television at the moment, having spent time as a costumed interpreter at Mary Arden’s Farm, one of the Shakespeare Houses. Here, I dressed and behaved as a Tudor, helping to prepare authentic meals to eat in front of the public and discovering the customs of the time (for example, napkins are draped over the left shoulder, those wearing red are ranked more highly than those in blue, and all meals are eaten only with your personal spoon). So far, it looks as though Mark Rylance and his colleagues have got it about right.

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While immersed in Tudor life and language it was fascinating to see at first hand just how engaged visiting school children – also in SBT Tudor costumes – were by the whole experience and how much they learned from it.

I think that Shakespeare Week is a fantastic initiative, and I only wish that I could have participated back when I was at primary school. If I could say one thing to all the pupils and teachers involved, it would have to be “don’t be scared of Shakespeare – he tells great stories”!

With thanks to Miranda Gleaves and her librarian – Louise Beeson – from Alcester Grammar School

You can find out a lot more about the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust using this link.

Take part in Shakespeare Week too! Follow the link for more information and how to join in.

The winner of the 2015 Pupil Library Assistant Award will be announced by 4pm on Thursday 12th March.

Thomas Taylor Interview – Getting to the Hart of the matter.

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It was hard to know where to start with this interview as there is so much I want to ask! I think I’ll start at the beginning with a question that is one of my favourites.

What (or who) did you want to be when you were seven? What sort of kid were you, what entertained you as a small person?

 Hi, Dawn, and thanks for interviewing me. This is a fun question to start with.

Do you remember Joe90? I looked a bit like that, only scrawnier and with NHS specs. I was a loner, who secretly wanted to be either Doctor Who or Luke Skywalker, or – if possible – both. Lego and small metal figurines were everything to me. Girls were a long way off.

 ·I always find that question fun, but I can’t quite picture you as Joe90! So you were very imaginative as a child, good start! You illustrate your own books and covers, and your background is in illustration, but your books are wonderfully written – which discipline do you prefer; illustrating or writing?

Thanks for the compliment. As for which I prefer, it has to be the one that’s going the best at any given moment. That sounds like a cop-out, I know, but they are so different that it’s hard to compare. In general, I think I find writing comes slightly more easily, but only once the ideas are flowing. These days I think of myself as a writer who also draws.

 ·I am glad to see that you are still creating picture books (my daughter loved George and Sophie’s Museum Adventures when she was little!) A lot of your books you have written and illustrated yourself, but when you are working with an author on a picture book, how does that process work?

 It’s nice to hear someone remembers George and Sophie!

There isn’t much to the process, beyond being sent roughs and invited to comment at various stages. It’s rare to meet the illustrator these days. Choosing the right illustrator is a vital part of an editors’ job, and I’ve learnt to trust them, however long it takes. My next picture book, Too Many Tickles (out in Feb next year with Macmillan), was written over four years ago – it took that long to match up an illustrator with the text. Penny Dann was definitely worth waiting for though.

 ·I suppose that there will always be people connected to books that the creators don’t get to meet, but it must have been a strange (and wonderful) experience having David “The Hoff” Hasselhoff reading yours and John Kelly’s picture book, Jack’s Tractor, aloud on CBeebies. How on earth did that come about?

 It was strange and amusing all at once. I remember as a child watching David Hasselhoff as Nightrider (in my breaks from being a timelord or a Jedi knight). As for how it happened, I didn’t even know it was happening at all until someone on twitter said they’d just watched it. At least, I knew the BBC had bought the broadcast rights for Jack’s Tractor, because I’d signed a contract six months earlier, but I’d since forgotten all about it.

 ·Let’s get out and about, I know that you do brilliant school visits, and most authors have a hell story and a heaven story about their school visits – can you share any of yours with us?

 My worst school visit was one of my first. I turned up at the school having verbally agreed to ‘visit a few classes’ over the course of the day, only to be given a schedule that had me spend half an hour with each of EIGHT classes of all key stages, with no time allowed to dash between them. When I finally reached the end of the day, a complete wreck, I was handed paintbrushes and some pots of unsuitable emulsion and asked to paint part of the school mural! I was young and stupid enough to say yes. I didn’t get home till after dark, having been kicked out by the school caretaker. Moral of the story: agree in advance, in detail, what you will and will NOT be prepared to do.

 ·Oh my word! Wise advice for all of us doing school visits! In the last few years you have been concentrating more on books for older children, kicking off with Dan and the Dead in 2012. Dan can see ghosts and speak to them, and in this very witty and entertaining story he helps ghosts sort out their problems. I am greatly drawn to your work because we share a fascination for ghosts. So what fascinates you about ghosts?

 I’ve never been attracted to the scary side of ghosts, partly because as a small child I got a bit freaked out by the idea of them. It was only later that I realised the link between ghosts and time travel – that ghosts were a possible point of contact between the present and the past. I’ve come to find that idea deeply fascinating. After all, if Hampton Court Palace really is haunted by Catherine Howard, being freaked out by her seems a terrible waste of a perfectly good spook to me. I’d rather hear what she has to say. Or scream… 

 ·I love that, and share that thought, imagine what you could ask her! I’d be too busy taking notes to be scared (unless it was particularly gory, or was trying to kill me – I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes down to it)
Your book for older readers – Haunters – is a thrilling adventure with wonderfully original concepts like dream-terrorism and the ability to time travel through dreams, more ghost-like episodes…. How different was it writing something so much darker? Is there another Haunters in the pipeline?

 Dan and the Dead was written using conventional ghost story material left over from writing early drafts of Haunters, which is in many ways an inverted ghost story. I found Haunters very difficult to write, not least because I wrote the first draft without doing any plotting at all! You don’t panster your way through a story that involves two changing interconnected time-lines, you just don’t. It took me years to straighten that tangle out and turn Haunters into the fast-paced thriller it is today. I’m very proud of the book now, but it nearly blew a fuse somewhere in my brain. I learnt a hell of a lot in the process though. As for a sequel, I have plotted out a second book called ‘Dreamers’, but I had another unrelated story by then, one that was calling much more loudly. I’ve written that now, but I don’t want to talk about it until I hear back from my editor. All I’ll say is, it has drawings in it. Oh, and only one timeline. 

 ·Speaking of drawings, I’m very excited to see that you are collaborating on a graphic novel project with Marcus Sedgwick. Scarlett Hart looks brilliant, and I’m really enjoying your blog where you share sneak peeks at the work in progress, the sketches so far are fantastic! Are you enjoying the process, and how different is it working on a graphic novel?

 This project is terrifying and exhilarating all at once. In many ways I’m coming home, since graphic story-telling is where I started as a teenager, and the world of comic books has always beckoned. I often think I should have gone into comics after art school instead of illustrating picture books. Either way, it’s taken me along time to find my way back there.

 As for the process, it feels like the classic ‘you write it, I’ll draw it’ relationship on one level, but Marcus and I are very much co-creators of Scarlett Hart. We just have our own domains, that’s all. He often suggests changes to the look of the book, and I feed through to him any narrative ideas I may have. Actually, it’s an especially fruitful relationship because I know about writing process myself, whilst Marcus draws very well, and understands the project visually. Anyway, we haven’t killed each other yet!

 ·OK, I’m afraid we can’t have an interview without asking you about THAT cover (in case you have been living in a cave, Thomas was the illustrator of the iconic first cover for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.) That must have been an exciting time for you, but what are your feelings on it all now the dust has settled?

 Harry Potter has cast a long and sometimes chilly shadow over my career. I try to keep my distance from it now. You can read more about my uneasy relationship with HP on my blog.

 ·Good response, and the post about it on your blog offers up a lot to think about for young illustrators. What advice would you give to young writers/illustrators starting out now? What should they look out for when starting out on this long creative road?

 Both writers and Illustrators need to practice their art all time. Writers should also be reading insatiably, while illustrators should be constantly looking at what’s new in their field. Neither should worry about style (as I did, endlessly). Your own personal style will develop out of practice and will be as unavoidable as growing up.

 ·So true, I think that finding your voice only happens when you stop straining to hear it.
So what next? When can we expect to see Scarlett, and is there more Dan in the pipeline?

 I’ll need most of 2014 to produce the art for Scarlett (gulp!). The publication date is some time off yet (and I’ve been told to keep it secret).

I’m writing the third Dan adventure right now, and will blog about it soon. I’m a bit coy about works in progress, I’m afraid, but I can tell you that in contrast to his subterranean brush with death in the catacombs of Paris (Dan and the Caverns of Bone), Dan will need a good head for heights in Dan and the Shard of Ice.   

 That sounds thrilling, and I’m trying not to speculate (spoilers!) Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed, I’m massively looking forward to Scarlett Hart and will be keeping an eye on your blog for more sneak peeks.

 Thank you, Dawn! And good luck with your own excellent writing and projects.

 Stop press….The new website for Scarlett Hart is under construction and you can follow the whole process for yourself here. It is up and running and added to all the time, so bookmark it for news along the way.

If you are looking for the definitive answer to the question of who is the mysterious wizard on the back cover of Philosopher’s Stone – easy, it’s here! Mystery solved.

 

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Why your child deserves a school librarian.

Dawn Finch, Vice President CILIP, YA author, school library and literacy consultant.
Follow @dawnafinch

With over a decade of UK school libraries under my belt, and as a YA author, it is easy for me to see why your child needs a school library with a trained professional to run it. I’ve seen first-hand the positive difference this makes not only to your child’s development in literacy, but also to their enjoyment of reading and their linguistic progression. It’s not just about stamping books out, it’s about understanding and nurturing your child’s reading, guiding them so that they can successfully navigate the maze of reading and emerge triumphant and in charge. So much more than Biff and Chip and struggling to the end of a scheme. It’s about becoming a lifelong reader and having something in your life that will change it for the better. That’s what school librarians do, and they do it because it’s their passion and it’s important to them. Your child deserves that person in their life.

You can read the research for yourself – try this survey from Australia that shows the impact school libraries have on children’s literacy.
Or maybe look at what’s being said in the House of Lords.
Or just some common sense from a writer who knows a thing or two about reading. Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency is well worth a watch.

But I know I don’t really need to convince parents that their child deserves a well stocked library run by a qualified librarian. You know it makes a positive difference to their education, and their lives.

Sadly it seems that increasingly the people we need to prove this to are head teachers and SLT members. As parents you need some evidence to prove your case and to get what your children deserve. So, when you are visiting schools to decide which one to commit to for your child’s future – take this leaflet with you. This explains exactly why your child deserves a good school library with a professional librarian. Download it here from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, print it and take it with you when visiting prospective schools. It will help you to see if the library you are being shown is a successful and supportive place, or just a room full of books. The leaflet will give you key points to look out for, and questions to ask. This way you can be sure that your child will be getting the support and materials that they require, and deserve.

This is not about a librarian banging on about her profession, it is about your child’s one shot at a brighter future. Their next school might make or break them, so why not expect the best? It is a simple fact that their literacy levels will be much higher if they have access to a real library. We’re not talking a room with books in – this is about real libraries run by professional people who have the right training for the job. This is a highly skilled profession, and your child deserves the right support from trained people. This is your child’s right to a better future, don’t stand for anything less.

A poster from the incredibly talented Sarah McIntyre says it all – a powerful search engine with a heart.

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