The celebrification of children’s literature is not new but it reached what my mother-in-law used to call a “peak low” with the list of books announced as World Book Day giveaway titles for 2018.
When I say “peak low”, I don’t mean that it affects me negatively. I am no “embittered children’s author” – I’m doing fine, love what I do, don’t object to struggle or hard graft or even the vagaries of such a precarious job. (Though I do object to how hard it is to earn a living despite being successful, but that’s not what this is about for me, because I don’t actually think the job of WBD is to help me.) So, “peak low” not for me but the quest to boost children’s reading. As you’ll see. And that is what I care about.
You may think this is literary snobbery or celeb-bashing. No. I’m on record (way back from my days as a dyslexia expert) as believing that children should be allowed to read greedily, freely and without being judged for their pleasure-reading choices. And I have no problem with celebrities writing books if they write well or, if they have them ghosted, they credit their talented ghosts properly. I do wish they’d engage with us in our campaigns, though. Never once have I noticed a celebrity children’s author joining our campaigns for school libraries and the multifarious ways in which children’s authors regularly support the world of books. That’s a shame and a missed opportunity.
My problem is not with celebrity authors themselves. My problem is with this list.
Let’s look at it. You’ll see how the nature of the list fed so predictably the BBC’s news item, which is how pretty much every commentator is likely to frame WBD this year.
In fact, why not look at that report first? It’s telling.
Eleven books on the list. After falling into the “Here, have some sparkly names” trap and picking out the most recognisable celebs for the picture, the piece says, “McFly’s Tom Fletcher, children’s author Pamela Butchart and sports journalist Gerard Siggins are among the others writing titles…” So, only Pamela Butchart is an author? She is, by the way, a highly respected one, as is the joint creator of her book, unmentioned illustrator Thomas Flintham; ditto Kes Gray and Jim Field, who are not selected by the BBC for mention there; nor are Australian Andy Griffiths and his co-author Terry Denton. The non-authors (using the distinction made in that report) all get their few seconds of extra fame, though, so that’s OK.
What is wrong with this? Why can’t I just grin and bear it? Why do I care? Besides, what about the (pause to crank up the cliché-generator) “If it gets kids reading…” thing?
I have a few principles on which I try to judge situations, especially when I have my educationalist hat on. Here are three:
- Seek meritocracy
- Nurture a growth mindset
- Try to see the bigger picture
Often in this life, people don’t get what they deserve but it seems to me right, healthy and ultimately empowering that we should teach and model the notion that success achieved through commitment, passion and hours of determined practice is deserved. This is natural justice.
Nurture a growth mindset
A fixed mindset says “This is how I am; these are my talents or weaknesses; I will never achieve X because I don’t have those skills.” A growth mindset says, “I succeed at some things mainly because I’ve worked hard and applied myself; if I want to be better at X, I can work to develop the skills.” Thus: achievement through effort, applied practice, apprenticeship and grit. “It is hard-won and worth being proud of. It is mine because I won it, not because I was given it.” This is empowering and raises self-worth.
Try to see the bigger picture
The small picture is: “Ooh, starry names will get World Book Day lots of publicity.” Fair enough. The only slightly less small one is “And lots of children who don’t love reading will love that Celebrity X has written a book and might buy – sorry, accept it free.” That’s OK: a campaign needs publicity and celebrities help. I get that.
But what about the bigger picture? The bigger picture is huge.
1. It contains the message that celebrity status – success in one field – gives you success in other unrelated fields; that you don’t have to have the same skills and go through the same gates as everyone else; that it’s easier. And while it’s sadly often true, that way of being loses so much: real satisfaction, pride, core skills, growth mindset and the confidence that comes from knowing that you know what you know and that what you don’t know is out there for you to discover.
2. It tells children (and others) that creating children’s books is easy. Hey, someone can have a hectic, full-time, successful job as a something else and yet still be a top-rated children’s author!
3. It narrows the spotlight onto a tiny and highly unrepresentative range of books and authors, sucking attention and cash from the many to the few.
4. It advocates the expensive giving away of books and does so unnecessarily. For a start – and this is only one point – there are libraries stuffed with millions of books, out there for anyone, all free.
But here, for me, is the most important big picture point of all:
5. This list fails to show that children’s books are gloriously varied. There’s a bizarre sameness about the selection, as evidenced from the covers and blurbs. It caters only for readers who love humour. And many don’t. There’s no non-fiction; no non-wacky adventure; no historical fiction; nothing darkly gripping; no poetry; nothing for older children or teenagers; nothing for the reader I was as a child.
Some books are apples: refreshing, zingy, crisp, sweetly tangy, juicy, full of goodness.
Some books are onions: savoury, rich, adding flavour and depth to life, with layers that reveal more and more.
Some books are chocolate: sweet, indulgent, delicious, easy to enjoy, gone in a moment; tempting, too.
Many, of course, are a mixture. Apples and onions can be delicious and sweet, too. Chocolate can have layers. I don’t use those analogies as markers of judgment but to suggest the different pleasures we might each gain from different books at different times. As a child and as an adult, I’ve read and enjoyed chocolate aplenty but if I couldn’t have apples and onions I’d fall out of love with reading.
How many onions and apples are in that list? If I’d been given that list at a critical point in my own reading development, I’d have felt ignored, unrepresented, demeaned. It is a phenomenally narrow list. Despite the merits of some of the books and the skills of their creators, the narrowness of range is extraordinary and damaging in a big picture sense. Yes, it’s likely to appeal to lots of readers but it’s likely not to appeal to others. I know you can’t please everyone but…
… the crunch point is: it could have appealed to all! It didn’t need to be like this.
So, that’s why I’m so disappointed by 2018’s choices. World Book Day, what were you (not) thinking of? There you were with a mass of inspired and inspiring, expert, passionate school librarians and booksellers and teachers, and there you were with a wealth of professional, successful, knowledgeable children’s authors ready to travel the country singing the praises of your originally wonderful book-promoting, reading-raising campaign, and what did you do?
You fell prey to the stars before your eyes and were blinded to the vastness of the universe around you.
In the last two days, I’ve seen many librarians express their frustration at this (lack of) choice and say that, while they’ll still be supporting the day and the principle, because it’s about getting children reading, they won’t be supporting or using the celeb-driven £1 books. That’s how I feel. World Book Day is something I’ve always supported. But I can’t properly this year. Some might say that my not supporting it is an empty gesture – maybe. Yes, I’m just a small person shouting in the wind. I am sure and genuinely hope the day will be a huge and noisy success but I’m sad that that noise will unnecessarily hide the wonderful work done by librarians and authors of all sorts for readers of all sorts.
In fact, I’ll go a step further, so that it isn’t an empty gesture and so that I can turn my dismay to something positive: in all my events and any social media activity around that time I will hold that list up as a perfect example of failure to recognise the range and brilliance of modern children’s books. I’ll widen the spotlight lens.
Let’s not lower aspirations or narrow the range of books for children. Let’s do the opposite. Let’s show what’s really out there when you stop being starry-eyed.