Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Picture Book Problem

I have my suspicions that no one is actually reading this, so it's probably time to be slightly controversial, just to test the water . . .

Our fine industry's attitude to picture books has really been grinding my gears of late.

This year's CILIP Kate Greenaway shortlist was a triumph of diversity and eclectics. I refuse to be written off as biased as I am talking about the shortlist, and not the winner (which was obviously brilliant!). The truth is the shortlist reflected every aspect of what is brilliant and creative and dynamic about illustrated books for children produced in the UK. I was particularly pleased to see The Savage and Varmints on the list, as it proved that the judges were acknowledging the importance of books with pictures for older readers. There is no doubt in my mind that you are NEVER too old to enjoy a picture book, and it was fantastic to see this recognised by this prestigious award.

What a shame it was then to see the award overshadowed to such a great extent. Prior to the announcement I was warned by the CKG PR team that it is always a struggle to secure anywhere near as much coverage for the Greenaway as for the Carnegie. Don't get me wrong, I thought it was wonderful to see Siobhan Dowd recognised posthumously for her wonderful book Bog Child and if I'm honest, I don't think even this achieved the coverage it deserved (publisher David Fickling's assertion that " . . . the name of the Carnegie winner should be on everybody's lips, on every front page . . . " was sadly not realised), but it was a real shame to find everywhere the awards were mentioned, the Greenaway winner was something of an after thought. An 'also presented at the same ceremony . . . ' much as the award for Best Make-up is flashed as a time filler on the Academy Award coverage. 

We were fortunate to have some fantastic support from the Scottish press, Catherine being an adopted Scot since taking up permanent residence in Edinburgh, but the coverage in the national press and even The Bookseller was woefully lacking. 

I suppose the problem is the turnover of young readers is much higher than in adults. That is to say, children's interests and reading levels develop at a phenomenal rate. A book which maybe 'suitable' for a five year-old will rapidly be outgrown and new five year-olds will arrive to discover the book afresh (not to mention the fact they will happily listen to the same book over and over). Within the adult readership people are likely to spend fifty years reading their way through the literary ether therefore, I suppose, it is necessary to have a larger number of titles for them to choose from. However, I think it is a big mistake to write kids off as less discerning, and to therefore give them fewer options. It is little wonder that so many parents/teachers have trouble encouraging readers when kids are often given an incredibly limited and uninspiring selection of books to choose from. It seems that publishers, booksellers and buyers are going for the 'easy sell'. My worry is that playing it safe is likely to produce a generation of 'safe' readers. We have a responsibility to readers of this age to stimulate them as much as possible, not to mention give them the opportunity and appropriate support to make their own choices about what they read, rather than spoon-feeding them from a nice, safe, baby-sized selection.

I was glad to see Klaus Flugge's letter to The Bookseller regarding Kate Skipper's limited selection in The Bookseller's picture book supplement, but it seemed to me a little misdirected. Although it is a crying shame that we struggle to sell hardback picture books to the general trade, what bothered me more was the obviousness of her choices. I have no doubt that Kate reached her position by demonstrating commercial nous and a passion for picture books, but I can't help but feel that any randomly selected non-children's specialist from one of the chain's stores could have told us that Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler's latest (two!) offerings will be among the biggest sellers of the season. I know it's wrong to look a gift horse in the mouth, and I was pleased to see two of our titles featured, but both books are the next instalments in already high performing series. It would have been far more enlightening and invigorating to have been given a sneak peak at some of the exciting new treats which I know we all have in store.

Also, even more worryingly, the supplement itself lost its stand alone status and got relegated to the centrefold of the magazine. Now I'm not actually going to blame The Bookseller for this. I am going to take a wild stab at it and guess that this was down to a lack of funds i.e. a drop in advertising. I had booked a half page advert but got bumped up to the full front cover of the supplement. Clearly publishers themselves are being reticent about investing in the promotion of picture books. This troubles me . . . 

Respect should be paid to Booktrust for the valiant efforts of The Big Picture campaign. Along with then Children's Laureate Michael Rosen, they launched an offensive to 'put picture books firmly in the public eye'. Unfortunately the public seems to have been keeping their eyes firmly shut, as the initial dream doesn't seem to have quite been realised. Thank god, then, for the fact that Anthony Browne has been installed as the new Children's Laureate. Anthony was heavily involved with 2008's Big Picture campaign, taking up the helm on the judging panel for the Best New Illustrators Award. I only hope Anthony takes up Michael's well-worn mantel and runs with it, as this campaign really hasn't hit its peak . . . yet. We're proud to be adding Little Tiger's name to the gaggle of children's publishers sponsoring the Children's Laureate post and I hope that through commitment and hard work, together we will all be able to solve the picture book problem. After all, today's picture book readers could be tomorrows Booker Prize winners . . . or reality TV stars. What's it gonna be?

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