Friday, 6 March 2009

A Lorra Lorra Laureates - Charlie Butler


One of the most interesting innovations within children’s literature in Britain in the last decade has been the introduction of the post of Children’s Laureate. The idea, I understand, was hatched in a conversation between Michael Morpurgo and Ted Hughes, then Poet Laureate (and a fine children’s writer to boot). The role of the Poet Laureate, who is appointed by the monarch, goes back a little further, to the reign of Charles II and John Dryden – or possibly Charles I and Ben Jonson, depending how you count it. Jonson, typically, arranged to be paid with a butt of sherry (that’s 700 bottles!), and this tradition continues today. No such luck for the Children’s Laureate – though there’s a useful cheque that goes with the job. And – well, at least the Children’s Laureate isn’t required to praise the efforts of the latest member of the royal family who thinks that writing a picture book is Easy, or to write mellifluous verses on the occasion of some blue-blooded sprog’s first day at school. Humility has its advantages.
The Children’s Laureate post rotates biennially, and there have been five so far: Quentin Blake (1999-2001), Anne Fine (2001-2003), Michael Morpurgo (2003-2005), Jacqueline Wilson (2005-7) and Michael Rosen (2007-2009). I think that represents a pretty good mix of genres and age ranges, though they’ve each approached the job quite differently. But what is that job? Mostly, I think, to keep the profile of children’s books as high as possible, in a world where they’re often neglected or seen as something ‘less’ than books for adults, where the National Curriculum has led to a culture of teaching snippets rather than whole books, where libraries are a soft target in any round of spending cuts, and where children face a range of alternative digital allurements. That sounds very negative, but it’s not all a rearguard action. The Laureate should also be a positive example of what it means to be a children’s writer, and all the holders so far have a great track record of producing books that are both popular with children and highly respected by their peers. Ambassadorship, campaigning and getting your views across are all important, but personally I hope that whoever gets the job this time round won’t stop writing for the duration.
Why am I writing about this? No, no – I’m not on the shortlist, don’t worry! But I do have the honour of being one of the panel that will choose the next Laureate, from a shortlist supplied by children and adults across the country. Right now I’m reading furiously (and delightedly), and in due course I’ll be travelling to a Secret Location for the meeting. I believe the announcement won’t be made officially until June, so there will be a period of bursting-to-say ahead of me, for we panellists have sworn an oath of secrecy. For the one who gabs, the Big Red Scissor Man awaits.
Wish me luck, ABBA readers!

9 comments:

Nick Green said...

That'll be three months then of fellow authors getting you very drunk and then shouting 'Who's the Laureate?' when you least expect it. Makes up for not having a butt of sack, I suppose.

Charlie Butler said...

I have my drunken answer ready: "Who's de Laureate? Isn't he the guy who designed the car in Back to the Future....?"

Ms. Yingling said...

Here in the US we have a "National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature". The Library of Congress chooses, and while Jon Scieszka is a wonderful choice, your process sounds more fun!

Charlie Butler said...

Well, I hope it will be fun. Thanks for dropping by!

Sherwood said...

Wow, how cool is that?

Lee said...

This sounds a fine honour indeed, Charlie. I hope you won't mind my little whimper at 'children face a range of alternative digital allurements.' Some of those allurements may turn out to be the literature of the future!

Charlie Butler said...

Very cool, Sherwood - I'm chuffed!

You're quite right, Lee! I didn't mean to imply that literature couldn't come in digital form, as it clearly can and does.

bookwitch said...

Can you be bribed?

Charlie Butler said...

Unfortunately not, but you're still very welcome to try!