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!