Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Future of Children's Reading - Ellen Renner

The first week of November the University of Exeter is holding a children's literature festival, EXEtreme Imagination. Well known authors, including Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen, Beverly Naidoo, Mal Peet, Julie Hearne, Tim Bowler and Helen Dunmore will be giving talks and going into schools and libraries to meet Devon children. As a local writer, I'll also be taking part: going into schools and launching my second book, City of Thieves, at the end of the festival.

More and more frequently, I'm hearing other children's writers questioning whether or not festivals and school visits are a productive use of their time. Especially as they often don't get paid for festivals and because, in the current economic climate, fewer schools are able to afford the SOA rates for author visits. For many authors, income from school visits has traditionally formed a large part of their income so it's a serious concern. Although I can readily understand the frustration underlying these sorts of comments, I'd like to offer another point to consider.

The one thing that children's writers need is readers. And so it seems logical to me that promoting children's love of reading should be one of our primary concerns. If not for altruistic reasons, then purely out of self interest. Because no one should take it for granted that readers will always be out there.

Nine months into my own career as a published children's author, I feel at least nine years older and wiser. Because the times, they are a-changing. Established children's writers, whose careers began twenty, ten or even five years ago, entered a totally different world. The abandonment of the net book agreement and the predictable changes to the industry that have followed -- combined with difficult economic times and rapid technological change that may fundamentally alter the way books are made and sold -- mean that the situation for writers is almost certainly going to get worse, at least in the short term.

It would take a disposition cast in stainless steel not to be affected by the prognostications of doom and gloom flooding the world of children's books: the death of the book; the declining literacy of children; the closing of libraries; and possibly scariest of all, the increasing evidence that the very way we use the internet is changing the structure of our brains and the way we read. Novels may soon be a thing of the past as both children and adults become incapable of sustaining the concentration required to read one.

So, faced with the increasing difficulty in earning a living through writing alone, and the fact that our profession may soon no longer be either required nor desired by society, what is a children's writer to do? Some campaign for libraries, some blog, all of us try to write the best books we can, most of us do a certain amount of moaning and a whole lot of worrying.

The only thing I, personally, can think to do, is to go into local schools. I don't view school visits primarily as a way to supplement my income or even as a self-promotional tool -- book sales are largely insignificant. I view them as a form of outreach. I have had children buy a book who have never owned one before. They might even read it. Children need to meet writers. They need contact with adults whose job is playing pretend on paper, and who can get across to them how much fun reading and writing can be.

Story is fundamental. Along with music, dance and making images, humans need story-telling. These days they get it through lots of different media: TV, film, gaming, the internet. Books are a relatively new invention in the world of story and, after a few centuries, they may already be dying out. I hope not: I love books. But story will continue, in some form.

But whatever the fate of the book, and whether children read a paper book or read on a screen, it's vital that they read. They need stories: good ones. The ability to read well is one of the greatest gifts a child can be given. Stories have the ability to unlock whole worlds inside a child's mind, opening them to new ideas and experiences. That is quite enough reason in itself, but reading is also the key to social mobility, to aspiration, to achievement.

Children who read do well at school. Those who struggle to read often struggle through life. Getting children reading, and keeping them reading, is incredibly important to them as individuals and to society. For lucky children, it starts in the home, with parents reading to their babies and toddlers. It carries on in schools, where enlightened primary teachers read daily to their students. As writers, our job is to write stories that are good enough. Stories that make readers turn the pages.

The Exeter festival opens with a paneled debate: After Hogwarts: What is the Future for Children's Reading and Writing? The debate will take place on the evening of Wednesday the 27th of October. Members of the panel include Sara Davies, Executive Producer at BBC Bristol, Julia Eccleshare, Children's Editor at the Guardian, and Professor Debbie Myhill, Acting Dean of the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at Exeter, and Samantha Shipman from Liverpool's Reader Organisation.

If you would like to attend, or if you have a question you'd like to send in advance to the panel, please contact Pete Hodges at p.j.m.hodges@exeter.ac.uk.

I'm already composing my questions.


Miriam Halahmy said...

Hard though it is to earn a living at this profession, I fully agree with you Ellen and will continue to participate in events, where and when I can, to promote reading and of course, my books. Yesterday I did an event with a group that raise thousands every year for charity. I was not paid. They were a great audience, bought all the books I took with me and then I donated ten quid out of the dibbings to their charitable work. Whatever, events like this will not pay my mortgage. But not doing them won't achieve that either. And now fifteen more people are reading a novel which I wrote and published quite a few years ago. Good luck with the new book and I'll see you in November and get my signed copy!!

Tam said...

Absolutely agree. Besides any of this, school visits are immense fun - I write funny books and to hear the sound of children giggling away at the story of how I came to write my books is one of the best parts of the job. Get out there and be inspirational - it goes with the territory.

Nick Cross said...

I couldn't be in more agreement here. My attention span has become quite poor in recent years and I (yes, a writer), can struggle to read a book from time to time.

I do think we need to be open to new and developing forms of storytelling. I love the novel, but who's to say we can't find equally exciting ways to tell stories in other media?

beccabrown said...

What an amazing post! I can't comment from the same perspective as these other guys, being very new to the world of writing, but I do feel passionately about children's reading! My son & baby daughter have had books and stories since their first days; and now my 3 year old son is taking his first tiny steps into reading, it's so exciting!

It's this excitement, and the thrill I have always got from reading, that makes me want to write for children. One day my book could be someone's first story and start them on the same adventure.

Thanks for a very inspiring post.

Leslie Wilson said...

Ellen, the evidence that people's brains are being altered by the Internet is a bit dodgy, so take heart! (I read a review of it in the New Scientist) I find, also, when I go into schools, that kids will listen to me for half an hour, and then listen to quite extensive answers to (rather intelligent) questions from them. This without visual aids for the most part, indeed, I find powerpoint rather puts them off so I've stopped using it.
But - every time I go, I remember what my husband said to me once: 'If you'd had a chance to meet an author at school, wouldn't you have been hugely excited?' I feel these are the audience, and it's great to be able to meet them and show them that I take them seriously. I agree that it's well worth doing.

verilion said...

As a primary teacher and trying to be a writer, I sometimes get more excited than the kids when we have author visits. Please do keep them up. A good author visit instantly improves what the kids write as well as influences what the kids read.

Jan Markley said...

Kids do benefit from meeting authors. It inspires them to write, read, and it reinforces what the teachers teach them about writing.

Sue Purkiss said...

Have tried to find out more about the Exeter Festival, but it's not easy! I googled it, and didn't come up with any direct link, only links via other pages. The best I could find was a page that highlighted some events, but didn't have a programme listing everything. I went to 'booking' and it blithely said that there was no central booking system - you had to contact the organiser for each event. I can't get to the one you mention, but maybe able to make some of the others. I'm probably just being dense - but is there an easier way, do you know?

Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Excellent post, Ellen and I totally agree. I would say this - storytelling is where it starts and ends and it's in that that the book had it's birth and became a prime means of delivering stories. I worry sometimes that as writers we do sometimes get too hung up on the book as the means and I think it needs to be viewed in context. But, I think going into schools, encouraging a love of stories and reading in children is an obvious step to take if we want to keep the creative fires in chilren and in us burning.

Lucy Coats said...

I commented before, but think Blogger must have eaten it! I too think this is a good and timely post, Ellen, and the Guardian obviously agrees with you, calling authors who do school visits the 'road warriors of children's literature' (I LIKE being a road warrior!) School visits don't always sell books (though they can)--what matters to me more is to see enthused and enthusiastic children who go away talking about what they've heard. It's definitely part of the job description for a children's author now. I know it is hard for schools to come up with the money to pay for an author visit in this climate--but I do think we provide value in many more lasting ways than are necessarily recognised.