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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm already composing my questions.