Tuesday 26 April 2011

The Noble Art of Laureateship - Lucy Coats

Last week it was announced that there would be a change of name for the role of children's book champion--the new incumbent (to be announced in June) will now be known as the Waterstone's Children's Laureate.  I'm not really sure how I feel about this.  We do live in a world of sponsored literary prizes--the Costa Book Awards spring to mind, as does the Man Booker.  But doesn't putting a commercial logo on a post such as that of a laureate diminish its effectiveness and raise doubts as to its future impartiality? 

The children's laureate should be, above all, an ambassador for children's books.  Each of the six holders of the post so far has highlighted different areas of concern--the latest, Anthony Browne, has concentrated his two years on showing the vital part illustrators and picture books in general play in the education of children.  But is a chain-bookstore branded ambassador going to be welcomed by, forinstance,  independent booksellers?  Kate Agnew, (of the indie Children's Bookshop in Muswell Hill) has warned that the laureateship might be marginalised by such a move. "It could be seen as a trade thing rather than as an ambassadorial role," she said to The Bookseller last week. That, I feel, would be very a very unfortunate outcome indeed.

But we do live in a world of financial cuts.  The current government grant for the laureateship has been halved and compromises have had to be made. Waterstone's have been major supporters of the laureateship ever since its inception, and the new branding is 'payback' for their loyalty in a time when every penny spent by a company has to show a result.  They themselves say that they will be 'upweighting' (a word I have never seen used before, but still...) their activities around the role, and will promote heavily.  Indies will get a 'non-Waterstone's logo to use.  In principle it could all work out just fine. 

I do think though, that the new Children's Laureate (sorry, I mean WCL), will have to be very strong-minded--and be prepared to fight their corner and not be pushed around.  More than ever now, we need someone highly visible and vocal to stand up and speak for children's books, for libraries and school libraries, for reading in general--and against the cultural policies of the Government of the day if necessary.  I hope the Children's Laureate Steering Group will bear this in mind when they are making their choice--and I trust that Waterstone's will give our new champion--whoever he or she is--all the support they need and deserve, free of any strings or caveats.

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adele said...

Agree with much of what you say, Lucy, but as well as AMBASSADORIAL the post is an HONOUR which ought to be awarded for LITERARY/ARTISTIC merit. I'm afraid that commercial considerations might enter into the decision rather more than they have up to now. Who knows? But the really interesting question is: WHITHER WATERSTONE'S and what happens to the Laureateship if it goes to the wall? We must all hope that doesn't happen for all sorts of reasons..,

Katherine Langrish said...

Golly, I missed this. And who decides? Who has had the power to agree to a corporate semi-takeover like this, I wonder?

Lucy Coats said...

Yes, Adele--I should have said that. It is indeed an honour as well. And you're quite right to ask the question about whither Waterstone's too. I hoped someone might--I think we do need to have this discussion.

Kath--I think the 'powers that be' on the committee hadn't much choice but to agree, given the financial constraints they are now under.

Anne said...

I think the laureat 'role' has always been a kind of honor role. Given for works done so to speak. The fact that one or two of them used it as a platform was, I think, a plus. I fear though that the 'laureatship' is not really a kind of 'champion' of children's lit and all issues relating to it. WE ACTUALLY need someone whose role is to be a spokeperson for us and I don't think we have it and I don't think we can expect it of the 'laureat' who's been given this honour for their work.
How do we get such a SPOKESPERSON? That's the question.

Leila said...

I share your reservations, Lucy. The laureateship for adult poetry was always an honour, it would be odd to have a corporate sponsor for it. The children's laureateship has so far been given to authors who have a strong body of work of literary merit behind them and have got to the prize-winning stage of their career. But Waterstone's doesn't deal in bodies of work, they deal in the brand new, and good books go O/P because Waterstone's won't stock and promote them. If they sponsor the laureateship and several of the laureate's books are O/P, for example (which would be quite normal, look at Doris Lessing just before she won the Nobel), that would make no sense.
And yes - whither Waterstone's? Very good question. How come they have cash to flash on this kind of thing anyway? And how much longer will they have it?

Cathy Butler said...

A very worrying move. What if the laureate wants to make a big issue of supporting independent bookshops, or public libraries? Will they be allowed to do so? Will Waterstone's be given the inside track on supporting the laureate's books? On hosting the events that are part of the laureate's commitment?

And how come the Poet Laureate isn't also being rebranded? I quite like the sound of the "Bloodaxe Poet Laureate" - to be remunerated in the traditional manner, with two crates of Diet Coke and a slap-up meal at Nando's.

Unknown said...

oh dear, oh dear - it doesn't sit well, does it, Lucy? But did we notice that Waterstones were the sole sponsors of the 2009-11 Children's Laureate award?

Anne, I agree, perhaps we should go back to the BookTrust for a SPOKESPERSON?

Keren David said...

One way to get a spokesman would be to elect a chairman of the SAS - not to boss us around, but to be a trusted representative for contact with the media.

adele said...

I read today that Wstone's may be safe in the arms of Tim Wstone and a Russian Oligarch who loves books. Good for them if so...would hate to lose the chain.