Thursday, 14 March 2013

Easy as ABC by Tony Bradman


When I first became involved in the world of children’s books, way back in the early 1980s, I found myself in the middle of a great controversy. On one side were the proponents of a theory that said the ‘reading schemes’ used in schools to teach children how to read were too dull, too limited, and that kids should be exposed to plenty of what were called ‘real books’ – ie, the kind of books that were written and illustrated outside of educational publishers. On the other side were those who said that kids (and teachers) needed some kind of structure when it came to the difficult business of learning to read. As a parent of school-age children I wasn’t at all surprised by the sound and fury this debate generated – we all worry about our children and literacy is a very sensitive issue. Of course there’s a political aspect to this – at that time the opposing camps tended to fall into Left-leaning (anti-reading schemes) and Right-Leaning (pro-reading-schemes), although things weren’t always that clear-cut. Indeed, I count myself as a liberal leftie, but I could see that a structured reading scheme might be a real boon to some teachers and kids. I could also see at the time that most reading schemes were pretty dull. If only they were as good as the great books that were being produced by writers and illustrators outside the reading schemes...

Then an interesting thing happened. During the 1980s the mainstream ‘trade’ publishers saw an opportunity, a gap in the market for the provision of bright, funny, contemporary books aimed at children who were learning to read – the ‘5-8’ market. Suddenly they all seemed to be devising series for that age range, and encouraging writers of older fiction to try writing for younger children, and picture book authors to go in the opposite direction. The big new chains of bookshops – Waterstones, Ottakars, Borders – suddenly all had special sections for 5-8 books, and some of us made what felt like a whole career out of writing this sort of young fiction. I know I did – I made my name in that market, particularly with Dilly the Dinosaur. Meanwhile, educational publishers seemed to realise that they needed to raise their game, and set about asking ‘trade’ authors to write for reading schemes. They worked hard at making those schemes more exciting too, both in terms of the kind of stories they included, and the way the books looked. Of course reading schemes did still have to work under many constraints trade publishers could ignore – limited vocabulary, levelling, concerns about what kind of material schools would or wouldn’t take – but for a while it looked as if the two streams of children’s publishing might be coming together to make a powerful river.

Then another interesting thing happened, as it tends to do in the world of books – Harry Potter arrived and changed everything. The rise of big-ticket, movie-franchise children’s fiction meant that publishers’ attention was drawn increasingly to that area and the huge revenue it could generate, to the detriment of books for younger children. For a while it looked as if picture books were doomed. They had flowered in the 1980s too, but by the late 1990s fewer and fewer were being published. That trend seems to have slowed down (thanks to Julia Donaldson and a few others!), and although anyone who works in the picture book field will tell you it’s still not easy, it’s better than it was. The same happened to trade books for 5-8s. Suddenly it seemed as if trade publishers were pulling out of that market as fast as they could. Series for 5-8s came to a juddering halt, books went out of print, and anyone who had relied on that market to make a living found themselves struggling. None of this was helped by the rise of digital publishing and online bookselling, and the corresponding decline of High Street bookshops, either the chains or independents. It’s easier to sell older fiction online, and the same might be said of picture books. Books for 5-8s are a much harder sell – and increasingly there are fewer anyway.

To a large extent this means that mainstream publishers have pretty much abandoned the field of books for the 5-8s to the educational publishers. There are a few exceptions – Egmont still keep their Banana books going (self-promotion alert: I’ve written quite a few for them!), but their design does help to make them look a little educational. Educational publishers have also continued to raise their game, and many of their books really are very good indeed. That’s why many people who did write for trade publishers are now happy to write for reading schemes (another self-promotion alert: I’ve written loads for OUP, particularly for the amazing Project X series). There’s also a sense in a lot of reading scheme publishing that the books have to be more than just ways of teaching kids how to ‘de-code’ words on the page. They need to be stimulating and engaging and make kids feel that reading is fun.

Even so, I can’t help feeling that it’s not good for the future of our business – and for the future of children’s reading – to have trade publishers fixated on the glamour of big advances and large marketing budgets. I have a feeling that some publishers themselves might be disappointed with the returns on a lot of Young Adult/Teen/Crossover fiction that they paid a lot for. I know that several times in the last year I’ve heard agents and editors say that ‘the real gap’ is in books for younger children, that we need some great stories for beginner and young readers. Plus ça change, you might say, and you’d be right. It has to be that way, though – for how can we create the readers of the future if we don’t offer them a bridge from picture books to older fiction? However good modern reading schemes are, we need trade publishers to do their bit as well. This isn’t rocket science, after all – it’s as easy as ABC...

14 comments:

Sue Purkiss said...

This is a really helpful and interesting overview of books for 5-8s, Tony - thank you. I started writing for children just as the first HP came out, so didn't know all this background. I have a grandson who is six, and am at present a bit bemused over what books to buy for him. He still loves picture books, which is fine: he's not a reader yet, so is certainly not ready for 7-10 books - and there really does seem to be a gap. There are series, but there's not a variety of choices. Well, certainly not when you go and look in the bookshops.

So thanks for this - very thought provoking!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this - interesting stuff.

Penny Dolan said...

Well said, Tony. A post that needed writing - and reading!

The young newly independent reader is eager and wants lots of stories, especially interesting stories.

I've seen, with children I know, how this particular book appeals and that one doesn't. I've also seen how badly designed books and wodges of meand and tiny text can put them off trying excellent stories. So hooray for the current educational publishers who seem able to think beyond the set reading scheme.

Kids needs lots of books at about one level - not one style or voice, note. What makes me sad is that "You read that well and enjoyed it. Let's move you to a harder book straight way" tendency.

Oh, how I hate that word "stretch" used to describe reading!

caroljchristie said...

You are so right! It drives me absolutely nuts. In every bookshop there are hundreds of picture books and books for 8-12s and yound adults, and then a tiny little section, largely populated by the same old series for 5-8s. What is a newly confident reader supposed to do? Hang around waiting for several years till they are mature and/or confident enough to read books aimed at older children? It's madness. Interestingly, something similar happens with children's clothes - after the age of ten there's not much out there unless you are big enough to fit into the smaller adult sizes.

bookauhubooknook said...

I've found the same thing - I try to review books for all ages equally, but it's so much easier at the moment to review picturebooks, 9-12 and YA books than it is to find a really good 5-8 year old book (your books excluded of course :) ). Very few have come under the radar recently and maybe it's just me looking in the wrong direction, but considering how many publishers blogs I follow surely I should have noticed if there were some amazing 5-8 books out there?!

All I ever see are the reading schemes and then Beast Quest or Rainbow Magic, which are all very well and good, but they shouldn't be the only easily available stepping stones between a reader who's just started decoding and 9-12 fiction.

You're right - more emphasis should be given to the young reader section and help build them up for all those lovely 9-12 and YA books that have come out in the last few years.

Emma Barnes said...

Great post, Tony. I've long felt that the Americans attach a lot more importance to this sector than the UK - at any rate, there seem to be lots of great American books for beginner readers, whether classics like Seuss, Arnold Lobel and Amelia Bedelia, or newer series like the wonderful Mercy Watson books by Kate di Camillo. They also seem to have an established format there of three highly illustrated stories making up one book, perfect for moving on from picture books - I have examples by Laura Kvanovsky (Zelda and Ivy), Sandra Boynton and Rosemary Wells, for example.

And these books are also fun to read for both adults and children, which means that the "reading together" experience continues beyond picture books. In the UK with this stage of book the adult experience is neglected, I think. Here, lots of children move on straight from picture books to Rainbow Fairies or similar, and while the Rainbow Fairies certainly have their place - and are hugely enjoyed by child readers - they don't offer much to the poor adult reading them aloud.

Wish this sector would grow - it's a stage I'd love to write for!

Emma Barnes said...

Should add that, I do write for the upper end of this age-group myself - my books Wolfie and How (Not) to Make Bad Children Good are read by children 7+ and their parents. It's a real Cinderella sector - relatively neglected compared to YA and picture books - but it's the beginner readers who are most neglected, I think.

adele said...

Excellent post! Am going to tweet it...Does anyone remember the LONGMANS BOOK PROJECT? Lots and lots of marvellous writers in a learning to read scheme. But doing what THEY wanted to do. I wish books like the old Gazelles still existed...I'm old enough to remember those and loved writing for them.

Karen said...

Great post, Tony,I started writing in the mid-eighties too and agree that this age group seems to be a bit neglected in the current market.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Great post. My kids learnt to read in the 80s in the 'real books' movement and I think it has its pros and cons. But my daughter devoured every single Dilly book and still says 'oh Dilly' and your name in a breathless voice when I mention you!!

Elli Jacques said...

Like Sue, I am searching for books for my five and a half year-old grandson. He's not an independent reader, but needs more story than picture books can provide, but still wants pictures on every page. It's a nightmare trying to get hold of them! Now I know why. It's a pretty good rebuttal of 'the market provides.'. However, I am just about to order Dilly the Dinosaur, along with some other books suggested by my writing colleagues - from the local bookshop, I am happy to be able to say.

Jane Clarke said...

Thanks for highlighting this gap, Tony.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Tony for this post.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Very interesting. A huge subject. Right now, I'm experiencing this situation first-hand as my five-year-old learns to read.