Wednesday, 23 March 2011

"Read this -- it's good for you..."

Michael Gove (British Secretary of State for Education) is getting a proper ribbing for his recent comment that ‘…our children should be reading fifty books a year’. Quite apart from the tragicomic illogicality of saying such a thing at a time of library cuts -- and indeed the absence of libraries in an increasing number of British
schools -- his call for ‘leading children’s authors’ to select titles isn’t going down too well either. Librarians are surely the true experts, as many authors themselves are pointing out.

What really worries me though is the nature of many of the books on any such list of fifty (why fifty?) titles children 'must read'. When grown-ups start waving classic works of children’s literature at their kids, you can almost hear the Angel of Literacy crinkling at the edges as she shrivels and dies.

As a boy of 12 or so, we started reading Treasure Island in English Class. The teacher read aloud for five minutes, then we took it in turns to stumble through Stevenson’s Victorian prose ourselves. There seemed to be a story in there somewhere, but all I could hear was a hesitant drone and the rustle of paper aeroplanes. When weeks turned to months, the teacher finally decided something had to be done. She held a vote and we elected to stop reading and do a mini project on democracy instead. Obviously we all loathed Treasure Island by then.

Years later, when writing my own seafaring tale, I read Treasure Island again (hoping to pinch Stevenson’s research). Needless to say it’s quite brilliant, and Long John Silver is one of the great villains of literature. But as a set text at school, blurted out from behind the hunched shoulders of the class bully, it didn’t stand a

Isn’t it time to abandon the concept of ‘children’s classics’ altogether, and accept that Stevenson, Ransome, Carroll, et al are best left for more mature readers? Let’s stop beating kids round the head with what they should read, and let them take their pick from modern writing, comics, flash fiction, anything that keeps them reading. This is meant to be a 'Golden Age of Children’s Writing,' after all. But it’s libraries, not lists, that could help it become a Golden Age of Reading too.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Don't Just Read About It...

It's now possible to help Japan without leaving the world of books and writing by bidding on the Authors For Japan site (created by Keris Stainton). Up for grabs are signed books, advance copies, original artwork and critiques. Why not go to the site now and rummage about? There's something for everyone, and every penny goes to help the real people behind the dramatic footage we've all been watching of the disaster that has struck Japan. I'm bidding. Will you?

Friday, 11 March 2011

Remembering Rosemary

This morning my former agent, Rosemary Canter, died at home. It wasn't exactly a surprise given that she had been suffering ill health for so long, but it's still a shock that I know I share with everyone who ever spent time with Rosemary. She was a towering figure in the world of children's books, the big league agent I often felt I didn't deserve, a grown-up and shrewd business woman blessed with a child's delight for story.
I met Rosemary through my tutor at art school, who was also one of her clients. I'd been muddling along as an un-agented illustrator for a couple of years, and with my first picture book text contracted I felt it was time to find representation. I had already been rejected by three agents, and frankly I didn't think Rosemary would be very impressed with me. For a start, I probably looked about twelve and my portfolio of samples was a shambles. She asked me about the kinds of things I was interested in and I remember making some goofy greenhorn comments. She was very patient and professional, and if she looked at her watch I didn't notice.
Towards the end of the interview, I told her I'd written a new picture book text and she asked me to tell it to her. I was caught off guard by this, but did my best to conjure up the unlikely tale of a badger who finds a chocolate biscuit only to lose it again through a daft scheme to multiply his good fortune. When I finished, Rosemary offered representation. She said later that the way I'd told the story made her feel like a little girl again. This is still one of the greatest compliments anyone has ever paid me. That text went on to be published as Ludwig and the Chocolate Biscuit Tree, and my decade as Rosemary's client began.
Rosemary stuck with me during some very lean and unproductive times, when another agent might have questioned my place on her list. She also had to ride to my rescue when my link to a certain boy wizard took on a complex and frankly quite scary legal dimension. Much later, when I met her over coffee to announce that I was working on a novel of my own (despite the fact that I'd never shown her any desire to do such a reckless thing in the past) she took it in her stride and told me to send it to her as soon as the first draft was ready. She took me seriously and that alone gave me enormous confidence.
Since then there have been ups (when she read that first draft she phoned to tell me that I had 'all the gifts' – glow!) and more than a few downs (such as her response to the first draft of my next attempt at a novel: 'perhaps there's something else you could be working on?' – cringe), but Rosemary stood by me regardless. Only yesterday I sent a revised picture book text back to my editor, a text that Rosemary enriched enormously with a few insightful comments. She was that kind of agent too.
Rosemary was last year succeeded at United Agents by the capable and tireless Jodie Marsh (I still feel like I have an agent I don't deserve!), though her loss will be no less keenly felt for that. It's a sad, sad day for a great many people, but right now I find I have only one thing left to say.
Rosemary, thank you.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

"Darling, Don't Tell the Children..."

The world of children's writing and publishing is dominated by adults. So much so, that I often cause shocked disbelief in people outside when I explain that actual, live children are rarely, if ever, involved in any aspect of it. Except of course as consumers, though even there adult readers have recently staged an invasion. Which is no bad thing, but still...

So where are the kids in all this? Well, one place they might be found now is this fantastic new Guardian site (actually a sub-section of Guardian Books, but what the hey?). It's a rare spot for young readers themselves -- still handed down by grown ups, but at least its heart is in the right place and real children and teens are involved. It's well worth digging through if you have an interest in writing for the young.

US agent Mary Kole recently posted about the ranks of adult gatekeepers that stand between writers and children. It sounds all wrong, doesn't it, but that's how it's done. So I was amused to read about Lucy Coats' recent World Book Night adventure. That's one way to reach readers directly, and all in a good cause too.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Next Big Thing

Following my last post, I thought I should have a stab at guessing what might be 'hotter than hot' in Kid-lit in the next few years. Not because I advocate writing anything other than the story you have to tell (trend-chasing is for losers, right?), but because precedent suggests it's bound to change the publishing landscape, whatever it is.

The web is surely the best place to hunt for nascent signs of tomorrow's 'Harry Twilight', and the opinions of readers are easy to find and always interesting. However, what people read now only tells us about the acquisitions climate of two or more years ago, which is more relevant to my last post than this one. The opinions of writers themselves are far more likely to take us toward the future, and those of agents even more so, but surely the nearest we can get to the publishing sensation of tomorrow is to look closely at what is exciting commissioning editors right now. Or at least at the things they have noticed are missing.

About two years ago the head of a British publishing house told me he believed 'young detectives' (think Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys/Secret Seven) were overdue for a comeback. Since then several editors have suggested to me that they feel the same way, and there certainly does seem to be a gap in the market. There have been close equivalents in the Young Bond series (and now Young Sherlock Holmes) and individual books (such as Siobhan Dowd's delightful London Eye Mystery) have been very successful. Character-driven mystery-tackling in its broadest sense is perennially popular (Artemis Fowl, Joshua Garcia, Alex Rider, etc), but where is the Red Hand Gang of the 21st Century? Either the 'group of crime-busting child/teen detectives in a short-text series' format has morphed into something else or it's been neglected. Few contemporary teenagers are going to want to read or watch Nancy Drew now, but is that because they don't want crime fiction of their own or is that because Nancy Drew is very dated and 70s cheesy (at least on the telly)?

The clichés and archetypes of the genre are well known: a dashing but flawed leader (with a dog), a nerd with specs who is the brainy one, and a fiery girl (probably with red hair) to stir things up and provide a dash of very tame sexual tension. Then the set-up needs a 'Something Else' that gives the kids an edge (a gift for disguises perhaps, or a rich uncle with 'access') while the writer must have a talent for slow-drip backstory and long term character development. Stir all this together and serve it up in a dozen or more plot-driven shorter novels, and watch the fan base grow and the film rights get optioned.

Or not. At the very least it's something to think about (minus the clichés, of course). But identifying a gap in the market is a long way from spotting The Next Big Thing, and as far as I can tell that publisher and those editors have yet to be proved right.

But what if the next hot intellectual property is already here? I've just finished reading I Am Number Four by James Frey and Jobie Hughes (under the name Pittacus Lore). The book -- soon to be a series and already a movie -- reads like a self-concious attempt to reboot a tried and trusted formula in order to generate a fresh publishing sensation. First wizards, then vampires, and now... aliens? Traditional Sci-Fi themes of the space western/Star Wars type are also conspicuously lacking in today's Kid-lit market place (I've long wondered why we don't have a modern teen take on Flash Gordon or Blake's Seven, and perhaps Nathan Bransford has too), but it could be that Pittacus Lore has found the right way to exploit them. Book one was published six months ago, and with five more planned someone somewhere is investing heavily in Aliens. Did I mention there's already a film?

So, er.. that'll be my conclusion then: the Next Big Thing in Children's publishing might well be super-powered alien heartthrobs who gang up to solve crime. Or it might be something else.

You heard it here first:)