We know that the picture book is in difficulty. And by that we mean that because sales are down, it follows that publishers will take fewer risks, and the creative potential, room for experiment by both established book-makers as well as newcomers declines. It goes without saying that the health of any art form depends both on the continuance of traditional features intermingled with the arrival of the new.
Now, anything that takes place in the world of children’s books, never takes place in isolation. For those of us who work within its frameworks, or indeed for those of us who study children’s literature, it’s very easy to be seduced by the idea that children’s books simply breed more children’s books, and don’t depend on some vitally important institutions that reach right into the children’s book world. So, rather obviously, the publishing of children’s books goes on within the world of publishing as a whole and that in turn depends very much on the rates of profit in national and multinational companies. You’ll be relieved to know I’m not today going to attempt to trace the links between the difficulties faced by children’s books and what’s going on in Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange.
No, it’s the effect of another institution that children’s books interrelates with, that I want to look at: education. In truth, children’s books have never been entirely independent of education. Whether it was the reading of cheap ballads and chapbooks, or the forbidding verses and admonishments of the Puritans, even at its outset, children’s literature needed readers and readers were mostly taught by teachers in schools. No teachers, no books. Interestingly, many of those early teachers and schools were themselves very strongly influenced by the Puritan tradition too. Schooling and book-making were very closely related, though it would be also quite true to say that the scurrilous and sensational and fantastical chap books came from a much more underground, carnivalesque, extra-mural tradition as we see when Shakespeare satirizes the street trade of ballads when Autolycus turns up and sells them in ‘The Winter’s Tale.’
Over the following two hundred years or so, as a children’s book market emerges, we know that it relies on the growth of an educated literate class with time to sit with children and read to them and with them – or, in the case of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, in the 1790s, say, to write books specifically for the children in their care. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, just as the Puritans get a second wind, and produce hundreds of little, improving, moral books in the style and format of the street literature they wanted to exile from children’s lives, the enterprising John Harris, writing, printing and publishing in London, realises that even the cautious, morally minded middle classes can enjoy unalloyed fantasy. Books, seemingly very little to do with what was understood then to be education, started to appear. At this very moment, we can celebrate the 200th anniversary of the appearance as a kind of picture book of that morally dubious, little guy versus big guy, decidedly un-didactic tale, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’.
But again, of course, the formula remains: no teachers, no books.
However, we have to wait some time, before schools become places that want and buy books produced for that open family market. When you look at say, the sales figures of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, you can’t help but think that this seminal book was in fact read by remarkably few people, and almost certainly outside of school. Quite right! After all it satirised certain aspects of education anyway.
And coming forward to my own classroom in the fairly prosperous suburb of Pinner in the years of 1949-57, I can tell you for certain that my book-loving parents gave me and my brother more books than were ever to be seen in our classrooms. Of course, there were readers, encylopedias and hundreds of various kinds of books full of exercises, questions, tests and the like. What there wasn’t, were story books, poetry books, picture books produced for that open market. We didn’t even have a school library. There was a warm, cosy, squeaky linoleum public library by the bridge where I remember reading the Mary Poppins picture books, but it took enterprising parents like mine, to bring, say, Puffin Picture books into our lives. Teachers read to us from books that they seemed to own themselves and we could sometimes step up to their desks and take a look at them. The children’s book market didn’t rely on schools as an important means by which they survived.
Something changed in my lifetime and schools did indeed become places full of books, with whole school and class libraries, school bookshops sprang up and parents were actively encouraged to go into their local libraries and borrow books, and indeed to go into a bookshop and buy books for their children too.
Now, let’s take a break from this historical rundown and I want you to picture a scene from now.
We are in a school that has come in for a bit of a beating from Ofsted. Never mind the reasons but a set of what are called ‘measures’ are being put in place. Words like ‘targets’, ‘delivery’, ‘monitoring’, ‘expectation’, ‘outcome’ and ‘agenda’ have become very frequent. In fact, there are a lot of ‘initiatives’ being ‘put in place’. As part of this, people now known as ‘KS1 parents’ have been invited to a meeting to talk with all the teachers concerned with the ‘delivery of the KS1 curriculum’.
A very attractive power-point display shows the parents what is going on in school in the areas of Numeracy, Science, Literacy and ICT, in that order. In fact, the Numeracy and Science presentations wizz by but when it comes to the Literacy section, some of the parents’ hands go up:
‘What’s the school’s attitude to Synthetic Phonics?’
‘At my child’s other school, they did it another way.’
‘I think it’s wrong that you let children spell wrongly.’
The teachers explain how they adopt different strategies: phonics for simple words, learn-cover-copy-check for what they call ‘tricky’ words, phonetic spelling for free writing. Several teachers say that it cannot be ‘stressed enough’ that parents should read to their children, with their children and hear their children read. One parent says that she’s very pleased that her child is coming home with more interesting books this year. Last year, she says, it was all book after book from the same reading scheme and her child got bored. Another person says that she doesn’t know whether her grandchild should say the names of the letters or sound them out when she’s spelling the ‘tricky’ words. There’s a consensus amongst the teachers that either will do.
The teachers are kind, helpful and thorough. They demonstrate how you can show children the way to break words into their sounds: ‘ter’ ‘rer’ ‘ee’ to make ‘tree – ‘three phonemes’, she says.
The parents are thanked profusely for coming. A word about them: they are an interesting inner city mix of professionals, new or 1st and 2nd generation descendants of migrants. The room is full of people whose first acquired language was not English. The main earners in the households of these people do jobs that range from postman to M.P. The languages and cultures represented were acquired in places all over the world.
Scenes like this are going on all over the country. They are snapshots, if you like, from where this country has got to in its approach to the written word in its very early phases in the human development of this country’s people. What could I possibly say is wrong with such an approach? How could I possibly have anything but praise for the holistic and humanistic way in which the teachers presented their work and engaged with the parents? In truth I don’t. My problem is located elsewhere.
Schools want and need parents to be partners in the education of the children. The power point display emphasised this. But in this matter of reading – how should parents be partners? When? Where? And with what? Is the parents’ role to be a matter of reading the book a child comes home with? More times than not, in more schools than not, I have a pretty strong feeling this book isn’t actually what I’d call a book. It’s more a kind of pamphlet or booklet that tells some strange inconsequential tale about a group of people who don’t say things in any kind of recognisable, nor indeed utterly fantastical way. They seem to talk mostly in short statements in the form of instructions, intentions and conclusions, ‘I am going out.’- ‘I am happy.’ Is this what the teachers mean by reading with your children? The after-school meeting doesn’t make that completely clear.
It was also suggested at the meeting that parents could, and ideally should, come into school to hear the children read when they have their shared or guided reading sessions. The teachers are delighted to tell the parents that the school has got in some new books. They don’t tell the parents what these books are and don’t appear to have any on hand for this session. Some posters are up in the school telling the parents and children that the Scholastic Bookfair will be coming soon.
So what I sense is missing from this event – and indeed from many schools in the present climate – is any sense of urgency that schools could or should be places that ought to be creating what I’d want to call a ‘book-loving culture’. It’s my thesis, that if you want to look at the reasons why the picture book in this country is in difficulties, this is the main factor. Those crucial years of 4-6 are when the picture book is the ideal reading and sharing material. These years have become clogged with anxiety, reading schemes, programmes, panic and the obsessive attention to individual letters. In saying that, I am more than aware that the people who are the most enthusiastic advocates of whatever scheme is in vogue (we are of course on the crest of the synthetic phonic wave at the moment) will say over and over again, that their schemes are not, repeat, not a substitute for real books, they – they say - are the most efficacious bridge to them. My experience is different and it works like this.
Governments are very good at passing on a sense of urgency – some would say a sense of anxiety – around the matter of education. This is nearly always directed towards scores in literacy and numeracy tests, along with the permanent background noise about what is known as ‘behaviour’ – a word nearly always applied to children as if what adults do to or with children isn’t ‘behaviour’ too. Curious!;
Don’t let me digress.
The knock-on effect of the literacy-scores urgency is that there is an assumption that the way to address literacy in an urgent sort of a way is to develop literacy programmes, schemes and strategies. I would like to stress that this never can and never will be enough. And I’d go one step further and say that if a school, local authority or government puts such a programme or regime into place, (as indeed has been in place since the arrival of SATs and more recently the directions stemming from the Rose Report), it is a discriminatory regime.
Surely it is just the opposite – it enfranchises the semi-literate and the illiterate? I’ll suggest it does something else. It fails to address the fact that amongst the many social divisions in our society, there is one that is marked out by the presence or absence of books in the home. There isn’t time to go into reasons here, but let’s just observe it. What’s more, we know that purely in terms of school success (which may or may not be related to success in life, love or leisure) that book-reading and book-loving children do well at school. What follows from this is that if schools don’t get books into the homes of children whose homes don’t usually see books, then no one else will. If, on the ground, in the exact playing out of priorities, schools put much more emphasis on the kind of session I’ve just described and sit back from intervening in the matter of getting books into book-free homes, then, unknowingly perhaps, they participate in the very process by which the book-loving children do best at school and the book-less children do worst.
So I’ve become more and more interested in looking at how schools do or don’t help create this book-loving culture. Here’s my checklist of questions to ask of a school, to see if it really is serious about books.
- Does the school have in place any kind of home-school liaison where someone talks with individual parents about specific books, libraries, book departments, magazines, book clubs, book shows, that might interest this specific child and his or her carers? Interestingly, the great synthetic phonics research example, cited by government and everyone else – the Clackmannanshire experiment, did have one such home school liaison scheme in place, generously funded. However, this wasn’t regarded as a crucial intervention in the matter of drawing the conclusion that ‘synthetic phonics works’. How odd.
- Does the school hold book events all year round with writers, illustrators, story-tellers, librarians, book enthusiasts coming in and talking and performing for the children and parents?
- Does the school not only invite in a syndicated book fair but also invites in local bookshops, specialist bookshops and has books available for borrowing or buying to support the visiting writers, speakers, performers and story-tellers?
- Is there someone in the school trained and interested in running the school library and who is on hand to give advice to every teacher to help them with their class libraries?
- Does the school run book clubs for teachers, parents and children?
- Does the school give every parent information – perhaps in the form of an attractive pack – on the local library, the local bookshop? Does the school take children and parents to these venues?
- Do the school and individual classes adopt an author or illustrator for the week, or month or term and investigate, explore and do creative work around that author and illustrator?
- Do the children make books of their own? Are these readily available for everyone in the school and parents too? Does the school encourage parents to come in and make books with the children? Does the school celebrate and cherish these books as much as it celebrates its most important activities?
- Does the school encourage children to pass books between each other by means of book swaps, prominently displayed reviews, assembly presentation of ‘this week’s good read’, book posters and the like?
- Does the school seize every possible moment - eg visits to museums, visits from specialists of any kind, school trips – to support these events and activities with books, eliciting from all and sundry what their favourite books are or were when they were children?
- Are there regular whole school projects (like, say Black History Month, or ‘The Sea’) where a topic or theme can be supported by books of all kinds, all genres and all ages? Is the school on these occasions inundated with books?
- Are assemblies and classrooms frequently a place when children are encouraged to become fascinated by something – anything! – to do with a book or what’s in a book?
- Are the head’s study and teachers’ desks places where special, intriguing, exciting, ever-changing, odd, old, weird books lurk?
- Does the school keep and use book reviews of children’s books from Books for Keeps, Carousel, Times Educational Supplement, Child and Junior Education, The School Librarian, the broadsheet review pages and the internet?
- Is there at least one time every week where children will have nothing else to do with a book other than to read it, listen to it, and chat about it in an open-ended way?
This series of points should not be a utopian wish-list. It should be addressed with exactly - yes, exactly – the same urgency and attention to detail that the whole panoply of reading strategies is given. For every sounding out of ‘per’ and ‘ther’ there is an equivalent attention to detail that can be given to any of these fifteen points.
And the obvious, mind-blowingly simple fact stares us in the face: in the very area where the book-loving culture begins, nursery, reception, years 1 and 2, there is, if you like, a world class range of ‘materials’ (!). No, I’m not referring to the Oxford Reading Tree or the Jolly Phonics books or any all-in-one, solve-all literacy pack. I’m talking about -
the picture book.
There it sits like some massive inflorescence, budding and flowering and reproducing in all its delightful, complex and beautiful ways, all freighted with the same impulse – how to please, intrigue, and amuse young children and their carers and teachers. When we look at who makes these books, we are talking here about some of the best people to go through art school, some of the funniest, cleverest, most thoughtful people we have and I’m talking here about the whole team – whoever it is who makes up the words, makes the pictures, designs the books, edits, publishes and prints it.
They produce what is a complex art form, that passes on its meanings, makes its suggestions in ways that call on readers to make many, many creative leaps, many, many investigations, many, many connections between parts of pages, different pages, forwards and backwards through the book.
And it does this inviting, in many different ways: visually, orally, textually and in any combinations of all three. Eye and ear are constantly challenged to look and listen here, there and everywhere. The narrative, is in truth a multi-narrative: one moment told in words, next in pictures, simultaneously in both, sometimes complementing each other, sometimes in contrast with each other, sometimes, even in contradiction with each other. There are often more and more details to be found, there are rhythms to be remembered and re-found, there are shapes, patterns, tones, visual rhythms and compositions to be made sense of.
The strategies that we all adopt as older children and as adults in order to read, stick with and unlock stories are all to be found in picture books: plot and sub-plot, goodies and baddies, mysteries to be uncovered and guessed about, heroes on quests, heroes being tested, loss, compassion, achievement, solidarity, pain, intrigue, subversion, scheming, psychologising, resolution and much more.
What’s more, these books address a complex, multi-faceted audience. Picture books are not solely for or about children. They are artistic interventions into the many different kinds of relationships between children and adults. The reading-situation itself is nearly always one shared by at least one carer and at least one child, or at least one teacher and, nearly always, several children. The books are both for and about these relationships. In the books, parents comfort their children, or get the wrong end of the stick or are indifferent. Surrogate children in the form of animals and soft toys get lost or face tremendous ordeals. These open up moments of talk between adults and children as the book is read on many disparate occasions afterwards. How many times have I been asked by parents who’ve been asked by children, is there a mummy in ‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’? Is that larger female figure a mummy or an older sister? Is the bear sad? Did he just want to play? These are the brilliant gaps left by Helen Oxenbury (nothing to do with me, I hasten to add), where talk between children and adults arises spontaneously. And these are serious questions from the child, and of course, about that child itself. The child who asks about the missing mummy is a child, who like all of us, wondered what life would be like without mummy. The child who asks, ‘Is the bear sad,?’ ‘Did he just want to play?’ is the child who at one time wanted to play or join in and couldn’t and was left out.
Meanwhile, adults who, as they read these books with their children, wonder about their own childhoods and wonder about their own parenting, caring and teaching. If you’ve ever been a carer of any kind, it’s impossible to read ‘Not Now Bernard’ without knowing that you’ve been a not-now-Bernard person. It does the work of a hundred guides on parenting, a hundred TV programmes on why you are an inadequate parent. ‘Peepo’ is not just a book. It’s a game and, if this doesn’t sound too dull – it’s not meant to! – it’s a social document. There are a hundred details of the way people used to lead their lives, and any number of unquantifiable feelings attached to those people and objects. This is the stuff that history books leaves out: what it felt like to look in a mirror at the moment that a family faced up to the fact that the man was going off to war. Imagine a whole school project on, let’s say, how we used to live, or World War Two. As the school gears up for visits to the local museum, visits by old people, children go home to quiz their grandparents, a host of books come into the school from Nina Bawden’s ‘Carrie’s War’, through Michael Forman’s ‘War Boy’, archives from the local library or town hall, so ‘Peepo’ can take its place amongst it all. Perhaps the year 1 children will perform it, which will be videoed and there’ll be copies of the book for them to buy so that they never need forget what it felt like to look through those holes and find the next picture. Grandparents can say how they remember their parents talking about bomb shelters and rationing...You would be hard pushed to find any other artistic form that has the power and potential to help create conversations like this.
This is something far too valuable to be let to go into decline or restricted to privileged reading situations.
All this is a what I’ll call the ‘literacy of literature’ not the ‘literacy’, per se. This is not just a matter of how we read, it’s why we read.
I suggest that the question, - why we read – should be addressed with just as much attention as schools are giving to the question of how we learn to read.
And so to point 16: I don’t think any meeting held by teachers to help parents understand what literacy is, should ever be without the presence in the room and the time to look at them, of such books as Trish Cooke’s and Helen Oxenbury’s ‘So Much’, Tony Ross’s ‘I Want My Potty’, Shirley Hughes’s ‘Dogger’, books by Anthony Browne, Penny Dunbar, Michael Foreman, Mick Inkpen, Lauren Child, Quentin Blake, Colin MacNaughton, Emma Chichester Clark and many, many more – apologies to those I’ve not mentioned.
17. There should be Beano annuals and football programmes open at the Junior Supporters pages, there should be books that tie in with TV shows and films.
18. Teachers could and should wrap up a meeting with parents with a read-aloud session, say, of a Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler masterpiece, with compulsory joining in!
19. Parents and grandparents should be encouraged to bring in and show off the books and magazines, no matter how humble, that they’ve kept since their childhoods.
I’ll put this bluntly – if these nineteen points aren’t followed by the majority of schools, the picture book is in serious trouble. What’s happened is that teachers and parents have become gobbled up by the schemes. Watch parents as they go into newsagents and bookshops. Many, many of them make their way to the Carol Vorderman, ‘English Made Easy’ booklet section, £1.99 ‘with Gold reward Stars’. (How do I know – I bought one!) I don’t blame parents for doing so. The environment in education, the atmosphere, the pedagogic air they breathe has made them think that this is the route to achievement and success.
Quietly and unobtrusively, the educated middle classes are buying books, taking their kids to the theatre, museums, guided history trails, filling their Anne Fine Home Library markers, doing their Jacqueline Wilson reading aloud and a big bloody hooray for all that. But this has to be what we should be aiming for all children and, I repeat, it is only schools, inspired by all of us – but even more importantly – inspired by government and local authority – that can, in their word, ‘deliver’ it. And it can’t just be a few sanctimonious words and a poster of Gordon Brown reading a book to his kids. It has to be a serious, thought-through programme, that reaches into every single school and every single classroom.
I see that there is a national year of reading coming up. Here’s a chance to get serious. It really won’t be enough to make nice noises. It really has to be a full-on effort to make every school become a place where the book-loving culture can be put in place. If we don’t do that, then we will simply go on discriminating against the children who don’t have books at home and in the process, the picture book will stop being one of the best ever, most important examples ever produced in this country in any art form, of mass market, massively popular, top-quality artefacts – I repeat, mass market, massively popular, top quality artefacts! Put it this way, there isn’t anything better than ‘The Gruffalo’, ‘Each, Peach Pear Plum’, ‘Not Now Bernard’, ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, Tiger Comes to Tea’ – I could go on. There is only something different. ‘King Lear’ and Goya’s execution scene may be what I want and need at my age, in my place but I’m not five years old. So, I have no hesitation in saying that these are examples of the human imagination at its best for the audience that reads them. I don’t think this kind of brilliant invention will disappear. They are, however, in great danger of no longer being read by everyone.
That worries and offends me.
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