Won't Somebody Think of the Children?

Wednesday, 18th November 2015

Yesterday, in my capacity as a local Reading Champion, I was invited to an event at the Beach Ballroom for Aberdeen schoolchildren to hear from the three writers nominated in the 8-11 category for the Scottish Children's Book Awards. Nine hundred children packed into the venue to hear writers Elizabeth Laird, Ross MacKenzie and Gillian Philip whet collective appetites as they described why Aberdeen's boys and girls should vote for them.

Elizabeth's book 'The Fastest Boy in the World' tells of a young Ethiopian boy who dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete when he sees his heroes return from the Barcelona Olympics. Ross' book 'The Nowhere Emporium' sounds like a fabulous greatest hits of children's fantasy with nods to Harry Potter, the Box of Delights and Howl's Moving Castle. Gillian's 'Mysteries of Ravenstorm Island: The Lost Children' should delight fans of Greek myth, the Brothers Grimm and Enid Blyton alike with a classic mystery set on a spooky island.

I really enjoyed Elizabeth's approach: she immediately grabbed the attention of the children by describing a journey by various trains and boats to Ethiopia and introduced us to her character, the titular boy, when we got there. All three, although probably more used to pitching their wares to people above five feet tall, involved the children by asking questions of them and gave away just enough of the magic contained in their novels not to spoil the surprise when they sit down to read them.

The Q&A session that followed was insightful and interesting. Children sometimes ask the most simple yet searching questions, such as 'where do you get your ideas?' and 'how do you decide on a title?' and you could tell the authors enjoyed this break from more journalistic questions - and were sometimes flustered by the directness. All three seemed to agree that there came a time in their life where they thought, "I can do this" and, although it took a long time to complete their first book, they did. I have tried to tell myself this time and again - that I too can complete my book - and hearing it from them in this context has inspired me.

What was slightly odd, and perhaps disappointing, was that the authors were never asked to read from their shortlisted novels. Nor did there seem to be evidence of any copies of them in the building, save for three which were signed and awarded to one student who had won a competition (sadly not a creative one, but one where pupils had to guess which book a teddy bear had been reading). I was, therefore, unable to pick up copies of the books for myself.

I left the Ballroom and headed to Waterstone's in Union Street, hoping to find a section devoted to the books shortlisted in this category and those for older and younger readers. However, unless I missed it, there wasn't one. Worse still, I couldn't find a copy of any of the shortlisted books on the shelves. The optimist in me thought, 'well, they're sold out, that's good news' but the angry pessimist couldn't help looking over to a huge section of the shop devoted to new books released by vloggers.

These twenty-somethings who broadcast their thoughts to the Internet via Youtube video logs are a sensation - mainly among teenage girls - and publishers have been quick to get on the brand-wagon of each. Most "oldies" cannot understand the appeal, I certainly can't. Perhaps they feel like funny friends calling in every now and again to share their witticisms. Perhaps to some they feel like their only friends in the world. So, I really can't knock it - the end just about justifies the means - even if it takes teams of writers, editors and artists working basic ideas into something marketable. "Check this interview with Joe Sugg who clearly has some artistic flair and loves graphic novels but ultimately had little input into the final product. Remind you of pop stars much?

But, while I can accept these books flooding the Christmas children's market just as I can accept that people do want to read the life stories of Danny Dyer and Nigel Mansell, I don't have to like them. Which is why it's great that, for primary school children at least, the focus is still very much on a book telling a story. A story that, with the help of your imagination, will take you to wonderful places in this world or another and let magic, real or fantasy, entertain you.

For more information on the Scottish Children's Book Awards, check the Scottish Book Trust website. Winners will be announced on March 4th. Good luck to all shortlisted authors!