Why don't we take children's books seriously?

Our nation excels at children's literature, yet a foreigner could be forgiven for thinking that we have little interest in our children’s writers, says Children's Laureate Julia Donaldson.

Performers as Mary Poppins during the London 2012 opening cermony

On 27 July last year, I was one of millions who watched an army of Mary Poppinses defeat a monstrous inflatable Voldemort, and listened entranced to a passage from Peter Pan: “Of all delectable islands, Neverland is the snuggest.”
Like every children’s writer, I was delighted that the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games celebrated “the glories and magic” of children’s literature. After all, our nation excels at it: we produced the Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, The Railway Children, Winnie the Pooh, Just William, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Northern Lights, Dogger, The Tiger Who Came to Tea... I had better stop there for fear of exceeding my word count, but those are just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet on any other day of the year, a foreigner reading our newspapers, listening to our radio or watching our television, could be forgiven for getting the impression that we have little pride or interest in our children’s writers and illustrators. How could they guess that children’s books account for nearly one in four of all book sales, when far less than a fortieth of review space in printed papers is dedicated to them? Perhaps they might imagine that we have a dearth of parents, grandparents and teachers when they listen to “A Good Read” on Radio 4: of the 48 titles the programme has featured since that memorable day last July, just one is a children’s book, namely the ubiquitous US export, The Hunger Games.
Children's Laureate Julia Donaldson at Hay Festival (Jay Williams)
I don’t know if we’re the only country whose media doesn’t take children’s books seriously, but certainly the situation is different in Germany. My publisher there often sends me double-page articles devoted to the work of just one children’s author or illustrator. America also appears more enlightened. I recently read a long serious article in The New York Times about British author-illustrator Rebecca Cobb’s Missing Mummy, a book about parental loss which received not one single print review in a British national paper.
It is largely parents who buy books for their children, and if they live in an area with no bookshop or library, which is sadly increasingly common, they would surely welcome some enthusiasm and guidance from the media. I would like it if a programme such as Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour could once a month have a Book Doctor slot, where parents or teachers could ask questions like “Why doesn’t my teenage son read any more?” or “Are there any good books about spiders?”, and a panel including a children’s writer could respond.
It’s not that we don’t have any good reviewers or experts on children’s books. We have some excellent ones, and I imagine they are all chafing at the bit for more space. But often all they are asked to supply is an occasional “round-up” of children’s books, usually at Easter or Christmas. They therefore have to cram in as many titles as possible, sometimes just giving a basic plot summary, and this doesn’t make for very exciting reading.
I would like not only to see more analytical reviews, but also more features about writers and illustrators. We all remember being riveted by the story of the penniless J. K. Rowling writing Harry Potter in a café (long before the books became legendary), and there must be many more quirky tales for the telling.
It wouldn’t be hard to illustrate such features. Children’s picture books are like an art gallery, with an amazing variety of styles, often highly original. These illustrators are some of our leading artists whose work should be seen and discussed outside classrooms and children’s bedrooms. When I listen to Front Row, there is often a report on an exhibition or an interview with an artist, but I have never heard a children’s illustrator being interviewed.
It seems that a children’s author or book has to be established before they will be given any attention. Whereas a new adult book with an unusual theme or concept might get a slot on radio or television, the same is not true of children’s fiction. In my laureate role I went to at least 20 events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and, along with the parents attending with their children, was almost always captivated. But how many of those children’s authors will get a chance to talk about their work on Open Book or The Review Show, or be interviewed by a national paper?
Last year at the Bath Kids Literature Festival Axel Scheffler and I were actually interviewed by the regional television news programme. The interview probably lasted less than two minutes, with one question for each of us. Axel’s question was something like, “Why do so many books for young children’s have pictures in them?” which struck me as rather like asking a playwright, “Why do so many plays have characters in them?” But this didn’t dampen the exultation of our publicist: fancy that! A children’s writer and illustrator on television!
Poems to Perform, an anthology compiled by Julia Donaldson, is published by Macmillan Children’s books. The new Waterstone’s Children’s Laureate will be announced at a ceremony tomorrow.


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