Catching them young: How the Children's Laureate is championing books to the next generation of readers

While even the Pied Piper of Hamelin would probably struggle making anything of being Poet Laureate these days, he might be extremely interested in the job of Children's Laureate, currently finishing its first decade and going stronger than ever. Created from an idea shared by Ted Hughes with his Devon neighbour, the children's novelist Michael Morpurgo, and after that administered by Booktrust, this position of representative of everything to do with modern children's literature has quickly become an indispensible part of British publishing.

Want a spokesman on the Today programme about the latest development in junior fiction or poetry? Call the Children's Laureate. Need a voice to question the government's literacy drive when this seems to be at the expense of reading for pleasure? Ask for a quote. Searching for a keynote speaker to promote picture books, poetry or novels? Look no further. The Children's Laureate is alive, kicking and here to stay at www.childrenslaureate.org.uk.

Much of this success is due to the high quality of the incumbents so far, each required to work at the job for two years. Quentin Blake, the first Laureate and Roald Dahl's genial illustrator, set a hectic pace when appointed in 1999, speeding around innumerable schools and conferences. He also launched Tell Me a Picture, an exhibition of 26 works by artists and illustrators at the National Gallery, each focusing on one letter of the alphabet. It has since been turned into a book, along with Laureate's Progress, Blake's own recollections of his time in the hot seat.

He was succeeded in 2001 by Anne Fine, author of Madame Doubtfire and many other superb novels, some for children and a few for adults. Setting herself the task of helping children build up their own libraries, she persuaded over 100 artists and cartoonists to create 150 free, downloadable bookplates.

Two years later saw the arrival of the co-originator Michael Morpurgo, a mesmerising performer with an ability second to none to get through to child audiences. Adding trips to Soweto and Moscow to British tours, his success telling stories convinced him that that was "the rightest thing to be doing. People out there, young or old, love stories but too often aren't getting them. Being Laureate enabled me to rediscover the extraordinary power of stories to engage all who listen to them."

The appointment in 2005 of Jacqueline Wilson did nothing to lessen the queues of children waiting up to four hours after one of her appearances in order to get her books signed. TV slots, interviews and sessions in schools, literary festivals, shopping centres and even a holiday camp all helped spread what she saw as a vital message about reading as a family activity.

"Everywhere I went I told people about the joys of reading, not only on one's own but also aloud, particularly to children," she recalls. "So many parents seem to have given up on doing this, convincing themselves they didn't have the time or the talent. I begged them to try again and find out what fun it can be for all concerned." And if parents following her advice may occasionally have baulked at some of the tough material found in some of Wilson's books, their children would still surely have urged them on to the end.

Michael Rosen, the present Laureate, combines his own poetry with stand-up comedy to the delight of every young audience lucky enough to hear him. Also tireless, his initiatives have included the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the BBC documentary Just Read, about how to create a book-loving school, and the current exhibition at the British Library, Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat, celebrating 400 years of children's poetry. Like every other Laureate, he has not been afraid to take on narrow government literacy policies in schools when it comes to defending reading primarily for its own sake and in its own time - supported by adequate library facilities in and out of school.

The sixth Children's Laureate will be announced on 9 June, with Waterstone's sole sponsors for the next two years. Little money goes to the Laureates themselves, although they do have the opportunity to sell plenty of their books. While they are ostensibly required to make only four main appearances every year, the job always spreads at a galloping rate. This means that any potential Laureate must say goodbye to most other serious work during their stint, although - amazingly - a few have still managed to knock out short stories, illustrations or poems, with Michael Rosen recently commissioned to write a poem, made into a film, celebrating 60 years of the NHS.

But as the chosen representative of children's literature and illustration, the central task of this post is to advance the best that is going on in this area, whether the most popular or not, and explain why it matters to all of us. For there are some extraordinarily good children's writers and illustrators at the moment, all of whom merit support. While JK Rowling deserves every plaudit for making reading more fashionable again among the young, the chief hope among those who live by children's books is that she would also lead audiences on to the many novels other than those about Harry Potter.

So who is now in line for this prestigious position? Philip Pullman, a natural choice, is not included through pressure of work. Among other distinguished novelists the effervescent Anthony Horowitz and the more mystical David Almond must both be in contention. Malorie Blackman, author of the unforgettable Noughts and Crosses trilogy, would be an excellent choice as the most widely read black writer of her generation. But with family commitments that make it difficult taking on such a post, she too must probably be ruled out for the time being.

What about an illustrator, the first since Quentin Blake took the job in 1999? Michael Foreman, author of the War Boy series and many other high-quality picture books, is one obvious choice. Keenly involved with environmental issues, could he be lured away from his incredible work rate to take on a job that would involve so much carbon-producing travelling?

Another good choice of illustrator would be Anthony Browne, someone so fascinated by gorillas that he has brought more of them into his pictures than any other artist on record. Producing legions of dreamy, sometimes mysterious but always engaging picture books, Browne is a wonderful artist deserving of an even wider audience.

The phenomenally successful Lauren Child, creator of Charlie & Lola, is probably too busy to take on any extra work, having almost single-handedly led picture-book illustration for infants and spin-offs into film firmly in the direction of her own highly stylised way of seeing things. She too could make an interesting choice in the future.

If the new digital media increase their range, will it be necessary to look for Laureates drawn from a different type of literary world? Future selection panels, at present representing ordinary readers as well as experts, will have to decide this for themselves. For the moment, children's literature in its traditional form continues to act as something of a barometer for how we view the young, just as it did in the past.

In addition to keeping the literature wagon going by whipping up enthusiasm among the young, the Laureate also has the task of bringing more adults back into an appreciation of the world of children's literature. It was not so long ago, after all, that Teddy Roosevelt, then President of the US, claimed The Wind in the Willows as his favourite novel and William Gladstone could write to an ungrateful Robert Louis Stevenson ("He would do better to attend to the imperial affairs of England!") congratulating him on Treasure Island.

The National Theatre will host a platform event celebrating ten years of the Children's Laureate at 6pm on 27 April

Arts and Entertainment

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?