Catching them young: How the Children's Laureate is championing books to the next generation of readers
Friday 24 April 2009
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
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