Depending on who you talk to, the UK picture on children reading is a mixed one; the forest of readers and reading organisations has many trees!
Schools have never worked so hard to get children to be good readers. They need to. The critical SATS results rate schools provide both a yardstick on which many parents choose a school for their child and the hard evidence that Ofsted demands in its search for good and outstanding schools. And yet, in the International PIRLS tables which measure attitudes to reading and ability to read the UK is only middle ranking. Many children leave even secondary school with low level literacy skills while, anecdotally, many parents fret much about how their children don’t like reading and don’t do it.
At an event at a festival recently a mum asked me “What can you suggest to get my 12 year old reading? I can’t find anything. He just thinks reading is dull and books are boring.” When I suggested trying the book of a film he liked she said, ‘He wouldn’t see the point. He says, ‘why bother with that when I already know the story?’ and yet, in another part of the reading forest – the bookshops – children’s books are generating 9% more business than last year. Whether it is picture books or YA fiction – it is selling. So here, children are becoming readers and book owners.
But it’s not just bookshops that show the positive picture. In yet another part of the reading forest, children may be turning into book borrowers instead. Public libraries have long been successful at introducing children to reading and in keeping them reading. From books for babies to YA fiction the titles published as ‘children’s’ maintain high borrowing figures.
PLR figures, whether it is the top 20 or all the way through the top 200, show just how robust children’s book borrowings are year after year. It took a children’s author to dislodge Catherine Cookson from her perch at the top of the PLR Most Borrowed Authors list – a slot she took when the first of the lists was created at the start of PLR and held for the next 17 years. In 2004 Jacqueline Wilson jumped in. That year and for the next 4 years she kept that top spot. As Jim Parker, the Register of PLR said at the time,
“The loans data that we collate helps to reinforce the important role that both writers and public libraries offer society. Having an eminent children’s author such as Jacqueline Wilson at number one surely reflects the passion of young readers and the vibrancy of the public library service for an emerging generation.”
Wise words – and just as relevant today as they were over a decade ago. After all, if children didn’t like reading – or like to use libraries – it is hard to see how that could have happened!
While the UKs Most Borrowed Author is back being an adult author today the bigger picture on children and reading is still very encouraging. In the most recent PLR figures published in February 2015 the top 20 Most Borrowed Authors included 11 children’s authors with Daisy Meadows author of the Animal Ark taking the second place; Julia Donaldson best-known for The Gruffalo illustrated by Axel Scheffler the third and Francesca Simon creator of Horrid Henry the fourth. In the current climate in which authors and illustrators do so much to build up their audiences by ‘meeting’ their readers through appearing at festivals, creating attractive websites, announcing their presence on social media and the rest, the last three of these have done much to maximise the inherent popularity of their books. ‘Self-selling’ is even more important for children’s authors than their adult counterparts as there are so many fewer other ways of reaching readers. And yet, the appearance of both Enid Blyton (died 1968) and Roald Dahl (died 1990) in the top 20 shows the incredible staying power of great books even without a direct connection between the author and the reader and how their appeal stretches from one generation to another. They also show the vital role libraries have in supporting backlists which typically have less presence in bookshops.
If the sustained appeal of children’s books and children as library borrowers is reflected in the year-on-year PLR borrowing figures, the Summer Reading Challenge throws it into sharp relief. Since the launch of the 2015 Summer Reading Challenge last month a staggering 485,223 books have been read so far. Children love the Summer Reading Challenge! They love the excitement it generates around reading, the introduction to new books that it gives them and they especially love the competitions! Reading for pleasure and reading as part of a competition can soon become one! Children may find the Summer Reading Challenge through its excellent website but when it really comes alive is when they hit the library itself and find informed librarians, other eager readers – and hundreds of books to borrow.
At PLR we know that these loans play a significant part in keeping children’s authors in the top 20 and top 200 Most Borrowed Author lists and, overall, in reflecting the enthusiasm children have traditionally had as library users and borrowers.
Julia Eccleshare is a Head of PLR Policy and Engagement and Children’s Books Editor of the Guardian. She began her career as an assistant editor at the Times Literary Supplement. Subsequently specialising in children’s books, she was a children’s book publisher at Puffin before a freelance career as an editorial advisor, broadcaster and critic. In addition to numerous anthologies her books include Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter: Portraits of children’s writers (National Portrait Gallery, 2002), The Rough Guide to Picture Books, (Rough Guides, 2007) and, with Nicholas Tucker, The Rough Guide to Teenage Books, (Rough Guides, October, 2002). She is chair of the Guardian Children’s Book Prize and founder and chair of the Branford Boase first novel prize.