Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Report from London 2: Being an Account of the London Book Fair in General and the State of Children’s Nonfiction in Particular

I went to the London Book Fair last week, the UK’s equivalent of BEA.  Some things were the same – cavernous convention halls, loads of booths and meeting areas, crowds of people, and a full calendar of interviews and panel discussions. 

But some things were different.  Every year a foreign country is featured and this year it was China and a group of 21 government-approved writers. Chinese publishers abounded, along with various exhibits including one that explained how the Chinese had developed movable (clay) type long before Gutenberg. This being England, there had been numerous op-eds in the newspapers protesting the focus on China since its censorship ministry is alive and well. 

Another difference: though I picked up a lovely carrier bag at the entrance, expecting to fill it with the usual freebies found at US book fairs, there were none!  No free pens and bookmarks, no ARCs (advanced reading copies,) not even any Hershey’s kisses in fishbowls.

I was pleased to find a full complement of panels on children’s literature, including one titled The World Into Words: Why Reading Nonfiction is Vital to Children. [Note to London Book Fair organizers: Children’s lit is a hot topic! Don’t put us in the smallest meeting room next year. We overflowed the room and much of the corridor outside.] 

Nicola Davies and Vivian French, both prolific nonfiction authors, were moderated by Jake Hope, Reading Coordinator for the Lancashire County Council. He began by asking why they were drawn to writing nonfiction. 

Viv French discussed her desire to share information about what she finds exciting. She praised her grandfather for answering all her myriad questions when she was a child, and in fact brings such a grandfather into her book T.Rex.  For French, the best books come from a passion to answer questions and to lead readers to more exploration.

Nicola Davies wants to share her life-centering passion for the natural world. She writes to excite her readers and to engage them in a dialogue with the world: to be in the moment, watching, and making connections.  For Davies, Story is a carrier bag for information.  Story makes that information easy to remember and makes connections between a child’s inner and outer worlds. The information is a rope that you pay out gradually to readers with pacing, tension, and drama. A prime example is her award-winning Ice Bear.

Davies has found a prejudice against this sort of narrative nonfiction from teachers and librarians.  They want information books without the narrative. Both French and Davies praised their UK publisher, Walker Books (owner of Candlewick) for being a champion of their kind of narrative nonfiction. Each author had a name for straight ‘information books.’ Davies called them “tile-grouting books” where a photo – the tile – dominates the page with bits of caption and text – the grout – surrounding it.  French called them “gobbet books” with no story. [gobbet, according to the Cambridge dictionary means “a small piece or lump of something, especially food.”]

As in the US, UK teachers are forced to teach to tests these days. (The UK has a national curriculum.) Davies lamented that because of this, children often don’t get the chance to read for pleasure, and teachers can’t engage them in open-ended learning. All this makes publishers more cautious about publishing narrative nonfiction.

Davies and French agreed that things were better in the US.
1) While we complain about the lack of children’s books reviews in the press, they say it’s much worse in the UK and that nonfiction books never get reviewed. 
2) They praised all the nonfiction awards given in the US, because they have none in the UK. Davies rallied the troops, asking nonfiction authors to demand more publicity.
3) The authors perceive that American teachers are more open to their kind of books than UK teachers, but partly blamed that on UK teacher education courses. They pleaded for more time allotted to children’s literature in teacher training classes, which they believe happens in the US.

French and Davies both love new technology. Viv French writes for very young readers and savors the prospects of add-ons to her books. Nicola Davies herself indulges in all forms of communication – books, i-Pad, kindle. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist about technology,” she warned booklovers. 

Technology can encourage reading. 
Things aren’t sorted out yet, and the next few years will be like a washing machine tumble, but we will figure out how to combine quality material with new technologies, keeping an authorial voice in the mix. And kids need to watch television and use the internet, because that’s the modern world. French saw an ideal future where kids read books for concentrated information, then go to the internet for further research.
Moderator Jake Hope, discussed budget cuts in schools and loss of school libraries. He encouraged schools to work with public libraries, and proposed bringing together librarians, teachers, parents, publishers, and authors to address the issues of libraries, schools, kids, curricula, and books. Davies described the merging of library and school services and fabulous reading programs in her home in Denbighshire, North Wales. French praised her new local Edinburgh, Scotland library which offers the interaction between books and computers that she favors.

Last words from Viv French: write letters to newspapers to demand more reviews of nonfiction children’s books.
Nicola Davies: keep libraries open and support children’s reading for pleasure.


David Hockney: “What technology needs is imaginative mad people to start using it.”

Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2011 Booker Prize: “Literature is the solvent of ideology, so never ban anything.”

Jacobson again: “What we think is very boring. People are banal in what they think. Only in art are we truly interesting. Literature dramatizes: that’s why I attach so much importance to it.”

Banner ad on London buses: "Some people are gay. Get over it."

1 comment:

April Pulley Sayre said...

Thanks for the report, Gretchen. And I'm not sure whether I'm amused or annoyed about the "tile-grouting" books. HA! I would have guessed just the reverse, that the UK was very receptive to nonfiction because they covered One Is a Snail, Ten Is a Crab so widely over there. I was amazed how they still had children's book reviews in their small community newspapers.