73% of Kids Own Their Own Books, 86% Own a Mobile Phone

I picked this one off David Maybury’s blog the other day. Research done by the National Literacy Trust in the UK has discovered that more kids over there own a mobile phone (86%) than own a book (73%).

All the more reason to produce books that can be read on phones, don’t you think?

I can’t say I was surprised at this statistic. It has become a cultural thing. My baby daughter realized very early on that pressing buttons makes things happen. She can recognize the essential form of a button, despite that fact that they come in all shapes and sizes. She has a passion for remote controls, or poking her finger at anything with a little red LED on it. She knows that sticking her finger onto the screen of my touch-screen phone also makes things happen. Baby Finds BookshelfThis awareness has magnified her potential to cause trouble (at which she is already naturally gifted) many times over. I seriously doubt that I was that aware of electronics that early in my life.

For those of us who grew up surrounded by books – and were plied with them from an early age – it’s easy to forget that we are in the minority. Most kids will see their parents reading something in their daily lives, whether it’s a newspaper, a magazine or even just teletext or stuff on the web – so they will probably end up reading something for pleasure themselves. But not everyone considers reading a book a fun thing to do. And if kids don’t see their parents reading books, and keeping them and leaving them around the house, they’re not going to pick up the habit themselves.

They won’t pick up the habit of reading at length, and in depth. A habit, a skill, that is going to become all the more essential as the text kids read is increasingly consumed online instead of in print. Schools need to be taking this into account right now, but we desperately need parents to get kids connecting with books as early as possible – to nourish their brains and their souls. And to equip them with the skills to deal with all the distractions thrown at them by this insanely distracting world we live in.

I’m a big fan of a lot of the new digital developments, but one serious hazard is that they could leave you with the attention span of a goldfish. And mark my words, GOLDFISH DON’T GET THINGS DONE. It’s hard to succeed in any aspect of life if your concentration levels can only be maintained for as long as it takes to tweet.

And if kids aren’t reading print, then we need to find out what formats they are reading and produce the good stuff in those formats, so they’ll . . . y’know, come across books in their everyday lives. EspecialJuliet Cartoonly my stuff, because if kids aren’t reading books, then they’re not reading my books, and that’s affecting my income, goddamit. Something has to be done.

But publishers have become paralyzed by the scale of this challenge, and instead of acting quickly to adapt before their business transforms on them, they hardly seem to be acting at all. Glaciers move faster.

Let me run that statistic past you again: 73% of kids in the UK own their own books, while 86% own a mobile phone.

Thankfully, the UK government are on the case. Realizing how vitally important it is to provide access for children to books of all kinds, they are closing ten public libraries in Northern Ireland. This is on top of already closing a rake of them on ‘the mainland’. Well done chaps.

What Were the Wild Things At?

We were in Portlaoise last weekend, and I took my daughter to a playground in a small town park, while her mum and brother were off watching a football match. She was too young to watch the game and too old – and too mad – to sit still on our laps.

The playground was a decent one; the type made mostly of wood, cut into the shapes of different creatures. It was a bit small and worn out, but pretty much everything worked, and there were some unusual things like a swinging bowl and a snakey thing on springs that could rock from side to side with four or five kids sitting on it. It was a nice place to take a young child, though there wasn’t much to do for anyone over six or seven.

It got me thinking about a couple of things. First, that we don’t have enough playgrounds in Ireland, and a lot of the ones we do have aren’t great. When I was a kid, our family spent one summer driving across Europe. They have a completely different way of doing things for kids in places like Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

PlaygroundPlaygrounds were often made with logs and tractor tyres and car tyres and big springs, rather than just thin steel frames and plastic. They were great for climbing on, and hanging off and swinging round and jumping off . . . and not just for little kids. This picture shows a well-worn playground in Copenhagen. See the kid hanging off the cable car in the background? See how small he is? See how high he is? Can you imagine that in Ireland?

Actually, many of the playgrounds we now see around Ireland look a lot like the ones we played in that year in Europe, but a bit tamer. But that was over twenty years ago. That’s how slow we are at catching up. We should have more playgrounds, bigger and better playgrounds. There are few enough places to play in our cities without parents worrying about their little darlings being hit by cars. There are few enough places to play out in the countryside, where the farmers won’t put up with trespassers any more. Ever tried going for a walk off the roads in the countryside?

Ironically, I think this lack of space and facilities (mostly space), is causing problems for reading, particularly for boys. If you want to read more about why I think that, check out this article.

I recently read an interesting article in the Sunday Tribune from the 16th of May. It was about how playgrounds in Dublin were being vandalized. What kind of pathetically sad git do you have to be to vandalize a playground? But then that’s the nature of vandals – they’re a very sad bunch altogether. The weirdest part of that article was the mention that, in one playground: ‘cleaners had to be called out to clean “human excrement” from slides, swings and other equipment in the area.’ For any kids reading this, ‘excrement’ means ‘poo’. Somebody wiped poo on the swings and the slides. What? I mean . . . what?! What goes through a person’s mind to make them even think of doing that? Did they use their own crap, or someone else’s? How did they carry it around the playground?

Wild Things Book CoverBut then, maybe it’s because they’re growing up in a culture where kids don’t feel that these are their areas. Maybe the older kids who most likely did this, feel that the playground is just one more place where adults are telling them they’re not wanted.

And speaking of not being wanted by adults (see that link there? See it?), I sat down with my stepson to watch ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ on DVD. For those who don’t know, this is a very famous picture book about a boy who charges around the house in a wolf costume, causing so much havoc that his mother banishes him to his bedroom without supper. Trapped up there in his room, his imagination comes to life. A great big sea and an island with a forest appear, and he discovers the land of the Wild Things.

Wild Things-Film PosterThe film actually stays very close to the plot and the themes of the book. I really enjoyed it . . . but I’m a thirty-six year old adult who still reads children’s books and remembers the original picture book. A child, on the other hand, might wonder why everything in the film seems to take so long. Or why there’s so much confusion and discussion about how the characters are feeling. Or what exactly is the problem between the child and his mother. Or what the hell the ending was about.

My stepson is an intelligent, perceptive, articulate film fan and a voracious reader. And he’s nine years old. He found it very good in parts, desperately slow in other parts, a bit vague and seemed generally underwhelmed.

This is a beautifully produced children’s film for adults. If you’re old enough to be nostalgic about the original book, by all means, watch this film. If you’re still at the age where picture books form the bulk of your reading material, and are most enjoyed sitting on a parent’s knee, rent a Pixar film.

How To Make Ebooks and Influence People

TVDTS-Ebook CoverFor anyone who’s wondering what the process of creating ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’ was like, I’ve written an article on it for the Irish Publishing News blog. There’s been some great feedback on the book, and I’d like to give a big thanks to the hundreds of people who’ve downloaded it so far. Please feel free to hand it on – that’s what it’s for! I’m on the home stretch on the third novel in the trilogy, ‘Merciless Reason’ and I’m really enjoying it. Can’t say yet when it’ll be released, what with the way the publishing world seems to have slowed down to a crawl, but I’ll keep yiz informed.

Nurturing the Seed

It’s taken me a few days to get round to posting this, but I was at the Children’s Books Ireland Conference in the National Gallery last weekend, where I got to hear some excellent talks.

The conference was kicked off with a thoughtful and inspiring inaugural speech by our new Children’s Laureate, Siobhan Parkinson, who hailed the great success of school libraries, particularly the JCSP project I’m always going on about. She had harsh words for political leaders and a system of education that treat books as a means of teaching reading, rather than teaching reading as a means of accessing books. She made a lovely analogy, picturing the reader as a person who goes to hear an orchestra play, but who takes part in the playing. Writing is the only art that cannot be completed without the audience’s active participation.

Revolver-Marcus SedgwickMarcus Sedgwick gave an easy-going, funny and fascinating talk with accompanying slide presentation on the story behind his new story, ‘Revolver’. It’s a book with a background set in the Arctic Circle, and part of it in the Alaskan gold rush, with most of the action taking place in a frozen, isolated landscape and hinging on a handgun hidden in a box in a wooden cabin. Sedgwick was one of the highlights of the conference for me. I’ve since started reading the book and I’m liking it so far.

You can see the full run-down on the speakers on David Maybury’s blog here, but every talk was different, stimulating and thought-provoking. Elena Odriozola, whose talk was translated from Spanish, gently and wryly explained her strict, self-imposed requirements for any illustration job, those conditions resulting in a minimalist style that struck me as a weird cross between Oriental art and LS Lowry’s industrial town paintings.

Nikki Gamble gave us some perspective on how different cultures are dealt with in English literature, from picture books upwards, which raised some really interesting questions.

I contributed to the intelligent and profound discourse on the Saturday by punctuating the Two-Minute Favourites with soundbites from Mr T and 24’s Jack Bauer, urging the speakers to ‘Quit your jibber-jabber’, declaring that one should ‘Pity the fool’ and informing them that ‘Right here, right now, you will face justice’ and making other remarks to that effect. That was about my level. The theme was the Bisto Awards, and the speakers were as passionate as ever; ranging from ‘The Summer of Lily and Esme’ to ‘Chalkline’ . They were more succinct than they have ever been too – much to Mr T’s satisfaction.

There was a talk entitled ‘New Beginnings with a group of writers new to the children’s scene (or at least taking a new angle at it): Sarah Rees Brennan, Jane Mitchell, Natasha Mac a’Bhaird, Kieran Mark Crowley and Peter Prendagast each had a slightly different perspective on the publishing process, which would have been of benefit to anyone pitching towards this market themselves.

Michael RosenSaturday ended with a reception in the Oisin Gallery (no, nothing to do with me), where Irene Barber was presented with the CBI Award for her outstanding contribution to children’s books.

Michael Rosen was a brilliant wake-up call on Sunday morning, challenging many of the conventions of our education system (well, the UK’s, but it’s close enough) and he gave us a good laugh in the process. The poem about two parents arguing over who was the most tired struck a real chord with Maedhbh and I, and had us in stitches (‘until I got this tired, I didn’t know it was possible to get this tired!).

Siobhan Parkinson and Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin presented a publishers’ view of translating stories, something we don’t do enough of in Ireland. Though in a market smothered by UK and US publishers, it’s hardly surprising it takes all our effort just to publish Irish stuff as well.

HugglewugAnd finally, Anthony Browne was supposed to wind up the conference, as the UK’s current Children’s Laureate, creating a neat book-end to complement Siobhan’s talk at the start, but it was not to be. Iceland’s now notorious volcano, whose name nobody can pronounce, sprayed more ash into the sky, grounding flights, and Niamh Sharkey answered the early morning bat-phone to rush out with a slide presentation and a folder full of artwork to fill in for the grounded Mister Browne, with the enthusiastic help of the ever-present Sarah Webb. I’d seen a lot of this particular talk before, but I still picked up some fresh info from one of Ireland’s top picture book creators. Thanks for saving the day, ladies.

Possibly the weirdest part of the day was seeing a bunch of people (most of them getting on in years) wander in, looking for the usual art lecture that takes place in the gallery on a Sunday afternoon. Apparently, the Anthony Browne talk had been advertised as one of these lectures by the gallery. Little did the newcomers realize that less than an hour later, they would have to stand up with a bunch of grown-ups, rubbing the tops of their heads and wiggling their ears and chanting the Hugglewug Song.

That’ll be the last time they gatecrash a children’s book conference.

Congrats to Mags, Tom, Jenny, their trusty assistants and everyone who helped out with the organization of the conference. Another successful one put to bed. Well done all of you.

The High Cost of Living

Maybe it’s because of the fact that I put my back out recently. Or it might be because I did a talk on (and drawing of) Dorian Gray in Ballymun Library, and in an attempt to engage the minds of those cagey teenagers, Dorian Gray SketchI spoke about how we age and how, even in our teens, life has already left its mark on us; from the fillings in our teeth, to the scars we pick up from silly little injuries we don’t think twice about. But whatever it was that had me in that frame of mind, I found myself in the cinema the other day watching ‘Iron Man 2’ with a critical eye.

First let me say that it was a brilliant film – cracking cinema stuff, and I highly recommend it. Robert Downy Jr. doesn’t quite let Mickey Rourke steal the show and neither of them are eclipsed by the action and special effects – which takes some doing. I don’t watch this type of film looking for any serious realism. It is a superhero film, after all, so the violence and the science are going to be of a certain flavour.

But I kept looking at the impacts, and thinking ‘No way. He’d be dead.’ Mickey Rourke gets crushed (a few times in quick succession) between a crash barrier and a very large car and is hearty and healthy only hours later. He doesn’t have any armour on at the time. Even when the guys are flying about in their armour, they hit the ground a number of times at speeds that would liquefy them. It doesn’t matter how good your armour is – you can’t go from two or three hundred miles an hour to zero in an instant and survive. You need room to slow down. Iron Man 2The crumple zones and airbags in cars are built on that principle.

Which sounds a bit daft, when you’re talking about a film where a guy has a miniature nuclear reactor implanted in his chest and can blow up tanks with his hands. It’s just a film, Oisin . . . Jeeeeezus! But even so, that stuck out a bit at me. It shook my willingness to suspend disbelief. It’s funny what can bother you about a story, and how that changes depending on how you’re feeling at the time. No matter what the creators do, immersing yourself in a story will always be a subjective experience.

Interestingly, before the trailers ahead of the film, I saw the first plastic surgery consultancy ad I’ve ever seen on-screen. The imagery was a slow panning shot of an ageless, Renaissance style marble statue (simple and cheap). There were kids at this film, (even though it was on during a week-day). I wonder, were the surgery people trying to say: ‘well, you can’t have the super-powered suit of armour, but we can hoover the fat right out of that bulging gut of yours for a little less money’?

Speaking of manipulating bodies, I got to a school early a few weeks back and was checking my emails to kill some time, when I came across a link sent by my brother. The speaker in the video starts by telling a story I’d seen re-enacted in a documentary a few years ago.

It was an astounding tale of a woman named Anna Bågenholm, who was training to be a surgeon in Narvik in Norway. She was skiing in the hills beyond the city with two friends, and fell head-first through the ice covering a fast-flowing stream, where she became trapped. She was jammed in there for eighty minutes in sub-zero temperatures, with almost no air. Her body shut down after forty minutes, as her body temperature dropped to 13.7 °C. No one had ever survived at that temperature in such a situation before. She was eventually pulled out and given CPR until the rescue helicopter arrived, and she reached the hospital an hour later with no heartbeat, and no brain activity. But because she was still so cold, they thought she had a chance.

Over nine hours, a large team of medical staff brought her slowly back to life. She was paralyzed for over a year, and still suffers from some nerve damage in her hands, but now works as a radiologist in the same hospital.

Mark Roth-Suspended AnimationThe world of medicine has learned a lot from her experience, but this latest development takes the biscuit.

It’s one of the many fascinating talks given by an organization called TED (people brought together from the worlds of Technology, Entertainment and Design) and this talk, by researcher Mark Roth, is about how close we are to being able to achieve suspended animation. Not the space-travel type (although this development means that may soon step out of the realm of science fiction), but the type that allows the medical services to put someone into a state of hibernation to give ambulance crews or surgeons a chance to save the life of someone who’s dying. They have started human trials already. This is an absolutely extraordinary development.

So here’s a question for you: If you could put yourself into suspended animation for a set period of time, how long would you stay under, and why?

New World Order . . . ing System

I was tempted to start this post with ‘And so it begins . . .’, but that would be wrong. Because Google’s leviathan-like surfacing in the book market has been a long time coming. Google Editions, the company’s new online bookstore, is due to start selling this summer.

Google HQI have mixed feelings about Google’s strategy. On one hand, I’ve had to admire their ‘Shock and Awe’ approach to getting the publishing world online. Publishers have been tentatively dipping their toes in those digital waters, terrified of what it might mean for their business. And then Google has come along with a water cannon to encourage everyone’s cooperation. Their Library Project has caused uproar in the publishing world, and now their ‘device-agnostic’ book service (unlike Amazon or Apple, they’re not locking their service to a single device) looks set to push ebooks quickly into the mainstream. It won’t be long before they’re selling print editions, audio-books etc.

It’s all part of their master plan to ‘put all of the world’s information on the web’ – making it available through applications such as their search engine of course. They are also keen enthusiasts of ‘cloud-computing’ which, for those who don’t know, means you do all of your computing on the web. You pay a subscription and get access to online resources such as applications and storage, so you don’t have to buy the software or the hard drive space yourself. I can see the advantages, but I like having my stuff on my hard drive in my house, instead of having it on someone else’s computer where I can only reach it with a web connection. Opening Armouron BoxBut things are already heading in that direction, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, things in publishing might have to move that way too.

On a loosely related note, I received my copies of the first two Armouron books, ‘The Armoured Ghost’ and ‘Lying Eyes’, last week. The picture shows my daughter sorting through the box and giving me her opinion on their taste, colour, texture and tearability. The stories are set in a world where one company (the Perfect Corporation) attempts, among other things, to achieve complete control of the Earth’s information network.

No connection there at all . . .

So What the Hell Is a Children’s Laureate Anyway?

This afternoon, I was at a function in the headquarters of the Arts Council to celebrate the announcement of Ireland’s first ever Children’s Laureate. A host of us crowded into the room to hear President Mary McAleese declare Siobhan Parkinson our first Laureate.

So for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t spend half their life immersed in the children’s books world, I’m going to ask: What is a Children’s Laureate and what do they do? Well, for a start, here were the conditions laid down for nominations:

  • The Laureate must hold an internationally recognised body of high quality children’s writing and/or illustration.
  • The Laureate must have made a particularly significant contribution to the field of children’s literature in Ireland and have had a considerably positive impact on readers as well as other writers and illustrators.
  • The Laureate must demonstrate both eagerness and skill in engaging with children, young people, adults, and media and with the sector as a whole.
  • The Laureate should demonstrate an enthusiasm for promoting children’s literature in general.

And I can tell you, in Ireland, the people who match all of those requirements make up a very short list. There are substantially more pandas in the world, (and they’re easier to handle).

This is both an award to recognize a person’s contribution to children’s literature, and a bizarre kind of two-year, part-time job that they agree to take on. Britain has had one of these since 1999. Siobhan ParkinsonWe basically nicked the idea from them and painted it green. But hey, who cares as long as it works, right?

The original idea was born out of a conversation between the then Poet Laureate (that’s Britain’s official poet to the Queen, responsible for writing poetry to celebrate State occasions) Ted Hughes and children’s author Michael Morpurgo. Quentin Blake, who illustrated so many of Roald Dahl’s books, was Britain’s first Children’s Laureate, serving for two years from 1999 to 2001. After him came Anne Fine, Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Rosen and the current Laureate, Anthony Browne. These are Very Important People in the world of children’s books.

Yeah, okay. But what do they do?

The way I see it, the Children’s Laureate has three very different duties. Firstly, they provide a focus for everyone working within the children’s books industry. It helps if they have a campaign, some goal they aim to achieve before the end of their term. Examples from the UK include encouraging people to read out loud more, reading and writing more poetry, and sharing and enjoying picture books. But the main thing is that the Laureate acts as a figurehead, an inspiration and a driving force for those around them. They say ‘let’s all try and work together for the next while to accomplish this one task ‘. In the wayward world of children’s books, this is harder than it sounds. Sometimes it’s really difficult to get everyone to do one simple thing together.

But possibly even more important than pulling the industry together, is the Laureate’s second role as a spokesperson for the children’s books crowd, communicating for all of us to the outside world. Up until now, we haven’t had one person who could claim to represent all of us. And this is a major disadvantage in an environment where the arts is an easy target for politicians and business people looking for ways to cut costs, and where literature has been taking more than its fair share of the pain. There are a lot of other organizations and bodies out there who seem to be making their case better than we are. We need a single, clear voice delivering a coherent message.

Laureate LogoOh, and the third role? That person is a single human face which kids can identify as representing the industry that provides them with their reading material. So, they have to be good with kids. Although, once you’ve learned to deal with politicians and bureaucrats, kids are easy. At least kids can admit it when they’re caught acting like eejits.

Siobhan has some job ahead of her. As the first ever Irish Laureate, it’ll be up to her to lay the ground for everyone who comes after. But she’ll also have to be someone we can rally around, a strong voice to make the case to anyone who’ll listen, for the importance of books and stories and illustrations and the inspiration they bring to the children who read them. I heard recently that one in three kids is leaving school barely able to read. One in four adults is in the same boat. And yet we’re living on a small island where we punch well above our weight, because we turn out people who have self-confidence, drive, character, imagination and oodles of creativity. And to use an old country phrase, ‘it’s not off the ground they licked it’.

Siobhan is one of those people, and is intent on helping create more of them. And she is a veteran campaigner, who has the perception, intelligence, and articulate wit to do a bloody good job of it.

Congratulations Siobhan; it’s an award you thoroughly deserve, and a job for which you’re eminently qualified. Good luck . . . you’re going to need it!