Pictures are the language you learned without realising it. From before you were born, they have been influencing, informing and enriching your life. They were the illustrations in the books about babies your parents read with nervous anticipation as they waited for you to emerge from the womb. They were the health promotion posters on the walls of the hospital on the day you arrived. They were the diagrams on the instructions your parents followed to put the car seat in, to put together the baby gear and the toys that would promote development.
They were the illustrations on those toys, on the play-mat and your high-chair tray, your plastic plate and your bib. They were the images on the cloth books and board books that you chewed as your mum and dad gazed down at you with love. They were the cartoons you watched as you grew. As your parents and teachers first taught you to read, a systematic process laid out in the school curriculum, they used pictures to help you understand the meaning of words. But there was no systematic process to teach you how to read the lines, shapes and colours that made two-dimensional symbols on paper. It was taken for granted that you would understand these without being taught.
Even as you mastered reading words, you continued to read illustrations, because they made the early struggles easier, and still they showed you things that would contort words into knots to achieve the same meaning. These two languages were two aspects of the same thing, human expression, each as valuable as the other, though you wouldn’t know that from the way the world treats them. As ‘reading books with pictures’ became an idiom for ignorance and stupidity, as illustrators were sidelined, given a lower status than writers in publishing lists and book awards, you still looked at pictures in newspapers, magazines, adverts, adult cartoons, instruction manuals and road signs. You graduated from comics and cartoon strips, ‘growing up’, but it was still okay to look at political cartoons that could convey more meaning with one image than many of the news articles you read. Imagine the worldwide web without pictures. Imagine if the only images we had were the ones that could be photographed.
And now, as a new generation of parents around the world sit down to read picture books to their children – without explaining to them how to read pictures – remember what it was like when you were that age. Remember that you were able to learn this language of illustration so effortlessly, so instinctively, because someone else put in the time, hard work, imagination, passion and expertise to understand how a change in the curve of this line can be the difference between showing contentment and regret; how this shadow can give the illusion of depth to a two-dimensional image, how adding this colour will change the entire feeling of this picture.
You can read this language because an illustrator uses it so skilfully and expresses themselves so clearly. It is the language we use to learn other languages and it is the only universal language the world has.
We could do more to show our appreciation for that.
Children’s Book Festival – in terms of events, it’s the busiest time in the year for most children’s book authors (and to a lesser extent, illustrators) in Ireland. Officially, it runs from the beginning to the end of October, although it tends to bleed into September and November too. Libraries, schools and bookshops all over the country will be running all kinds of events to celebrate children’s books. There are also bigger gigs, staged in theatres, run by the libraries or by Children’s Books Ireland. CBI produce Bookfest, collating reviews on the latest books, as well as the posters and other marketing material. They also act as hub for the festival, helping connect up the country and make this a national thing.
For any writer or illustrator who does talks, workshops or shows, this is the time everybody wants you to come and visit. World Book Day in March is the next busiest part of the year, but it’s just not the same as facing into the marathon month that is CBF.
I’ve had a few events since the beginning of September, but in October, it’s going to be a bit mental. I can start getting inquiries for CBF as early as March or April – sometimes earlier.
I normally need a few sessions to get me warmed up after the summer break. So far I’ve done the Monster Book Lunch in Dun Laoghaire for the Mountains to Sea Festival, I’ve been to Bush Post Primary near Dundalk and Skerries Educate Together. Yesterday I gave a talk to student teachers in Froebel College in Blackrock. All four of these were different types of events, so I should have well and truly shaken the rust off by the time I kick off CBF with two days in libraries in County Clare next week.
Over the next month, I’ll also be travelling to Tipperary, Cavan, Kildare, Monaghan, Kerry and Leitrim.
I don’t get much writing or illustrating done in October.
I’m grateful that the invitations are still coming in, because libraries and schools are having a really tough time of it. But it’s a testament to the importance given to children’s books that in many counties, they’re making a real effort to keep their part of the festival running even though they’ve got much less money to do it with.
So now I’m making sure I’ve sharpened my pencils, I’ve got my drawing materials, my easel and my books packed in my sessions case. I’ve a few new t-shirts and some new notebook-enabled combats in the wardrobe. The roadmaps sit ready in the car – which stands cleaned out and scrubbed up, as it’s going to be my mobile command centre for much of the next month. I keep promising myself I’ll learn some voice exercises to keep my throat in order through the month – which I have yet again failed to do.
I’m taking on a few different things this time round too, so I’ve some more prep work to do yet: some comics workshops for primary school kids in Meath; ‘The Ideas Shop’ theatre show with Sarah Webb and Judi Curtin in Bray and Navan; a workshop on plot and structure, in the beginning of November, at a seminar run in Swords by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I find that, most of the time, I have to think just few days ahead at any one time. I have to deal with October in manageable chunks.
I remember when I first got published, and I had visions of me sitting in quiet contemplation all day, writing and drawing and painting. Happily shutting the world out so I could produce my masterpieces. Since then, I’ve seen more of Ireland, and the UK, then I’d ever seen before. It’s cool, and exhausting, and stimulating, and bewildering, and it flattens you, but lifts you onto your toes again. And it’s all to get kids to read books. My books, obviously, but any books too. To get them to look into other people’s heads and find all the brilliant stuff that lies within. And really, that’s what it’s about.
And maybe out there, just every now and again, some kid will see what I and others do and will say to themselves in that quite, resolved, determined way: ‘I’m going to do that too, some day.’ And that would be pretty cool too.
The issue of what, and more importantly how children will read in the future is a battle – not just for hearts and minds, but also for attention spans. In this, the second of this three-part post, I’ll outline how I believe this change in reading will shape publishing as we know it, and how those of us working in publishing now should be taking the initiative.
I was in Eason’s a little while ago and took this picture. It shows the display stand for children’s comics and magazines. The magazines cannot actually fit on the shelves because of the sheer volume of bulging blister packs stuck to the fronts of the mags, containing cheap plastic widgets. In many cases, the mags have to come in plastic bags to contain all the stuff that come with them.
The fact that most of these ‘gifts’ are pure unadulterated shite and will almost immediately be discarded, is disguised by announcing them to the world with words like ‘Mega!’ or ‘Wicked!’ or ‘Awesome!’ in large, colourful print. Bejaysus, those people in marketing are an awful cunning bunch. The cover of one issue of my stepson’s favourite mag used the word ‘Mega! no less than five times to describe their various gifts, competitions, posters etc.
I am somehow reminded of the Europeans buying the American continent off the natives with trinkets and alcohol (and ethnic cleansing). Not that I’m suggesting that the publishers of these mags are subjecting our innocent little darlings to cultural extermination. The business and consumer relationship is a symbiotic one. They are a constant influence on one another. I just think it’s a very clear indicator of where reading – and the absorption of information in general – is headed.
I posted a blog a while back about the difficulties bookshops are facing. Things have changed a lot in the last ten or fifteen years. I spent a lot of time looking at the new stuff in bookshops when I was a kid, but I bought hardly any new books. Most of what I bought came from secondhand bookshops, where marketing didn’t exist and categories were much more general – in fact, books were lucky to be categorized at all. And, of course, because they were secondhand, the authors saw none of the money I spent. There are very few of these kinds of shops around any more, except for the limited ranges in charity shops and places like Chapters on Parnell Street, who have become a kind of a hybrid of both kinds of selling.
I was also a regular at the library; a dark, musty place with a limited selection for children, but I didn’t know any different. Today’s libraries would put it to shame. I’m not indulging in nostalgia here – nor is this a ‘you don’t know how good you have it’ rant. My main point is the limited access I had to text of any kind. Books cost more in proportion to your income. The newsagents had less to offer.There were no mobile phones, very basic home computers and no world wide web.
Everything was printed on paper. It was stored and accessed in specific locations, in limited numbers, in a static state. Once printed, it did not change, it did not update itself. If you were seeking information, any reference one piece of text made to anything else had to be accessed through another piece of printed material, which you might or might not be able to find or reach. The ability to access the world’s information was dependent on who you were, where you lived, and how much money you had.
And, of course, your education, your ability to read – to know how to choose between different texts, interpret different styles of writing, and to be able to read at length.
Now our lives are flooded with text – coded information that you have to be able to read to survive in the modern world. Search engines provide an astoundingly efficient way of finding whatever information we want. Young people are growing up thinking of text, not as something printed on page, but as something that is fluid, changeable, something they interact with and can affect. A link to other things.
They are becoming adept at surfing, reading across a wide surface from one subject to another. But, as a result, many readers are investing less time in diving into this sea of information to any great depth. It’s hard to blame them. There’s so much cool stuff out there to distract them.
Them? Hell, I’m as bad myself. I try to research something for a story and end up, several hours later, fascinated by something that has nothing to do with what I was originally looking for.
As a writer, trying to make a living by feeding into this ocean of text, I’m affected in two ways. The first is the way I have to write: As a writer of books, I’m not just competing with other books. My potential readers have to be dragged away from magazines, websites, social networking sites, blogs – never mind games and the telly. So I have to do a Dan Brown, trying to produce stories that protrude with so many hooks you can’t read them without snagging your sleeves. It’s not enough to grip your readers, you have to cling desperately to their leg as they walk away from you. Soon, we could be reduced to the literary equivalent of sticking plastic widgets to our text.
The second way I’m affected is that I’m . . . well . . . getting on in years. At the ripe old age of thirty-six, I am substantially older than most of the readers my books are marketed to. It’s true of most writers for young people. They are not, by and large, young people themselves. Except now they are.
Books are, by nature, longer than the average post on Facebook or a blog (even this one). They take time to write and are therefore, like most published writers, old by the time they are finished. They can take a while to read too. A book does not tell you about your friends and family, it doesn’t interact with you. Professional writers are not just competing with each other. We’re competing with our readers. They are writing for each other. The newspapers discovered this problem some time ago.
The wondrous connectivity of the web has created a text that offers communication with people you can relate to, who speak your language. There is an immediacy, an excitement and sense of techno-cool that is easy to read and easy to access. Something you can share with your friends. Text hasn’t just become part of your social life, it is actually replacing parts of your social life.
But more to the point, the mass production of text, which was once the sole territory of print publishers, has become available to the masses. These advances have allowed the readers to seize the means of production. The nerve of them.
But it doesn’t stop there. Because text is starting to lift off the page and come to life. Audio books are becoming increasingly popular. The Amazon Kindle has text-to-speech software that will read the book to you. It’s like having Stephen Hawking speaking in your ear, but it’s an interesting start.
In the opposite direction, voice recognition software has left its awkward, fumbling days behind and is becoming ever more practical. Google’s Nexus 1 phone boasts that many of its applications can be voice activated. With voice-to-text, you can speak into the mike and see a text write itself before you eyes. The phone can even censor swear words – a feature I find a bit scary.
How will this affect the next generation’s ability to read and write at length – or even do these things at all? I don’t believe that text is going anywhere, but what about the ability to interpret it? At the moment, it’s certainly not the publishing industry who will decide. We may have hardly any influence at all.
Publishing is no longer something that is done and then finished – handed from one small group of people out to another, larger one. It is an ongoing process in which anyone can take part. Which I think poses a couple of questions.
The first has been faced both by publishers and readers ever since manuscripts started being reproduced in large quantities as books: Faced with such a quantity of text, how do we choose what to devote our valuable reading time to? The more sources of text, the harder that question is to answer.
The second question is: How does a professional publishing industry survive in an environment where anyone can publish and access text for free?
And if it doesn’t survive in any recognizable form, what will happen to the quality of the material that continues to be published?
I’ll have a look at that in Part 3.