The Word on the Street

So, I didn’t win the Mordus du Polar Award in France (goddamnit). That honour went to Marie-Aude Murail for ‘Le Tueur a la Cravate’ – congratulations Marie-Aude.

While I’m on, there are a few things I thought worth spreading word about:

I did a recent guest post on a blog called Pivot Dublin, which is devoted to design issues of all kinds. My piece concerns my doubts about our ability to create books for kids moving from the stage where they’re confident to read, to where they might be able to read novels. I think one of the main problems here is that the publishing industry is, understandably enough, run by book-lovers. But that has led to a kind of prejudice when it comes to reading, and we’re seeing it when kids hit eight or nine. With kids increasingly reading in so many different ways, we should be able to convince increasing numbers to read books, but we’re not. I think the way we approach the design of books is one of the reasons for this.

On a different note, I’m going to be doing a couple of events down in Listowel for their Writers’ Week. The dates are yet to be finalized, but there’ll be at least two events down there.

In other news, I found an interesting piece on self-publishing versus going mainstream recently, and whether the Big Six publishers are floundering or merely changing slowly. It’s informative and well-argued. You should check it out.

Speaking of the publishers and what they’re up to, David Maybury’s recent piece on Bologna Book Fair for the Bookseller is full of enlightening notes. And while we’re there, word of looting at Bologna might make you wonder what strange breed goes to a book fair to steal books.

What was the whole point in going digital if people are going to just steal the printed versions?

Appropriate Portrayals

Though it’s not specifically about books for children, I wanted to mention a perfect example of how the children’s books industry hobbles itself when it comes to selling to kids. I was sent a link to a blog before Christmas, discussing a project called the Monster Engine by an illustrator in the US named Dave DeVries. It started with his young niece drawing pictures in his sketchbook, prompting him to wonder how the pictures would look if they were painted in highly finished, realistic way. Seeing as this was what he did for a living, he decided to go ahead and try it.

The idea resulted in a book, a gallery exhibition and a public demo, all based around some brilliantly spooky and funny artwork.

You can have a look at the website yourself, but I first found it through this blog where it was mentioned, and where the concept of giving children’s drawings a professional finish sparked a heated debate about whether it was appropriate to treat the products of children’s imaginations in this fashion. Some believed that this idea of rendering kids’ pictures in a highly finished way was interfering in their creative process, while others thought it was brilliant to see the wild and macabre images it produced. I fall into the second category – and it should be pointed out that DeVries didn’t just take the pictures and paint them up, he asked the kids to create monsters, and then discussed with them how he should render them.

It seems to me to be a fun thing to do, if done in cooperation with the kids, and with plenty of input from them. I see no reason to be wringing hands over it, but that’s exactly what we in the books industry do when we’re producing food for kids’ imaginations.

Now let’s take a look at a contrasting approach – that used by those who sell toys. I remember years ago, when ‘The Nightmare on Elm Street’ films were popular, I saw a toy version of Freddy Krueger’s finger-knives on sale in some shops. They were unmistakably aimed at kids – they were the size that would fit a child under ten. Given that the films were for over-18’s, who was buying these toys? Who was playing with them? The first film, at least, would have scared the bejesus out of a kid that age (I can’t really remember the others). I don’t remember any fuss over these toys.

In the run-up to Christmas, I was in one of the Smyths toy stores, where I took this picture. They were using a ‘Call of Duty’ poster to promote a range of army toys (they’re not even ‘Call of Duty’ toys, they just look the part). ‘Call of Duty’ is an 18-cert game, though some of my stepson’s mates got it from Santa last year (I love that, getting an 18-cert game from Santa). In the same shop, they had ‘Halo’ toys on display, which were very like the one shown in the photo. The latest ‘Halo’ game is rated 16+. So who’s buying these toys?

Probably the same kind of kid that I was, when I was nine or ten. And clearly no one in Smyths toys had any compunction with using a supposedly unsuitable game to sell war toys.

My point is this: these are the same kids we’re trying to sell books to – and if you’re talking about reluctant boy readers (as we so often are), these are exactly the kids we should be trying to sell books to. Books are harder to access than games and toys – your reading has to be up to scratch. And they’re clearly not regarded as cool as games, films or even toys. For the most part, books are not objects of desire. So why are we always tripping over ourselves to protect kids from stuff that’s already in their own imaginations? And stuff that’s being sold to them by industries whose products already have massive advantages over ours? Sometimes, I think our imaginations are our own worst enemies.

On a positive note, here’s an excellent article in ‘The Guardian’ (found through ‘Irish Publishing News’), written by Faber CEO, Stephen Page. He urges publishers to be pro-active, rather than defensive, in this fast-changing environment, and talks about his excitement at all the new developments. I concur!

Alternative Approaches

This post is dedicated to various aspects of not doing things the normal way. I’m going to start with a recent article in the Meath Chronicle about a class in St Fintina’s Post Primary in Longwood, County Meath. Each of the first year students has been provided with a Fizzbook Spin tablet-style laptop. The school worked with The Educational Company of Ireland and Steljes to deliver this new approach, where the software for the textbooks was preloaded onto the laptops. There is a cost for the consoles – they’re paid for by a rental scheme over five years, – but the ebooks loaded onto them work out cheaper than normal textbooks. Students can even email their homework to their teachers.

Meanwhile, reports that the Google Settlement has been rejected by a court in the States. U.S. District Judge Denny Chin of New York ruled the settlement would: ‘give Google a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission’. This could work out just right in the long run. Google were (indeed, still are) trampling over copyright law with their library project, but at least they were leading the charge into digitization with some kind of strategy, which the publishing world as a whole is lacking. This way, we might have a major start towards a global, digitized library, without Google being able to maintain a bloody great monopoly over it.

My brother sent me this link, an article about a teacher getting fired for writing stories. Without knowing all the facts of the case (the story’s told mostly from the teacher’s side), I’m hesitant to make any judgement on it, but it sounds ludicrous that Leonora Rustamova (known to the kids as ‘Miss Rusty’) lost her job for finding an innovative way of getting resistant teenagers to read. I’ve worked with enough of these kinds of kids myself to know that the normal rules do not apply. You’ve got to take an alternative approach to reach teenagers – particularly boys – once they decide ‘I don’t/can’t read’. Basically Rustamova started writing chapters of a story for a group of lads that featured them as characters – and it worked. They ate up each chapter as she produced them – they waited in anticipation for the next one. Her husband used a self-publishing website to format the story, but when he put it up online, Rustamova went from pioneering literacy campaigner to educational pariah at the click of a key. Like I said, I don’t know all the facts, but it sounds like a massive overreaction to me, and a warning to any other teacher who might dare to use some initiative.

One of the terms that everybody’s spouting at the moment is ‘cloud-computing’. This is where you use online software and storage space to do your work, allowing you to access it anywhere you have web access. It’s the next big thing, and all the big name tech companies are trying to take the lead. But surprisingly, Amazon have beaten the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Google to the punch by producing an online music service, allowing you to store and organize your music online. I have a few issues with the whole cloud-computing thing – you reduce your privacy to near-zero and provide hackers with a potential goldmine – but there are clearly advantages too.

If you’re in a philosophical mood, here’s an article in the New York Review of Books, debating civil liberty issues on the internet. Is it really a massively influential tool for creating democracy, or does it divert attention away from the real means of achieving people power? It’s a good thought-provoking read.

And finally, on a lighter note, I watched proudly the other day, as my baby daughter – still awaiting her first tooth – seized a board-book out of my hands and began to chew it ravenously. Her mother, the librarian, was overcome with dismay at the damage caused. But for Dada it was a proud moment as his baby girl began her first active – if slightly slobbery – engagement with a book. You can never start too early.