Childrens’ Books

Last week, I found myself in a position where I was reviewing a child’s book.  I had signed up with the Readers’ Favorite website to a contest.  I sent a book in to be reviewed, and one of the conditions was that I would review someone else’s book.  I could choose which book I wanted to review, and Readers’ Favorite would send the book to me (as long as I lived in the States).  I thought I would select a book, and buy it on  When I began to search for a book on the Readers’ Favorite site, they all seemed to be ebooks.  I finally noticed a button labelled ‘Find a Hard Copy Book’.  I clicked in that button an one (1) book appeared on my screen: it was a childrens’ book.  When I queried the website whether there really was only one hard copy book available, I was told that for the time being, that was the case, because they were prioritising books which had been entered in the contest.

When I read, I much prefer to be holding a hard copy book, rather than a screen, so I thought, what the heck, I’ll review the children’s book.  I bought it on; it arrived, and I read it twice.  I can’t tell you the title of the book or the author’s name because Readers’ Favorite has a (quite sensible) rule that only they can post reviews on the internet.  (What follows could be considered a review.)

The book was about a baby animal which is born in winter and is brought into the family house and raised until it is old enough to join other animals of the same kind.  The story featured some of the pranks the animal got up to, as well as what its human carers learned in the process.  It was a cute story, and the author and publisher had obviously gone to a good deal of trouble to produce the book: it was hard cover with lots of colour illustrations.  The back cover had the author’s photo and bio.  There were also comments by local people about the story.  There were several informative pages at the back of the book where one could learn more about this particular animal. All well and good.

But . . . I felt that the story was told from the perspective of the animal’s carer (the author), rather than the perspective of a child.  In this sense, there was too much detail about things that were of concern to the carer, but which would be of little interest to most children.  There were missed opportunities to explore the feelings of the carer and to guess at the feelings of the animal in particular situations.  Many children find stories which provoke or include feelings quite interesting.

The illustrations were in colour, placed adjacent to the relevant text, and quite appropriate.  But for me, they were complete pictures, leaving no room for a child to add to the image from his imagination.  I believe that the most effective illustrations in childrens’ books are either fanciful or are incomplete in some way, thus provoking the child’s imagination.

So, for me, this particular child’s book should get a good score for effort, but it missed one important point: catering to the reader.  Of course all writers have to keep the reader in mind as they write, and this must be more of a challenge when an adult writes for children.

Writers without a Genre

Iain Banks, a Scottish “novelist of hallucinatory brilliance who attracted notoriety with his grotesque and bizarre tales” died last week at the age of 59.  His obituary in The Daily Telegraph says that until his first book, The Wasp Factory, appeared, he “plastered the walls of his room with rejection slips”.  I know the feeling!  The Wasp Factory was a controversial first novel which brought Banks notoriety (1984).  “Even before its appearance, one publisher claimed that the book had made him vomit into his waste paper basket.  It had a similarly emetic effect on many reviewers: ‘a repulsive piece of work’; ‘silly, gloatingly sadistic’; ‘a work of unparalleled depravity’ were among the judgements of the newspapers.  Many, though, also conceded the hallucinatory brilliance of the author’s imagination, and there was widespread acknowledgement that Banks’ control of tone and language were more assured than that of many established novelists.”

“The defining qualities of Banks’ novels, whether mainstream or genre, remained a macabre black humour and a taste for the bizarre and the Gothic. . . . In 1987 he published Consider Phlebas, the first of the Culture novels; thereafter there was, for a time at least, a clearer distinction between his science fiction output and his more conventional novels, which tended to appear in alternative years.  His space operas, which combined political musings, scientific speculation, mordantly funny asides (the names of the artificially intelligent spaceships were a long-running joke), and violent, frequently gruesome action sequences, brought him a new, large and enthusiastic fan base.”

My reaction is that Banks was one of those rare novelists who had two distinct audiences: a mainstream audience and a science fiction audience, although it has to be said that some of his works had their feet planted in both camps.  One recent commentator expressed the view that “not since Robert Louis Stevenson, has a writer so successfully bridged multiple genres”.  As a child, I was a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson; I liked Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and I thought of him as a clever novelist.  I decided to look him up, and I found that he, too, was a Scot.  His Wikipedia listing has him as a “novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer.”  In fact, Stevenson wrote twelve published novels, five collections of short stories, six uncollected short stories, five volumes of poetry, seven volumes of travel writing, and a long list of essays and other works.  In addition to all that, Stevenson ” wrote over 123 original musical compositions or arrangements, including solos, duets, trios and quartets for various combinations of flageolet, flute, clarinet, violin, guitar, mandolin, and piano.”

Unfortunately, he died at the age of 44, probably of a stroke, having suffered from poor health for much of his life.  With the rise of ‘modern literature’ after World War I, Stevenson was seen as a second class writer, specialising in children’s literature and the horror genre.  The 1973 edition of the Oxford Anthology of English Literature (2000 pages) does not even mention Stevenson.  But later in the 20th century, his reputation began to re-ascend with recognition of his literary skill and imaginative powers.  Setting the critics aside, he is the 26th most translated author in the world.

So, sometimes specialisation is not necessary.

Pupils Who Turn to E-books are Weaker Readers

This was the headline of an article in The Daily Telegraph – May 16.

The article reported the results of  a survey of 34,910 eight to sixteen-year-olds which was undertaken by the charity, the National Literary Trust.  It found that nearly all children had access to a computer at home and 40% owned a tablet or smart phone.  It reported that the number of children reading from a screen every day had, for the first time, exceeded those who read printed material.

The study reported that children had been slower to make use of digital devices than adults, but that the number of young digital readers has doubled in the last two years.  Publishers and retailers have understood this and are offering a larger range of children’s books and comics available in digital form.

The study found that pupils who read only electronic books every day were considerably less likely to be strong readers than those who read in print, and they enjoy reading much less.  Fewer electronic readers have a favourite book.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, boys are more likely than girls to read from digital devices.

One interesting (and not unfavourable statistic) from the study is regarding the reading of news by pupils.  While the proportion of students reading newspapers has fallen from 46.8% in 2005 to 32.2% in 2012, more than 40% of children and young people were reading the news on their computer, smart phone or tablet. This suggests to me that the number of students who are taking an interest in the news is growing.

One socio-economic statistic is that children who receive free meals at school are less likely to read traditional books than their counterparts who do not receive free meals.

Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literary Trust said: “While we welcome the positive impact which technology has on bringing further reading opportunities to young people, it’s crucial that reading in print is not cast aside.  We are concerned by our finding that children who only read on-screen are significantly less likely to enjoy reading and less likely to be strong readers.  Good reading skills and reading for pleasure are closely linked to children’s success at school and beyond.  We need to encourage children to become avid readers, whatever format they choose.”