What A Children’s Author Does and Why I’m Proud To Be One

I don’t usually write this sort of post. But a few days ago, the list of books for World Book Day 2018 was announced, and since then there’s been a LOT of discussion and rage online about it. The books for World Book Day (WBD) are the ones produced specially for the event: slim, nicely-designed books priced at £1 each and sold for a limited period only. Since all kids in the UK and Ireland are entitled to a WBD token worth £1, this means that any child anywhere in the UK and Ireland can get a book – a whole book! – for free. If you don’t like the ones on offer, you can use your voucher to get £1 off any other book you choose. It’s a fantastic scheme and has huge benefits for all (though not, one fears, for the booksellers, who have to cough up the value of the tokens themselves, placing many independent booksellers in a very difficult financial position).

So yay, this is good. Kids reading books is good. Kids who wouldn’t otherwise get a book getting one – yay. I am ALL FOR THIS. I am also VERY pro kids choosing their own books, and that means they can read badly-written pap or high literary quality, I don’t mind.

This year, most of the special books published for WBD are either from long-running series (Paddington, Mr Men) or ‘authored’ by celebrities (Tom Fletcher, Claire Balding, Julian Clary, Nadiya Hussain). Only three of the books are by authors/illustrators who are currently writing and illustrating children’s books as their main job.

Celebrities have always fronted children’s books. Those of us who work in the business are used to it. But for once, the number of celebrities outweighs the number of ‘real’ authors in the biggest annual promotion of children’s books that happens in this country. The books may or may not have been written by the celebrity (most celebs have a ghost-writer). That’s not an issue I’m picking apart here. The books might be brilliant; I don’t know. They might be rubbish; I don’t know that either.  And as I said above, I don’t mind what children choose to read.

The point I want to make is that celebrity authors are not children’s authors and it is wrong to promote this idea to the public. Being a children’s author is about so much more than putting your name on the front of a book. It’s about more than one book or a short series. Being a children’s author is a huge responsibility, because you are being given a chance to reach the youngest, most open-minded, smart, mouldable people in our society. It’s a privilege and an honour to do this job. And when I say ‘this job’ I mean:

  • coming up with ideas, shaping, working on them, submitting and re-submitting to publishers who are increasingly picky and risk-averse when taking on a new project
  • repeating point 1 over and over again because a children’s author is someone who wants to write for children for a long time, not someone who fancies trying it for a year or two
  • visiting schools on a regular basis to run workshops and give talks, and encourage children to read and write and visit their library, and to do this even when we don’t have a new book out because that’s part of the job
  • communicating with librarians, teachers, parents, the blogging community and other authors whether through social media or email to share what we’re working on, the process, sending freebies (often that we’ve paid for ourselves) to school groups who are reading our books, suggesting ways schools can use our books in class, answering questions that come in from kids who’ve loved our books – basically, there’s a lot of online interaction between people within the children’s book world because at its heart it’s a community that supports and nurtures each other
  • and that brings me on to author networks. The children’s author network in the UK is the nicest, most supportive and encouraging community I’ve ever been part of. There is very little hierarchy: new authors can chat to authors who’ve published hundreds of books; an author who published their last book over ten years ago is still as much a valid member as someone who’s published three books in the past year. There is virtually no one who will snub you if you ask a naive or inexperienced question. If you meet another children’s author at a festival, you will almost certainly get on because of shared experiences. I don’t exist in a vacuum: my author friends have helped me through really tough stages in my career because that’s what we do. We also share experiences from festivals and school visits (good and bad) and offer advice to those asking for ideas to use in kids’ workshops. Basically, a children’s author is someone who is part of a much bigger thing than themselves, and they communicate and interact with it
  • we also read each other’s books and often review them or recommend them to kids and librarians when we’re out and about or online
  • we add our support to vital campaigns to save public libraries or schools’ library services; we show up in person when needed; we write letters and sign petitions and our names carry weight because we are children’s authors
  • perhaps more than ever, we are grateful to be given the opportunity to share our thoughts and ideas and scribblings with children, to have our names on the front of books, to be available to any child for free in a library. I can’t tell you how honoured I feel when a child takes the time to write to me, or a teacher tweets a photo of my book and says how much their class enjoyed it. This is what keeps me going and, I suspect, many of my author friends.

I don’t mind celebrities putting their names on the front of books for children. But that does not make them a children’s author. Ask yourself: what, out of any of the above, do celebrities actually do?

The World Book Day thing aside, I would like to urge publishers to perhaps think more carefully about how the current influx of celebrity publishing damages the public perception of what makes a children’s author. Because some of us are struggling to see how we can get our voices heard, and the people we need to be championing our work are the publishers.

*Edited to add: a good author friend has pointed out that not all children’s authors regularly visit schools (for a variety of reasons), and that not all children’s authors write or illustrate books as their main job. This is an excellent point, and does not invalidate their standing. Publishing advances/royalties are extremely low these days, and many authors have another job because they can’t afford not to. However, those authors, almost without exception, make an effort to be part of the community – like commenting on my blog posts and putting me right! 😉 – and that is something celebrities don’t do.

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15 comments

  1. Well put, and so important to say. And I am with you on the community thing. I am bowled over by it, and know that it adds depth, wisdom and value to anyone reading or interacting with a true children’s author.

  2. So true. Thanks Jo for speaking out on behalf of all of us. I would add that it’s a very bad message to plant in children’s minds, that you have to be a celebrity FIRST before you can become a children’s author (or politician, etc.).

  3. Thank you for this – describes perfectly what I’ve been working so hard to achieve over the past four years or so. It’s not a flash in the pan idea to write for children…it IS, as you so rightly said, a privilege and an honour. And SO much more than simply ‘write a book for kids’.

  4. Hi Jo, this is a very timely article. I’m at the very edge of this community but I can already feel it’s warmth and welcome. I think what’s also frustrating is when ‘greatest book lists’ are populated with exclusively twentieth century volumes!

  5. Excellent points – and I’m very glad to see the change at the end, as someone who has never been able to do school visits but still very much (I hope!) part of the community.

  6. Spot on, Jo. Brilliant though World Book Day can be for promoting ‘a certain type of book’, some of us are slogging away all year to encourage children’s reading. And why no children’s non-fiction on the list?

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