Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Book snobbery - no better way to put potential young readers off books for life - A ReadItDaddy Editorial

It's not exactly a massive surprise that a journalist attacking a beloved author would automatically create such a kerfuffle, particularly if that recently departed author's last book was launching the same week as the ill-timed editorial piece went live. The article and the consequent reactions across social media were extremely interesting, from both sides of the fence (those who agreed with Jonathan Jones but had previously lacked the courage to admit it, and those who loved Sir Terry's work and couldn't quite believe what they were reading).

Though I don't doubt that Jonathan Jones' article for the Guardian achieved exactly what Jonathan Jones intended (to get everyone talking about Jonathan Jones - sorry, did I mention his name enough? Apparently he's called Jonathan Jones and works for The Guardian - yeah I know, my cheque's in the post), it was a particularly nasty piece of ill-informed drivel that served to undermine the value of critique. 

Whether you love or loathe Terry Pratchett's work, you can't deny that his books are hugely well respected and loved by fantasy and comedy fans, and of course a truckload of authors who have either been lucky enough to work with Sir TP or have cited him as a major influence on their own writing. 

To damn them, as the article did, as mediocre after the journalist known as Jonathan Jones stated he'd 'merely flicked through one in a bookstore once' was just breathtakingly idiotic, I don't think you can even call it snobbish as it just seemed like painting a target on your own back or attaching a big 'kick me' sign on your butt.

This blog post started out as a reaction to the Guardian piece (which I disagreed with wholly, despite not being the world's biggest Pratchett fan myself but certainly loving a great many of his books and characters) it was also partly prompted by a Twitter conversation where a publisher was asking (on behalf on a children's author) for examples of "Bad Children's Books".

How on earth can you summarise in a tweet what is "bad" about a bad children's book? Off the top of your head, if you CAN think of specific examples, what exactly is bad about the book? Does it have sucky artwork? Is the story riddled with cliches and typical children's story tropes? Is it just particularly badly written, sloppily edited, poorly designed and presented?

It got me thinking about bad books - and we have seen some really bad books - bad by definition of seemingly managing to get absolutely everything wrong all at once in a way that alienates the intended audience (children) and their main source of funds (adults / their parents). 

If you're scanning this article waiting for specific examples I'm afraid you're out of luck. Our broad brush answer to the original 'bad books' request was 'anything with a TV / Film / Merchandise tie in for the 5+ age range, that reads like it's been written for under 5s' - You'll probably know the sort of books we mean, where the entire thing has been Frankensteined together using a bunch of art assets, a horribly cliched story or even a potted and heavily summarised version of the movie or TV programme in question - with nary an author or illustrator's name in evidence. Couple that example with any book that lays out its table with some gender-specific nonsense like "The Adventure Book for Boys" or "The Handbag Collecting and Pretty Princess Book for Girls" and that's about as far as we'd go in naming and shaming bad book examples. Even with the gender-stereotype stuff, gender issues are so horribly and hatefully ingrained despite our best efforts with Charlotte that she'd probably still quite like some of them. 

Early on when we started this blog, I wanted to try and pass on a complete lack of snobbery to Charlotte when it comes to books. Sometimes I'd grab stuff from the library stacks that I hated the look of, just to see if she would like or dislike them. Often I was pleasantly surprised to find that judging a book by its cover (or a quick 'flick through in a bookstore') didn't hold up when a book was properly sat down with, read and enjoyed.

On rare occasions there were books that neither of us took to. Those books have never appeared on the blog and probably never will (we did once submit a fairly negative review of something which we were roundly pilloried for, mostly because we were so crushingly disappointed with the book's promise which it roundly didn't deliver on - and which was the fault of the editor and not the author / illustrator in this particular case - We'll leave you to search for that one). 

We usually don't review 'bad' books mostly because life's too short to spend time writing Jonathan Jones-esque clickbait / troll pieces, though I'm sure most bloggers have been tempted in the past to write big moany pieces laying into one book or another. I just don't think there's any mileage in putting a young reader off something purely because you don't like it, particularly when that reader may be at an age where they're just beginning to realise not everything is automatically awesome. 

What was very interesting in the bad books discussion was when several well-loved series were mentioned as being a real pain in the proverbial to read (and review). The beloved Mr Men and even poor old Thomas the Tank Engine were lined up in the sights of some of the folk involved in the discussion though we rather like The Mr Men, and I think Charlotte would put up with Thomas books, even the new ones which really are tough to love. 

Book snobbery (like wine snobbery, food snobbery, gad there's even cigar and football snobbery apparently!) serves no one and it certainly doesn't serve the young, who are open minded and imaginative enough to make best of most things (which is why you'll instantly spot in our reviews when a book went down well with Charlotte but didn't with me, and vice versa). 

Jonathan Jones (that name again, Jonathan Jones) may have exposed himself as an ill-informed book snob in the very first paragraph of his article but some of the responses - from readers, authors, editors, publishers and illustrators alike - have been absolutely golden, and I doubt anything he says would put anyone off reading Pratchett (or anything else for that matter) though I'd imagine the Guardian lost a few readers over that particular piece of excrescence.