Thursday, 23 November 2017

"Nothing's original under the sun" but will we truly ever see an end to plagiarism in children's books? - A ReadItTorial

Oh what fun there has been lately in the book world. The highly anticipated John Lewis Christmas Ad campaign rolled out "Moz the Monster" with an accompanying book to go with the ad.

It didn't take long before Chris Riddell took heed of the various tweets and messages about the similarities between Moz and his own picture book Mr Underbed and lightheartedly voiced thanks for John Lewis' promotion of 'his' story.

Eerie similarities there are indeed, and the subsequent championing of Riddell's cause (he's a popular bloke y'know!) meant that Mr Underbed is now being hastily reprinted, and has ended up selling quite well - perhaps equally as well as Moz the Monster? We'll have to have a look at the end of week charts for this week to see.

This incident raised a lot of questions and definitely feels like the tip of the iceberg for a larger scale debate on 'plagiarism' in children's books. After all, we have seen many cases raised where authors of 'grown up' books have successfully sued a would-be cash ins or clones of their own books and have seen some sort of justice served.

At home there was quite a heated conversation about this. My wife (bless her) came firmly down on the side of Moz, John Lewis and Nosy Crow, with the quite correct observation that stories about monsters under the bed are definitely nothing new, but nor could any one author or illustrator claim that their work was "the original" and definitive.

(To that end, we really enjoyed THIS book about a creature living under the bed too and I've not seen it mentioned once anywhere!)

Emily Brown and the Thing by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton 
In fact, let's go nuts and just randomly google for kids books about the same subject...

And it goes on, and on, and on, and on...

I took Chris Riddell's side, purely because I like what he does (see, told you he's a popular bloke), and also a lot of what you see in the ad and in the book does eerily come very close to what Chris originally drew in his own story, but you're playing a very dangerous game if you start to try and slap copyright or intellectual ownership over - for example - monsters with big noses or spotty duvets in your book. 

I wonder if the whole thing might've spun out entirely differently if the 'impostor' book was just an ordinary everyday run-of-the-mill children's picture book (if there is such a thing) rather than something attached to a multi-million pound christmas ad campaign?

It does bring up the side topic of children's stories and how we see the same themes over, and over, and over again. We see the same Grimm's Fairy Tales / Hans Christian Andersen stories being spun and respun for new audiences, each claiming they have their own original 'takes' on the original stories. It's not just the classics that are being mined out either. When it comes to children's moral tales, we really do see the same ideas sometimes hitting the bookshelves simultaneously, almost as if books are being signed up and published as a 'me too' exercise (I can only begin to imagine that this is - or rather was - the reason so many pirate books exploded onto the scene over the last 5 years as everyone struggled to come up with new and exciting ways to bring salty dogs, barnacle-encrusted buccaneers and curmudgeonly coves into your children's lives). 

So where do we go from here? Where does the publishing industry go? Perhaps now more than ever there needs to be some sort of an agreed end to this whole business of children's books needing to fit a specific template, perhaps someone needs to chuck away the rulebook or be more willing to believe that children WILL embrace new, curious and in some cases quite barmy story ideas so that we don't continually drown under a flood of very similar books all hitting the market at the same time. 

In the meantime though, if there was one sensible suggestion that arose from the whole John Lewis / Riddell debacle, it was that the money the ad campaign cost would have been absolutely amazing if ploughed into children's reading initiatives, school or community libraries, or perhaps used as a method of spotlighting new author works to add more variety and colour to the pot.