Thursday, 21 June 2018

"Publishers rely too much on 'Accessible Language'" - Book snobbery or a valid point? A ReadItTorial

It's that time of year once again when the publishing industry turns its steely gaze to all things award-shaped, and the high profile winners of some of the most prestigious awards traditionally open their mouths wide and stick both feet in.

This year, it's the turn of CILIP Carnegie Medal winner Geraldine McCaughrean. In her acceptance speech Geraldine chose to round on publishers who continually fall back on 'accessible prose' when choosing which books to publish.

You can read a little more of the speech in this Guardian article.

Reading the article, my first reaction was befuddlement. Here then was yet another author launching into a diatribe against a very narrow specific part of the broader picture in children's publishing and reading,  expressing concerns that the level of language in younger children's books will not give them the necessary ammo to enter secondary school with an adequate enough vocabulary.

Publishers were under fire but the tone of the article seemed to imply that younger children need to be saturated in complex language earlier on in their reading experience - perhaps, we assume,  so they can pass a load of tests or reading assessments later on, or be ready to engage with Shakespeare or whatever other 'hateful' set texts or mundane out of date classics they'll be set in their secondary school years.

We've seen this argument many times before, mostly from government education ministers who believe that kids are being weaned onto reading through basic and simplified routes and are somehow missing out from not being brought up on a diet of 'propah' lit.

For every kid who actively enjoys reading stuff by David Walliams, Jaqueline Wilson, Jeff Kinney or other 'frowned upon' authors, there are those little darlings who truly love the work of Yeats, Keats, Hardy, Dickens and of course the Bard himself, eschewing the 'tabloid-level' stuff to polish off their lingual skills at expert levels. More power to them if that's their bag.

The message in the Guardian article seems mixed, and I hold some faith in the notion that Geraldine was quoted entirely out of context here and was perhaps in fact 'having a go' at the editorial process itself.  Perhaps the side-criticism against publishers was that they often lack the cojones to take risks, push for innovation and originality and need to stop treating kids like dullards who are incapable of absorbing complex stories or language. I truly hope that was the case.

The other side of the coin is clear. We don't exist in an era where kids have a mere handful of distractions that they fit in around the ridiculous levels of homework (and boring reading) they'll have to wade through at and outside of school, at early years, junior or secondary level.

We DO exist in an era where kids are becoming readers again, and they are choosing their own routes into reading (which is exactly as it should be!) Get kids onto the subject of the books they read (and obsess about) and they have far more of a critical eye than folk like Geraldine perhaps understand, in fact purely from the article text I wonder how long Geraldine has actually spent engaging with the kids she's talking about. Surely a lot of time, as a children's author?

It's worth trying yourself. Speak to a group of book-reading kids around the ages of 6-12 (sometimes even earlier than that too) and you may well hear the usual best-selling authors (celebrity or otherwise) being mentioned, but then you'll also hear kids who obsess about everything written by Robin Stevens, or have preorders in for everything put out by Philip Reeve, Peter Bunzl or perhaps even Geraldine McCaughrean herself.

It is a dangerous and sweeping statement to make, the assumption that a handful of 'accessible' books represents the industry as a whole.

Not so, and over the last 2-3 years I've personally seen and read books aimed at 6-12 that do feature complex language, do feature mature ideas that don't talk down to kids and will ultimately build readers out of kids who could so easily just shrug their shoulders at the classics, pick up their tablets and floss their way to victory in another mindless round of "Fortnite" instead.

I would  hate to see the industry turn its back on accessible books, sometimes the only route in for readers who lack the confidence or the language skills to leap straight on board with more complex and challenging work.


As a prime example of this, there were very few interesting and accessible books around when my brother in law was young and struggling to engage with reading and I sometimes wonder if things would've turned out differently for him if accessible (non school / academic) books were more commonplace. Not just basic language development books (I'm pretty sure he had his fill of those) but real proper accessible stories with plots that kids could properly engage with, and characters to pique their curiosity. Stories are universal, they are not purely for the 'elite' who have mastery of the English (or any other) language.

Way back in time I was once a frustrated 4 year old who (as precocious as this sounds) couldn't stand Janet and John or Peter and Jane books (the only really accessible books we were given in school) and was weaned onto Tolkein, John Gordon and Ian Serrailler at an early age by a teacher who (thankfully) understood that I wasn't a reluctant reader, just a reluctant reader of mindless and unchallenging crap.

Perhaps the sort of reader Geraldine is talking about is the reader not being served by the likes of Biff, Chip and Kipper. Readers who at an early age do develop a taste for work that indicates a higher reading age but they do not need to be served in preference to accessible fans, everyone needs to be catered for in reading with books of equal quality and originality.

I reiterate - I truly hope this is the point Geraldine is trying to make. This and perhaps even a point that there are so many words that quietly and silently disappear from the English language as so many others find their way into the new editions of the Oxford English Dictionary every year, much to the horror of literary folk who would rather they didn't (again, watch out for "Flossing" this year, without a doubt). Let kids discover lost language but never cram it down their throats at the expense of impacting their enjoyment of reading.

However, if there was an element of book snobbery in her speech and that was the way it was meant, then I'm extremely sad to hear that because nothing turns kids off reading quicker than a "Well Meaning" adult telling them what they should and shouldn't be reading.