Teachers have a vital interest in children's literature, and strong views about its lack of coverage in mainstream media. The numbers are enormous: there are over 400,000 teachers and 8,000,000 pupils in UK schools.
So #CoverKidsBooks talked to some senior teachers: Louise Johns-Shepherd, chief executive of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE); Geoff Barton, Headteacher of King Edward VI secondary school; Sue Cowley, a teacher trainer who has written more than 25 books for teachers; Sue McGonigle, lecturer in primary education at the Institute Of Education and co-creator of lovemybooks.co.uk; and Jo Bowers, lecturer in primary education at Cardiff School of Education and Welsh rep for the UK Literacy Association (UKLA).
Why are children's books important to teachers?
Geoff Barton: Children's books matter. They don't have the instant gratification of a screen-based game. They tantalise and tease. They repay patience and resilience. These are all characteristics of learning that young people need, plus the ability to look beyond the inky words on a page and explore other worlds and other people.
Louise Johns-Shepherd: Children's books are life-changing. If children read for pleasure at age 10, it has more of an impact on their future than any other factor. At CLPE, we help teachers to teach all aspects of literacy in the most creative but also the most effective way possible. And we don't think children learn to read and write effectively unless they have access to quality children's literature. A breadth of literature – fiction, non-fiction, picture books, poetry, all those things – is incredibly important to the work we do.
Sue Cowley: Teachers are key users and consumers of children's literature. Every single primary teacher will have a class reader on the go, and all schools will (I sincerely hope) have a library. For some children, school will be the place where access to lots of books is given to them, and the idea of reading for pleasure is introduced.
Jo Bowers: When I was a primary classroom teacher, children's books were central to my teaching. They would often be my stimulus and starting point for many lessons. There were also times when as a class we stopped and relaxed by choosing a story. Some of my most memorable moments as a teacher have involved talking about and sharing books.
Sue McGonigle: Obviously children need to learn to read, and reading material needs to be provided, so children's books are important in that respect. Teachers need to know about books in terms of the links they can make across the curriculum as well. But reading is just so fantastic! It's the way you have access to other worlds and other kinds of experiences; it's the way you see your own experiences reflected; and through children's literature, children can grow as individuals.
"Children's books are life-changing"
Why is children's books coverage important to teachers? Why does it matter that they're reviewed?
SC: It confers status on them – it signifies that the act of children reading is important enough for us to identify the books that we think children would do well to read. In recent years there has been a bit of a resurgence of a kind of sniffy attitude to children's literature. I find this attitude really surprising, because to me it seems like we are going through a golden age of writing for children.
GB: We rely on reviews: we need to be kept informed of what's new, what's worth reading and what's not. I still feel a thrill at the announcement of the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Book Prize. I like The Times's weekly Children's Book of the Week slot. I like the books sections of newspapers, even though I suspect I'm part of a diminishing demographic. I want to be reminded that books matter and that there are other people like me who feel the same way.
JB: I think children's literature is as valuable as adult literature. More, even, as it is what starts us all off on our own personal literary journey. Reviewing them gives more of a platform; gives more places for us to access ideas of what to read next; and for teachers of reading, it's a great way to develop their own repertoires to share in their classrooms.
SM: From the research I've done, many teachers rely, in the books they use in the classroom, on their own childhood favourites. So 50% of teachers might have cited Roald Dahl as a favourite author when they were children; and then 50% of those would be actually reading a Roald Dahl book aloud in the classroom at the time. Which is fine – Roald Dahl is fantastic, and it's great for children to have a good knowledge of his books – but there are so many more books as well! It leads to rather a limited experience for children if teachers are not aware of more recent fiction, or different fiction; other authors and books they can introduce the children to.
"I still feel a thrill at the announcement of the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Book Prize"
Can you think of specific examples of how media coverage can make an impact?
SM: I recently read The Astounding Broccoli Boy because I read a review of it. So now I'm recommending that to student teachers as something they might want to read aloud to the children.
LJS: We run the CLiPPA Poetry Award; the point of it is to raise the profile of children's poetry. This year, the winning book, Joe Coehlo's Werewolf Club Rules, was featured on BBC Front Row after it won, and was then made Sunday Times Book Of The Week, which is really unusual for a poetry book. From having had those bits of media, Joe's got to the point where a school is doing an entire half term's work on one of his poems. Now, that's enormous for him, but also enormous for those children. I don't kid myself that sales of Werewolf Club Rules rose because of the CLiPPA prize; they rose because of the coverage. It's about people going into a bookshop and going, "Oh, I've heard him!" or "I saw that book!"
Our research shows that children's books typically get 3% of newspaper review space, despite accounting for over 30% of sales. How do you feel about this under-representation?
SM: It's completely wrong. It shows how undervalued children's books are. I think it's a real shame.
GB: This strikes me as baffling – a sign of a confusion over readership. It may well be that young people themselves don't read newspapers in the way that we veterans do. But the reviews are there for us – parents, aunties, granddads, people who buy books as gifts, teachers and others who read them, librarians who add them to libraries. The absence of reviews is a missed opportunity for all those of us who know that we want young people to read but aren't sure what to recommend. Newspapers would get us buying and reading them; booksellers would see us buying more books.
SC: It does seem very strange that there is so little coverage of children's books in the media. I suppose it might be that reviews are seen as something for adults and about adults, and therefore children's books are seen as only 'deserving' of coverage when it is Christmas or holiday time. What I find fascinating is that the children's and young adult books I read are often better written than the adult ones, and would typically appeal to older readers as well as younger ones.
LJS: Lots of teachers are media consumers, and I think more coverage would help. Newspapers and mainstream stations are still the portals. You've got something like Buzzfeed coming up, but it's not the same as getting coverage in the Guardian newspaper. And people might access it online, but they're accessing it because it was in the newspaper, aren't they? They still have a kudos and a weight that is important.
"The children's and YA books I read are often better written than the adult ones"
What would you like to see the media do to #CoverKidsBooks?
GB: I think everyone needs to recognise that this is a golden age of writing for children. Clearly there's an appetite for such texts – hence the sales. Newspapers should be mirroring this interest, reflecting what people are reading, helping to shape what we might read next, and reinforcing the reality that reading isn't a solitary, isolated act. It's what people do – immersing ourselves in stories that we are then bursting to share, discuss and debate with fellow readers. Newspaper and magazines could be part of this great mission to create active, vibrant learning communities.
JB: More reviews of the latest children's books. More about book awards and shortlists and interviews with authors.
SM: Hearing authors talk about their work is fabulous for teachers. And book trailers can be totally captivating. Of course, if you've got a newspaper, you've got an online version, so you can put that sort of thing there, can't you? And things like top 10 lists work well, so a publication could have something like that. There's so much happening within the children's book world – awards, story centres, festivals – drawing it all together for teachers could be really useful.
SC: What might be useful is for them to create more pull-out booklet-type features with lots of different suggestions for great children's books. You tend to see these at holiday times (summer holiday reading / Christmas gifts), but it seems an odd assumption that children only read at these two times of year! I find age-specific recommendations very useful, because I am forever running out of books for my kids. I would also welcome more coverage of non-fiction books, as these seem to get even less coverage than fiction.
LJS: Does it even have to be separate? When you're doing a non-fiction review, and you're doing four books, why can't two of them be children's non-fiction, as opposed to always being an autobiography of Alex Ferguson or whatever? There's a lot of great children's non-fiction out there. So it doesn't have to be separated, does it?
#CoverKidsBooks – Librarians
#CoverKidsBooks – Parents
#CoverKidsBooks – Experts
#CoverKidsBooks – Writers & Illustrators
#CoverKidsBooks – Parents
#CoverKidsBooks – Experts
#CoverKidsBooks – Writers & Illustrators
#CoverKidsBooks invites you to join in a public conversation about children's books. Leave a comment, write a blog of your own, or tweet about it using the hashtag. Tell us why children's books matter to you, and what you'd like to see the media do to #CoverKidsBooks!