Children's publishing fuelled by nostalgia?

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Children's publishing fuelled by nostalgiaA strange and rare thing happened the other day: a real live child was seen in the offices of a children's publisher. Little Louis wasn’t there for an editorial meeting or to discuss the cover design for our latest series. Actually he spent the whole time wriggling around and trying to ingest staples. But his presence did start me thinking about the adult-filled world that is children’s publishing.

If kids were running our publishing house, lift-the-flap books wouldn’t be about finding the fat controller, they’d be about finding the hidden chocolates; Miffy would hand out free ice-creams instead of playing peek-a-boo; and Zac Power would take you on his thrilling missions and then give you his iPod to keep.

Kids can’t make all the decisions, not least because every day would be spent at the zoo or on the computer, each meal would begin with hot chips, and bedtime would never, ever come.

There’s nothing radical about an industry run by one group for another; children’s publishing isn’t unique in this way. Pet food is not made by or marketed to our furry friends—although a feline-run factory (powered entirely by the underclass that is the canine species, of course) would be very clean. The managers would spend the day dozing in the sun and hissing when anyone came into the office.

Of course kids' books need to be made by adults. But this inevitably gives rise to a certain generational tension. We were all kids once, and most of us like to think that it wasn’t such a long time ago. More to the point, most of us like to think that kids today are just like we were—only with better computer skills and worse table manners.

It’s understandable, then, that children’s publishing is often fuelled by nostalgia. There’s something very reassuring about the idea that what we loved to read will still appeal to kids now. Choosing a brand of food for our pets is less fraught—if any of us were dogs in past lives, most of us can’t recall it—and we are going to make a more or less rational decision based on price, ingredients and the cuteness of the ad.



Children's publishing fuelled by nostalgiaDoes it really matter that I was a kid before googling was a daily addiction, when terrorism was what the boys did in class when the teacher wasn’t looking, and a treat was a carob-coated muesli bar? If I loved the adventures of Enid Blyton and the poems of AA Milne, why shouldn’t my child also exclaim raa-ther at opportune moments and giggle at the idea that James James Morrison Morrison took great care of his mother, though he was only three?

When I was little my favourite picture book was The Porcelain Man. I recently bought a tatty copy on oldandrarebooks.com. When the parcel arrived I felt like a kid again — and in my excitement managed to overlook the lack of brown paper and string. I hadn’t seen the book for more than 20 years, and was surprised to remember that it was illustrated entirely in pale blues and browns. (The commissioning editor in me did the sums on a two-colour hardback—hmmm, nice costing.)

Now that I work in children’s publishing, what could be more tempting than to make books just like the ones I used to read and love? Have things really changed so much since my milk-moustached, flares-without-irony days?

I want nothing more than to read The Porcelain Man to my son, and have him love it as I did. But when I was growing up in the UK, I only knew one girl who mysteriously didn’t have a father, and all the kids in my class were white. It might not have been so long ago, but it’s worlds away from what most kids are experiencing now. I can’t presume to know what will be going on in my son’s head when he trots off to school, where there are as many kids with African backgrounds as British, and where some of his friends have two mums.

Children's publishing fuelled by nostalgia?But this is the challenge of children’s publishing. Our own childhoods are a good start, but that’s all they are. No Brothers Grimm ever tackled multiculturalism, and Dr Seuss never had to find something to rhyme with blended family. Nostalgia cannot shape a publishing program that will really resonate with kids, although it’s a relief that there are more charmed, timeless exceptions than I could name (witches still have blue spit, it’s worth checking the back of any wardrobe for secret passages, and green eggs and ham will always be off the menu).

Ultimately, we need to listen, not just remember. Books have to compete with Foxtel and Playstation in a way that they used to compete with roller-skating and Dynasty re-runs for me. I’d love to think the books we are making now might one day belong in that charmed, timeless exceptions section, but first I’d like to make books that kids love now. I won’t put chocolate under those flaps, but it’s tempting.

 

 

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My favourite books as a kid were all Roald Dahl made. Such a good writer. Loved the Twits, the BFG, Danny the Champion of the World, George's Marvellous Medicine (which it sounds like you should keep your son away from!)
c.a.matthews | 03 May 2007


Ms Rogers, you've made me want to pursue a career in kids publishing...
aurora lowe | 03 May 2007


Hilary,

Loved this article.

I grew up hating to read, so now I write action-adventures & mysteries for readers 8 - 13, especially boys.

The interesting thing is that kids love these books. The real work is in convincing publishers that there is a market for books for boys. But most publishers indicate that they do better with books for girls, and that girls are the readers.

So your view of the publishing business was quite interesting to me.

http://www.maxbooks.9k.com

http://booksandboys.blogspot.com
Max Elliot Anderson | 03 May 2007


Thanks Hilary. Great thoughts.

My response is at

http://idolisingchildren.com/2007/05/03/a-childrens-publisher-struggles-beautifully-with-the-dilemma/
Daniel Donahoo | 03 May 2007


Nice piece over on your blog Dan, I very much enjoyed it, just like the piece you had in Eureka a few issues ago.
James | 03 May 2007


Wonderful piece. I really enjoyed it. My favourite books as a kid were the Paul Jennings series. Had a lightness of touch that made me smile, and want to read more.
Alice Collins | 03 May 2007


Dear Hilary,

I loved your article and was only quoting "James James Morrison Morrison" to a boy called James in my Prep grade today! James looked at me very strangley as if I had two heads!

Cheers

Heidi
Heidi Kelly | 05 May 2007


The other day I posted a copy of "Lord of the Flies" to a 13-year-old girl in China. I offered a few titles and this is the one she selected as her mother had read it as a girl and enjoyed it. I am still trying to discover what books will be valuable to young Chinese readers and would appreciate any suggestions.

RAY O'DONOGHUE | 10 January 2008


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