Within your market category of children's, and excepting any data-related age-ranging, do you have an idea in your head of who your books are for and who they are not for? Chances are you don't actively think exclusively. But dig a little deeper and you may find that the industry operates on certain assumptions that 'other' a significant number of young people, or indeed lock them out of books entirely.
Every time we talk about 'what reluctant readers like', we are guilty of othering. 'We', the book people, this thinking goes, are individuals with individual tastes. 'They', on the other hand, the reluctant readers, are robbed of their individuality. Despite the fact that we may be talking up to half of all children, we decide they'll all like the same thing. 'They' like books about dinosaurs, sharks, football, bum jokes and so on. Of course many children do like these things, and that means that some reluctant readers like them too - because reluctant readers are individuals, with individual tastes, just like 'us'. In fact, they are 'us'. They are not a species apart.
Once we have othered a group of readers, we also let our publishing off the hook. Might the books just be too long? Too white? Too middle England? Too... bad? (I'm looking at you, phonics-based reading schemes). For many children the answer may be 'yes', but we're not asking the question. The kids are to blame, our thinking goes, or their teachers or parents, not the books.
Text accessibility is another area in which children - and adults - may be othered. Barrington Stoke's own books are often described as being 'for' or even 'exclusively for' dyslexic children. Again, a very large group of children is seen as somehow apart, and quite possibly lesser. And again, the 'problem' is assumed to be the kids.
What if we turn this idea on its head and ask whether the books are - at least in part - the issue? When did you last look at the design of your fiction with an eye to text accessibility? Before you use reverse-out, wrap text around an image or lay it over a deeply coloured or patterned background, do you consider the needs of individuals with visual issues? When you select a tall, skinny typeface or block caps for a section of text, do you think about how this relates to letter shapes as children learn to read them? Do you have a concept of chunking for meaning and/or of sequencing, or do you believe that lots of little sections of text dotted about the page are good for struggling readers because there are fewer words?
The truth is that if we took text accessibility seriously, dyslexia would pose less of an issue and more children could read more easily. Key tweaks that can help include:
-slightly increased character spacing
-no full justification
-a typeface with reduced ambiguity (e.g. where lower case 'L' and upper case 'i' are not identical)
-thick enough paper stock that the words on the page behind do not show through
-sentence case in place of block caps
-enough words per line of text to 'chunk' for meaning - ideally at least seven.
There are conversations to be had, too, about who we are really publishing for, and how this affects our thinking regarding page extents etc. This relates especially to YA where crossover audiences may prefer a longer read and actual young people may prefer therefore not to read the books at all. Where are our responses to the research that says that a majority of teen boys like books of 100 pages or under, where is our short, sharp, brilliant fiction? Those kids hopefully find their way to the Barrington Stoke books, but it's still not entirely uncommon to meet a bookseller who says there is no call for our books in his or her local area. That's right, folks: some areas contain no teenage boys.
Let's hear it for shorter novels and let's challenge the thinking that long equals good.
Here at Barrington Stoke we believe that access to books and reading should be a right, and that we all need to do more to open the doors that still lock too many people out. We hope lots more of you will join us in giving those doors a shove - not to allow access to some special place where 'we' don't hang out, but into an expanded world of books that is more inclusive, more accessible, more diverse and a lot more open. It would broaden all of our horizons.
Mairi Kidd is m.d. of Barrington Stoke.