On 10th February, I attended a tea party for the Southbank Kids Lit fest. The cakes were brightly coloured, but the mood of speakers — Michael Rosen, Francesca Simon, Patrick Ness — was black.
The Southbank had lost its battle with “Boris” for poetry corner. “Gove” was teaching reading all wrong, libraries were closing and publishers weren’t giving talent time to blossom. These intelligent, creative people listed problems, but showed no sign that any thought had been put into economically viable solutions.
The story of publishing is one of decreasing prices and the increasing variety of books. Public libraries were created when books cost several days’ wages. Now, they are cheaper than a sandwich, and Shakespeare is a free download.
When I visit schools I see class sizes far smaller than when I was at school, creative use of technology, and teaching assistants who are able to devote time to the least able kids. These are fantastic advances.
The real future of child literacy isn’t being determined by a library closure or a budget cut, but in a semiconductor research lab. Within 10 years, e-readers will cost little more than a scientific calculator. How will the department of education justify buying paper books when every kid can be given a £20 device?
Out of copyright works will be free. The government’s buying power could be used to make contemporary kids’ fiction available for £1, sold alongside textbooks via a dedicated electronic platform. If there’s no middleman and proceeds are fairly split between authors and publishers, writers could earn as much per copy as we do on a paperback. If books only cost a quid, more will be sold, and huge amounts of money will be saved on storing and maintaining physical books.
Some of the cost savings could be used to put books into children’s hands. Perhaps every child on free school meals could get £10 of e-book tokens every term. School libraries can replace bookshelves with lounges where kids can read, surf, or do homework. Information professionals can curate reading programs and organise events rather than books.
In 1980 the BBC set up a competition to build a microcomputer. The result was ARM, a British company whose processors run inside billions of smartphones. So how about our beloved Mr Gove sets up a new competition to create a rugged e-reader that costs less than two textbooks, and an e-book platform where low prices are encouraged and publishers and authors keep most of the revenue?
Mine isn’t the only vision for the future of child literacy. But for their arguments to matter, campaigners need to devise creative, cost-effective, solutions. Moaning and demanding more cash will get us nowhere.
Robert Muchamore is the author of the Rock War, CHERUB and Henderson’s Boys series, all published by Hodder Children’s Books