Publishing for the future: how children’s books have changed in 20 years

Looking back and charting changes in a business as multi-faceted and all-encompassing as children’s books is a tricky business. Given that the peak titles from the past last a very long time while most titles fade away fairly fast and the least successful disappear surprisingly completely it is almost impossible not to judge the whole field on the impact of the authors and titles who have flourished.

There’s a rough justice in that but also an inevitability. For the most part, the course of publishing for children - what is published, what sells and what children read - has been shaped by a handful of authors and titles. Which these books are isn’t always strictly ‘fair’ in that, sadly, wonderful books can get lost along the way but, the authors and illustrators who create the ones that last forge new paths not only for themselves but also for everyone who follows them.

The changes in fiction in the twenty years since the founding of the Branford Boase Award (the 2020 shortlist was announced today) have been shaped by what happened in the decade before, with the publication of The Story of Tracy Beaker in 1991,  His Dark Materials: Northern Lights in 1995 and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997. Between them, their authors caused children’s books to be noticed and valued well beyond their usual sphere. It wasn’t just that reading children’s books was suddenly deemed worth doing, it was that writing them was, too.

The change in the optics or profile of children’s books brought about a change in perceptions of them both within the industry and beyond. Children’s books and children’s reading has moved out of a somewhat contained world in which they had their own advocates in teachers and children’s librarians and even dedicated reviewers. Their exceptional commercial value has made them central to the books business.

While there are advantages to this there are also disadvantages. Making writing for children properly valued has brought in talent but it has also brought in opportunistic and speculative writing. How hard it is to write a good children’s book is often forgotten. Currently, the success of an author or their book is, initially at least, as much about their promotability - and in particular their self-promotability - as it is about the telling of the story. Driven by a fear that children don’t want to read and must therefore be heavily enticed into it, big and alluring ‘hooks’ have become noticeable in many of the books submitted for the Branford Boase Award. The BBA was set up to highlight outstanding debut authors for children and looks for promising authors at the start of what should be long careers. The award singles out editors too and informed curatorship of what the book is, in terms of how it is written, what it is about and whether a specific reader with particular tastes might like it, are what qualifies titles for our shortlists.

The spike in the very most popular authors isn’t just about how well they are promoted. It is also that the Harry Potter phenomenon influenced how children read. While big name, must read the latest authors have always existed – Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl remain the biggest influence on the adult reading experience for most adults -  the idea of reading as a collective or shared experience is now far more deeply embedded. Just as adults who belong to book groups like feeling connected to others by sharing responses to a book so children want to read what their friends are reading.

In terms of the overall success of children’s books – the number of children’s books on best seller lists, most borrowed from the public library lists – things look good. They look very good. But, it has a down side too. Children’s books have never more closely replicated the adult market in their very tall peaks. But the troughs are increasingly worrying.

Changing that is a challenge. Nowhere is that more obviously than in the embarrassingly slow increase in diverse books for children. Reasons for the difficulties that have been encountered in this since work on it first began in the 1970s are numerous. There is a lot of goodwill and a lot of effort but the fact that there is so little publishing which includes children from BAME backgrounds, children with disabilities, or even children anywhere in the UK except the south east has remained a disappointment. However, there are currently positive signs of improvement. It will happen. It must happen! Certainly, the range of books and authors on the 2020 shortlist give us reason to hope it is.

Changes in how children and books are being put together is also affecting what is published and what is then successful. Children’s authors, supported by skilful publicists, work tirelessly and innovatively to reach as many readers as possible. Doing an event in a school creates an audience: when it is underpinned by a local specialist bookshop it sells books, too.  It is an amazingly low-tech solution to the problem of how to promote books when there is no review coverage, little bookshop space in the mainstream shops and not enough libraries.

In the past twenty years, as at all times, there have been threats to children’s books from other media, threats from a shrinking public library structure, threats from an uneven market. But there are such positives too: the desire for authors to write a children’s book has never been stronger; the size of the market  and the possibilities of writing for children are so very tempting; and the ways of doing it well as so well-demonstrated. As Philip Pullman has written, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book.” For that reason alone the future of fiction for children looks good.