Children's laureate: an evolution

Children's laureate: an evolution

Since the idea of the children's laureate was first mooted by the then poet laureate Ted Hughes and author Michael Morpurgo in the late Nineties—the first appointment to the two-year post, Quentin Blake, was announced in 1999—the role has had two strands. It is an honour—the post salutes an eminent writer or illustrator—but it also comes with something of a job spec: to provide advocacy for children's books and reading, and to be a spokesperson for the children's book industry.

John Dunne, who chairs the steering committee for the laureateship's administrator, Booktrust, says that the award remains primarily an honour. "We don't want to make it a duty. However, because the person who receives it has established themselves in the children's industry, they are well placed to promote children's books, especially to adults, and most of the extra work within the role comes from responding to the media."
Those in the media are positive about the role. The novelist and children's book critic Amanda Craig, for example, says: "I do think the laureateship has helped raise the profile of children's books in different ways, according to the ideas brought forward by each laureate. All have been positive influences, and it's a good thing in principle to have such a figure."

Officially, the laureate is expected to be available for just a handful of events each year and to be available to respond to media inquiries. In reality, the role has grown and laureates now spend many, many hours on the ground, attending festivals, visiting schools and making a variety of media appearances. It is a heavy workload that makes for a rather busy two years, a reason that some authors have turned the post down.
Illustrator Anthony Browne, in the post from 2009 to last week, had a typically hectic laureateship. In the past two years he fought against school library closures, launched a campaign to increase the profile of his fellow illustrators, and was called to weigh in on numerous debates in the children's sector, the most controversial of his tenure was the government's decision to have authors vetted for criminal records before they visited schools, an issue over which he clashed with some other children's authors. Browne even had a public debate with his fellow former laureate Anne Fine over whether children's literature was becoming too realistic (Fine said yes, Browne no).

Moreover, each new laureate is now expected to come with a "big idea", the one thing that will put their mark on the laureateship and give it some kind of legacy. Michael Rosen backed poetry with a children's poetry performance website, Quentin Blake espoused illustration and set up the House of Illustration, while Anne Fine embraced the idea of children's home libraries and made book plates available online. For those who have a driving passion, the laureateship can give them a platform to fulfil it. For those who do not, or who do not have the time for these kinds of initiatives, it is another barrier to accepting the role.

The children's laureateship has also taken a twist recently with a name change last week to the Waterstone's Children's Laureate, reflecting the bookseller's role as the main sponsor. Sixteen publishers also support the laureate, but government funding, which came through the Museum, Libraries & Archives Council, has been halved for 2011/12, from £15,000 to £7,500. This new deal is not without controversy, as independent booksellers in particular are concerned about a Waterstone's-branded laureate. Though there will be a non-Waterstone's logo available on point of sale for other retailers, some indies have expressed doubts whether they will go on supporting the award.    

Yet, Waterstone's involvement has made the laureateship more visibly commercial. Speak to those involved in the decision and they argue that it simply reflects the straightened times we are in. But there are some who believe it is the wrong way to go; Craig is one of those. "I regret the change of name, which is a crude attempt to market Waterstone's rather than promote children's reading in general, and something which diminishes both the bookshop and the position."

One wonders if it might also be off-putting to future potential laureates, too, although the exposure and added book sales that one gets from being the laureate may allay their concerns. Research recently conducted into the impact of the children's laureate's appointment shows that the role already has an unexpected commercial benefit; sales of each of the children's laureate's works have grown strongly during their time in office with the average percentage increase in volume sales over a laureate's term standing at 23%.

So where next for the children's laureateship? It seems unlikely that future children's laureates are going to take on less than their predecessors so undoubtedly they will continue to espouse a particular theme or idea. It is also likely that future laureates will be chosen at least partly on the basis of their ability to be a spokesperson for the industry; something that is written into the role.

However, there are those within the industry who would like to see the children's laureateship going further and becoming much more "political" than current expectations. Author Mary Hoffman says: "I believe we need a champion for children and books so that when the government is looking to close libraries or shut down Bookstart, it will be the children's laureate that people go to for a comment and that comment will be robust." She explains: "There are already other awards that recognise authors' work and honour it. But, given the state of children's books at the moment, the role of children's laureate could be perfect for taking on these challenges."

Perhaps what the children's laureate's role has done more than any other is to show the industry that it can have a voice and that the media is very willing to include children's authors and illustrators in debates. It may be that the current children's laureate is not the only one that can fulfil this role; look at how the media now draws on the title "former children's laureate"—it seems to have become a role in its own right.

Quentin Blake

Highlights of Blake's inaugural laureateship included conceiving of the idea for the House of Illustration, a dedicated centre for illustration, and collaborating on a project to produce a book about environmental and humanitarian issues with 1,800 French-speaking schoolchildren.

Anne Fine

The multiple award-wining author championed libraries during her two years, both traditional ones, and in the home with her My Home Library scheme, which still encourages children to build their own personal libraries.

Michael Morpurgo

The War Horse author conceived of the idea of the children's laureate with Ted Hughes and toured extensively during his two years, focusing on storytelling.

Jacqueline Wilson

One of the best selling, and most borrowed, UK children's authors, Wilson had an energetic laureateship, campaigning for parents to read aloud longer to children and against cutbacks to children's drama on television.

Michael Rosen

Schools were a big focus of Rosen s tenure, including establishing the teacher's resource programme Poetry Friendly Classroom. A forceful advocate, he led the charge of authors who opposed age banding on books.

Anthony Browne

As the second illustrator in the post, Browne has unsurprisingly focused on art in the past two years, campaigning for illustrators and illustrations to get more recognition.