Blog of Steel

There’s No (Book) Business Like Show Business!

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At the weekend I popped into a branch of Waterstones with my three kids. We were predominately looking for Mothers Day gifts, but the kids were also clutching their £1 World Book Day vouchers, ready to see what they could swap their flimsy bit of paper for. Naturally, we gravitated towards the first World Book Day display we saw and started having a look at what was on offer. The kids were not that impressed, to be honest. And, as an experienced school librarian, I found it difficult to make recommendations when looking at the names on the front of the tiny books – Julian Clary? Clare Balding? That woman that won Great British Bake-Off? And Tom Fletcher?? 

Now, to me, Tom Fletcher is that bloke out of McFly, a teeny-bop band often categorised as “pop-rock”, which is basically another way of saying “not rock”. A Bay City Rollers for the new millennium, if you will (if you’re under 45, ask your mum). There are many great pop bands out there and many great rock bands. As far as I’m concerned, McFly don’t fit into either of those categories. They are nowhere near in the same pop league as ABBA or Take That, nor are they anywhere close to being in the same rock league as The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. To my mind, they are a group of young lads who saw an opening in the music market and adapted themselves to fill it. They pretended to be a rock band because they felt it would get them fame and fortune the quickest way. There are few things more annoying in this life than people pretending to be passionate about the things you actually are passionate about. As a longstanding fan of rock music, I hope this personal maxim of mine goes someway towards explaining why I find it impossible to tolerate a “Happy Shopper Green Day” like Tom Fletcher’s old band.

But back to Waterstones! My children eventually spent their £1 book tokens. My youngest bought the Avengers one (which is a sort of weak and diluted mini-encyclopedia that would need a lot of work before being uploaded as a Wikipedia page!) whilst the other two started browsing in the full children’s section instead and made me spend more money than I originally intended. As I walked around the store I became more and more aware of just how many Tom Fletcher books were displayed in prominent areas and given the full “face out” treatment. He was even beating David Walliams in the battle for display space! This was quite dispiriting, to say the least. A young man who spent years pretending to be a rock musician is now pretending to be a major children’s author!? Mr. Showbiz is now using his dubiously-acquired fame and fortune as a platform for a new career as a writer!? What was going on in the worlds of book publishing and retail these days!? This opens up the bigger question of why does the children’s fiction market (and it’s rarely the adult fiction market) seem to be saturated with “celeb authors”!? And don’t get me started on Frank Lampard! I don’t recall seeing Philip Pullman being invited to give football analysis on Match of the Day recently!

I was irritated at what I perceived as a complete lack of a level playing field in children’s book publishing (apologies for the football metaphor after having just slagged off Frank Lampard). I was annoyed that “amateur” writers were being pushed onto children at the expense of established and experienced writers who had spent years honing their crafts to something approaching perfection (yes, I’d heard that you “put the hours in”, Dermot O’Leary, but that just sounds more like a hobby than a serious commitment to a new career!). I was dismayed that publishers were seemingly spraying their marketing budgets over anyone who was already famous for doing something other than writing children’s fiction. Poor old Jacqueline Wilson’s body of work has to hide at the back of the shop whilst McFiction is trying to poke you in the eyes as soon as you walk through the main doors!

I returned home several hours later and decided to do what any sane and rational person does when confronted by injustice and confusion – I made a post on Twitter! Now, if you use Twitter regularly, you will know that it’s generally full of angry lunatics, conspiracy theorists and paranoids who don’t get out much. This is not true of the school librarian online community though and I was grateful for the feedback and to those who are always happy to contribute to a reasoned debate. I was informed that Tom Fletcher is an “author” (I’m sorry but I’m not prepared to drop the inverted commas yet) who engages with children/customers considerably more than David Walliams does (not that that’s difficult really). He even does school visits and stuff! OK. I’ll concede that that’s a good thing. If those visits are inspirational to the children he meets then I don’t think I can complain about that. My views were also challenged with the “any book is a good book” approach, meaning that a large part of our job as school librarians is to try and get as many children as possible hooked on reading and that the initial hook is not as important as the actual hooking itself. The pros and cons of this theory go to the very core of how school librarians connect to the wider worlds of books, publishing, reading and literacy and not just to our in-school mini-communities.

The word that instantly sprang to mind (and that I subsequently used) was “discerning”. Are we not supposed to be discerning? Are we not supposed to use our judgement and experience when it comes to the buying of books and the lending of books? If we aren’t discerning are we really doing our jobs correctly? What’s to differentiate us from the well-meaning TA or member of the office staff that fills in for us when we’re off ill? If all we do is sign books – any books! - in and out, are we really being effective librarians? I have deliberately framed these points as questions because I’m not completely sure what the answers are, and I am not attempting to frame my own opinions as irrefutable facts in this case (and, again, thank you to the librarian who was prepared to argue against me). To boil my point down to its bones I am wondering whether we are indirectly contributing to the current publishing house obsession with “celeb authors” if we keep buying what they clearly want us to buy. And if we keep buying in bucket-loads of books by Walliams, Fletcher, O’Leary and Lampard are we creating a situation where the publishers will just find new celebrities to create next year’s children’s fiction instead of actively searching for genuine new writing talent? And don’t we want our children to read talented authors instead of passable ones with a readily accessible media profile and/or YouTube channel? Perhaps I’m being too sensitive and the smile on a child’s face when they’ve completed reading a book is all-important after all. Perhaps the person behind the creation of that book is irrelevant. However, if the book retail sector won’t level the playing field and give established children’s authors the platform they’ve earned, shouldn’t school librarians be doing more to make sure that the Pullmans, Wilsons, Dahls, Rowlings, Horowitzs, Cassidys, Stines and Meyers (yes, even her!) aren’t languishing in the shadows of The Christmasaurus and Frankie’s Magic Football? I’m not suggesting a ban on these sorts of books at all but if we have more novels by David Walliams on our library shelves than by Roald Dahl I think there is a danger that we are inadvertently sending the message to students that Walliams is, in fact, a better writer than Dahl was, and that writing children’s fiction is actually a doddle. And that can’t be right… can it? Even taking natural subjectivity into account? Surely not.

(As an addendum to this blog, I thought it was worth noting that Tom Fletcher’s writing career takes up only six lines on his Wikipedia page and none of the books mentioned there are links to separate Wiki pages. To put that in context, the Other Work section consists of eight lines (mainly talking about his various TV appearances on reality shows and quiz shows) and the Personal Life section is made up of eighteen lines, including how he sold the rights to his wedding to OK! Magazine and named his first child “Buzz Michelangelo Fletcher”. Make of that what you will. Thank you for reading!)