June 2016 / Memoir – essay / Reading time: 5 minutes (1200 words)
I support the #Coverkidsbooks campaign. It’s not only out of self interest – I am after all a children’s fiction writer aspiring for publication – or because I love reading children’s fiction or because I want help finding books for my own children. I support it because finding the right kids books helped me through some difficulties in my childhood.
#CoverKidsBooks is a campaign for more children’s books media coverage. The research undertaken by Imogen Russell Williams for Middle Grade Strikes Back Blog shows that children’s books currently get just 3% of all book review space in UK national newspapers, despite accounting for over 30% of the market.
ER Murray’s post for writing.ie regarding the #CoverKidsBooks campaign for Ireland suggests that although the research has not been undertaken here, Ireland may currently have a headstart on the UK in covering children’s books in mainstream media. However she hopes that this is just the beginning. As Sarah Webb states in that piece, “In 20 years time I hope I’m still around to report the coverage of children’s books has improved from the green shoots of 2016.”
I grew up in rural Sligo in the Northwest of Ireland in the early 1980s. I know from my parents that there was a lot of rain, but I mostly remember sunshine. I remember playing at the river behind my house trying to dam it or catch fish, despite never succeeding at either. I remember cycling my Raleigh Grifter, the heaviest bike known to mankind, up and down the local roads to visit friends. And most of all I remember birthday parties on a rug in our garden surrounded by friends, everyone eating marshmallows and rice crispie buns.
I did read too. My whole family were readers. I read great British kids fiction. Danny the Champion of the World, Diana Wynne Jones’ The Ogre Downstairs and the William books by Richmal Compton were big ones for me. As were the Secret Seven and the Famous Five. But reading was only one of the many things that I did. It wasn’t my whole world.
Halfway through fourth class, only months before my tenth birthday, my family moved to France. My father had gotten work there. One morning there were sheep on one side of my home and cows on the other side. The next day we were in the 13th Floor of the Flatotel high rise in the centre of Paris.
And I loved it. After Sligo, it was like travelling into the future. I happily wandered around the tower blocks and the city, just as I had wandered around the countryside in Ireland.
I only loved it until I started school however. It was a private, Catholic, American school with a well off selection of students, including Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s child. I was a 9 year old boy from rural Sligo now in a school where kids liked shopping for clothes. The only time I had ever thought about clothes was my first communion. I was invited to a birthday party that turned out to be a dancing party. A dancing party? One boy laughed at how I danced until I started crying. I felt so out of place. The last straw might sound silly, but it was due to the habit I had of scratching my balls through my trousers. I’d probably been doing it at my old school. Maybe all us boys had been doing it there. But they weren’t doing it in my new school. One day at break time in my new school, some of the girls noticed and followed me around jeering me.
When my 10th birthday came around in May, only two months after arriving in Paris, for the first time in my life I told my parents I didn’t want a birthday party.
However for all the difficulties, one of the benefits of this big, expensive school was that it had a library in the basement. Every breaktime and lunchtime I’d walk down those steps into the library. The library was cool when it was hot outside and warm in the freezing winter. The librarians knew me by name and recommended books to me sometimes, but mostly I loved wandering around myself. Looking at the covers. Sniffing out and discovering books for myself. I had my seat at the back, under a high window. I could see the feet of kids as they walked by. And I read and read.
This was an American school so I discovered American children’s fiction. I read volume after volume of Peanuts. I read the magical The House with a clock in its walls by John Bellairs. I loved Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge. Lynne Reid Banks The Indian in the Cupboard captured my imagination. A light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein was the first poetry book I ever enjoyed. Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Beezus books were
hilarious. It wasn’t all classics, I loved the Gremlins novelisation and Choose Your Own Adventure books, particularly the horror ones. Having these books, the rights ones for me at that time, made me feel in control when so much in my life seemed out of my control.
Somewhere about half way into 5th grade, my parents sent me to the school counsellor. I started to cry with her. I told her that I missed my friends in Sligo and that everyone was different in this school. She suggested ways I could try to make friends. I don’t know which of us came up with it, but we agreed that I’d bring a book out to the yard to show a classmate. I don’t remember what the book it was. I remember approaching the library the following day, but not going down the stairs. I walked into the school yard clutching that book. I never showed anyone the book as in the yard, someone invited me to join in a softball game. I put the book down and played all break time. And then all lunchtime.
And from then on I read, but it wasn’t my whole world. It just one of the many things I did. And in May, near the end of 5th grade, I had a small birthday party in our apartment with classmates. It wasn’t a rug on the grass in a large garden, but it was good enough.
So I support the #CoverKidsBooks campaign because kids books supported me. Setting aside the literary merit of much of children’s fiction, the lack of coverage children’s fiction in the mainstream media ignores the therapeutic and emotional value of books to children. Books often mean more to children than they could ever do to an adult.
Books can support children through situations and experiences far more difficult and traumatic than my own experiences outlined here. If there are more opportunities for parents and children to learn about books in mainstream media, the more chances the right book will be there for a child when they need them.
Just like the right books were there for me.