Cinderella? If (Daily Telegraph Arts Editor Ben) Lawrence fancies himself as the transforming fairy godmother he’s going to need a bigger wand.
The Daily Telegraph is counted among the “Big Three” serious newspapers in the UK, although only around #10 in sales ranks where it competes against the tabloids.
In fact, probably very much reflecting the market share of “tabloid” book publishing (celebrity memoirs, celebrity authors, etc).
When it comes to shifting a political memoir or a major award-winning adult title the Big Three newspaper can be relied upon to provide glowing reviews.
Children’s books rarely get a mention.
That’s about to change with the Daily Telegraph committing to a weekly review of a children’s book, starting January. That’s “a children’s book”, mind, as in singular. So don’t get too excited.
The change of heart comes after a newspaper-shaming interview on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, the UK’s flagship radio news show.
Per The Bookseller, children’s authors Frank Cottrell Boyce and Robin Stevens spoke about the “lack of critical discourse” when it comes to discussion and review of children’s literature, with one especially pertinent quote from Cottrell Boyce that seems to have spurred the Daily Telegraph into action.
If I write a really bad movie that opens and closes in one weekend I am still guaranteed a lengthy review in each national paper and probably a slot on ‘Front Row’, ‘The One Show’. I write a towering work of comedy genius for children…I will be bloody lucky to get a sentence in a round up of summer read.
And therein, of course, lie two critical points in one – we have no idea if Cottrell Boyce actually writes towering works of comedy genius for children, or is just saying this for effect, because there are no reviews to guide us.
Telegraph arts editor Ben Lawrence told The Bookseller that the Radio 4 comments were the tipping point for him.
If you buy into the celebrity culture too much ultimately it leads to a stagnation of creativity and I think that is very dangerous because children are very good at detecting what is very good and very bad […] if they’re not being offered good enough stuff, then I think the whole industry is going to suffer really, it’s going to stagnate, because they’re going to turn away from books. And goodness knows there’s enough competition from other things.
I’m hoping we can make a difference by publishing a children’s book review once a week. I’m very conscious of the irony that children don’t read these reviews, but their parents do. I think we would have enough sway and we have a good roster of critics who really know their stuff so I’m hoping that will be enough to persuade people of the good stuff out there.
All very noble, but it will be interesting to see how Lawrence pulls off this balancing act given how many top-selling children’s books are written by – or at least carry the author-name of – TV celebrities. At least 6 of the top 50 children’s books on Amazon UK as I wrote this post are by TV celebrity authors.
I say “at least” because I’m out of touch with the UK TV scene so don’t recognise all the author names, but Davids Walliams and Baddiel stood out.
Here’s the thing: While the Telegraph Books Review section (i.e. adult books) is full of reviews of actual books, the Children’s Books section is full of rants about children’s books authors, and especially, it seems, celebrity authors.
In fact Ben Lawrence himself led the charge this month, responding to the Radio 4 shaming, with a Telegraph op-ed where he condemns an author he openly admits he has never read. That will be the aforementioned David Walliams.
For the harried parent trying to find a book for their child, a familiar name on a bookshelf is always going to be the obvious option. The Duchess of York went first in 1989, with Budgie the Little Helicopter. But in truth, blame Madonna: 14 years later, her wafty Kabbalah nonsense, The English Roses, started a ghastly trend. Fearne Cotton’s Yoga Babies, Katie Price’s Perfect Ponies, Clare Balding’s The Girl Who Thought She Was a Dog – they all feel like cynical cash-ins.
But wait, Lawrence isn’t finished:
Perhaps the most egregious example, however, is the comedian David Walliams, now the most successful children’s author in Britain. Anecdotally, I’m told by parents who’ve bought his best-selling books that they’re appalling: sub-Roald Dahl (of whom Walliams is a fan), and devoid of heart or writerly flair.
The only thing worse than a child deprived of books is a child immersed in bad ones. Defenders might say that at least a writer such as Walliams gets more children interested in reading, but I see no evidence that he is acting as a gateway drug to better quality gear.
Ouch! But let’s hear one part of that tirade again. Lawrence says:
Anecdotally, I’m told by parents who’ve bought his best-selling books that they’re appalling: sub-Roald Dahl (of whom Walliams is a fan), and devoid of heart or writerly flair.
Yet unless this all happened in the last few days since the Road to Radio Damascus conversion, then Lawrence has known about this for some while, and was not bothered to do something about it.
And just in case there’s any doubt Lawrence somehow lived in a bubble devoid of knowledge of the celebrity children’s author Walliams, let me refer you to this Telegraph piece in the Children’s Books section from 2021:
David Walliams has got away with lazy and distasteful children’s books for too long.
That was Claire Allfree over a year ago, in an article by definition approved by Lawrence as Arts Editor.
I’m also inclined to wonder, since Lawrence seems to value the critical opinion of parents so much, why he doesn’t save on paying professional reviewers and let parents review the new adult titles as well.
So I’m going to make a pledge. From January, we will review a new book by a children’s author once a week. It could be a picture book for younger readers, a novel for pre-teens, or perhaps some Young Adult fiction. It could be a book by an established (professional) author, or a debut by someone brilliant and unknown. What you won’t see, I promise, is anything by a non-writer who is pushing larger talents out of the way in order to extend their personal brand.
Double-ouch. So those celebrities – there will surely be a good few – who don’t need to hire ghost-writers, who can manage to knock together sentences in a meaningful way, and who perhaps are actually very adept at storytelling, are going to have a tough time, just because they found fame in some other field before putting finger to keyboard.
I wonder, Ben, will this mean no reviews of new books by TV celebrity naturalists and scientists and other professionals who aren’t actors, comedians or royalty?
Yet for all the caveats, this is overall good news, in as much as we will finally see, once a week, a children’s book being treated with some respect. That’s a big step forward for the industry.
We can all hope other newspapers and other media adopt a similar policy, but let’s keep in mind that the Daily Telegraph has been around since 1885 – 137 years. Yet it took a chance interview on Radio 4 for Ben Lawrence to wake up to the cold reality of establishment attitudes to children’s literature and how this key sector of the publishing industry is treated as a sideshow.
Had Lawrence been occupied with a phone call or other every-day distraction at those crucial few minutes on that particular morning he would not have heard that interview and reviews of children’s books would have continued to be a sideshow for the Telegraph.
In fairness, Lawrence does admit to a degree of “nostra culpa” (his words – this is the Daily Telegraph, after all. Latin is their first language).
Children’s fiction has always been the Cinderella of the book world, and we journalists need to work much harder in highlighting works for children.
Cinderella? If Lawrence fancies himself as the transforming fairy godmother he’s going to need a bigger wand.
I hope Lawrence’s crusade-fever will prove contagious and other media will follow suit, but I won’t be holding my breath.
I mean, seriously, one single children’s book to be reviewed each week? Not so much a Damascene conversion as a Sunday visit to Church to keep up appearances.
Children’s books are the cornerstone of the publishing industry. If children don’t read, where are the future adult readers?
Publishers have much to answer for here, for letting the media sideline children’s books for so long.
This post was first published on LinkedIn Pulse on December 20. My Gambian ISP had other ideas about it getting into TNPS, but finallly I managed to get online again.
That same day The Bookseller carried a follow-up post to the debate. Check that out here.