In amongst the post-Brexit chaos, last Friday’s weekly BookBrunch interview was with Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell. As a life-long fan, it was a complete and utter honour getting to talk with him. We talked libraries, political cartoons, getting children reading and a whole lot more. Read the full article over on BookBrunch, or read a snippet here…
I first met Chris Riddell some weeks ago sketching in the Green Room at Hay Festival. In amongst the cheery chatter, he seemed to exist in a pleasantly peaceful bubble, and that, once again, is the impression I get talking to him on the phone. He’s in his garden apparently, and there are birds singing in the background.
Riddell is a phenomenally successful illustrator, currently holding the title of Children’s Laureate, and on Monday night he became the first person to win the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal three times for his work on The Sleeper and the Spindle, written by Neil Gaiman.
Libraries as the source
“The Greenaway is a prize given by librarians and that makes it very special,” says Riddell about winning the award. “It’s a chance for all of us in the book industry to turn the spotlight on libraries and librarians and the work they do, and it’s been great to be able to do that in my role as Children’s Laureate.
“It’s terribly easy to take libraries for granted and to cut them back as part of a general shrinking of state spending. It needs people like us to discuss it, to say why libraries are important and to keep banging on about it. I am absolutely unapologetic about raising the issue every time there is a forum of a platform for me to talk.”
What’s more, Riddell doesn’t just bring up libraries because he believes they’re good for the readers: he knows they benefit the industry too. “Libraries are the repository of our literary culture. I think the book industry as a whole is very vibrant in this country, and children’s books particularly have had an extraordinary growth. What one needs are people like librarians to take the best of what is coming out, and keep it in libraries to disseminate. To put them in the hands of children – our potential readers – and create the readers of the future. Without that, you are left with the free market model where you buy the book that shouts loudest from the shelf.
“I find when I look at the public lending right payments, that is a window into exactly why we need libraries too, because there are books on my PLR statements that I did many years ago that are still being borrowed and read and are in the hands of readers, in a way that no bookshop on Earth could replicate. That’s a real treasure and we squander it at our peril.”
Riddell himself remembers libraries being a crucial part of his reading experience when he was younger, and the thrill of taking stacks of books home on each weekly visit. “Then when I found the books that I loved, I went into the bookshop and bought my copy, the copy I was going to treasure. But it all began in the library. Reading was library-based.
“What we see are a lot of fantastic children’s books coming out, and we’ve got a great children’s books industry, but when we look at getting children reading, we must not be complacent, because that can wither on the vine. We should go back to the source, and one of the sources is libraries in schools. That is going to foster a reading culture.”
Encouraging the creative; encouraging reading
Despite becoming a voracious reader, Riddell had a difficult journey into reading. He was taught using a reading scheme at school that he found uninspiring. “I remember thinking, ‘If I can only climb this reading tree, somewhere high up there is this extraordinary summit, then I’ll have learnt to read. And I need never read another book again!’”
Eventually, he found a more engaging book lying on his teacher’s desk and fought his way through it, though it was a much higher reading level than his at that point in time. “I got maybe five words in ten, but the context was with me. It was a struggle but I loved it because there was a story that I wanted to discover. Once I got to the end of that, I wanted another one like it, so I went in search of more, and that was what libraries were for. I did that just because I wanted to find the stories.” Before long, he had gone from a reading age that was slightly behind to a one twice his own.
There is a sense in that story that Riddell felt the urge to step outside the designated education system to find the inspiration he needed. A theme still present in some of his work today, as his recent ‘SATs beasties’ in The Observer, which Riddell says were “very cathartic”.
“I don’t want to denigrate the education system, or people who work hard and work out great ways to teach kids,” he adds, “but we are in danger of forgetting about the real role that creativity can play in inspiring kids to pick up books, enter into fictional worlds and write their own stories… Let’s forget points of grammar, SATs and Key Stages, and instead let’s enjoy this fantastic art form!
“We must have continuous conversations about reading for pleasure rather than reading to be tested. Literacy and numeracy are important skills, but there are many ways by which you can attain those goals in interesting, creative ways. I think it’s beholden on all of us in the creative industries to get that message across. We do that by talking to kids, going into schools, and by extolling the virtues of libraries and campaigning for them. Out of that comes a healthy book industry, which is what we all want. We want lifelong readers, we want people who enjoy a book culture, reading for pleasure, and this wonderful, almost national conversation, about books you’ve read and stories you’ve discovered. Shared reading is a brilliant thing.”
These ideas fit well with Riddell as he goes into his second year of being the Children’s Laureate. “It’s been one of the most extraordinary years of my career in terms of the range of people I’ve met and the insights I’ve been given. I’ve been privileged enough to see into all sorts of areas of children’s books. It was amazing to go to Bologna and see the business side of publishing, but also going into schools, meeting teachers and talking to librarians.
“I’ve been able to do a little bit of campaigning, standing outside in a local park, protesting about the idiocy of putting six-year-olds in SATs and making everyone miserable at a time when kids should be enjoying school and loving their educational experience. We have a box-ticking culture and that’s worth shouting about I think…” [READ MORE]