Today is World Book Day, at least if you live in Britain or Ireland. For those of you who don’t know what World Book Day is, it’s a celebration of all things to do with books, but especially of those who read them. Most events are aimed at getting children interested in books and reading, and many nurseries, schools, libraries and bookshops will be holding special events today to help promote reading.
While, as an author, this is something I would always support, I’ve never really paid much attention to World Book Day before. This is because it tends to be more child-centred, and little of what I write is aimed at children. This year, however, things are very different for two related reasons.
Firstly, for various reasons I’ve been running a couple of little people to and from nursery most days during the week, and this has drawn me into the world of children’s books for the first time since I was a child myself. It’s become a routine with the older child, who’s four and a half (and the half is very important at that age!) to sit with him in the car, before we go in and get his sister at the end of the day, and read a book or a story together. Why do I do this? Partly because it means we get to spend some quality time together, but also because I want him to grow up to love books and reading as much as I do. He also absolutely loves every minute of it.
In fact, he loves it so much that a problem has started to emerge. He quickly gets tired of reading the same stories, and is always after something new for us to read together. Yet, browsing through the children’s section of my local book shop, there’s actually surprisingly little that will appeal to him. He’s a child of the twenty-first century, meaning reading has to compete with tablets and computers and smart phones and toys that do all sorts of amazing things. He’s a fan of Skylanders and How To Train Your Dragon, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and he knows almost every superhero that has ever existed (he dressed as Spider-Man, his favourite, for going to nursery for World Book Day today).
Yet, most books for children of his age seem to have changed little from when I was a child. Many have pastel drawings and stories that are almost inane and bland by comparison to the modern world that kids now grow up in, and they struggle to hold his attention when compared to what his favourite superheroes are up to on YouTube.
This is not to say that there aren’t some great kids books out there (at the moment he’s loving the Ten Little … series by Mike Brownlow and we’ve worked our way through Ten Little Dinosaurs and Ten Little Pirates, and he can’t wait for Ten Little Monsters to come out in the next week or so — we’ve already got it on pre-order!), but most would do little to hold his attention for more than a few seconds.
A discussion last Friday with a friend with a similarly aged child revealed that I’m not the only one who feels this way. It seems that children’s book writing, at least for pre-schoolers, really needs to do a lot to catch up with the modern world, especially if we are to get young children interested in the wonder of books from as early an age as possible.
This brings me on to my second reason for paying more attention to World Book Day this year than usual. Over the last year, I’ve been working with a very talented artist by the name of Mike Kloran to create my own children’s picture book (I first came across him through his Surviving the Dead blog, which is well worth checking out if you get the chance). As you might expect, given my favourite subject matter, it’s zombie-based and goes by the title of Zombies Love Brains.
Writing the book and working with Mike has given me an insider view of children’s books that I’ve never had before and it’s been fascinating, but after a little over a year, we’re finally close to the end of this process. The final result is coming together nicely, and it’s turned out to be a quirky little book that I think both parents and children will love, especially those with a slightly darker side to their reading tastes.
Zombies Love Brains is not your traditional children’s book, or even the traditional subject matter for a children’s book, and some will baulk at the idea of introducing children to the subject of zombies at such a young age (I know my own brother does). Yet, we live in a world were many will have already played Plants vs Zombies on a tablet or smart phone, or seen others play it, and to them, if handled just right, zombies are just another type of character alongside the more usual pirates and princesses and talking snowmen.
While I’m not saying that Zombies Love Brains will change children’s publishing forever (I don’t even have a release date planned for it yet – watch this space for more details), but it does illustrate the way that the world has moved on in the last thirty or forty years, and children’s publishing has to move on too, or we will lose the next generation of readers to other forms of entertainment. I think this is already well recognised in books for older children (take, for example, Charlie Higson’s zombie series, The Enemy, as an illustration of this), but most books for younger children seem to be stuck in a time warp from decades ago.
Yet, this is the critical time for getting kids interested in books. If we lose them then, we may never get them back, and this means we need to cater for children with all sorts of different tastes and experiences. Yes, there will always be kids that love the traditional children’s books, like The Gruffalo (which, incidentally, my favourite four and a half-year old happens to love alongside his superheroes and Ninja Turtles, and, indeed, Zombies who love brains!), but there are also many others who crave something much darker and edgier, even from a young age, because that’s what they’re already familiar with from the other entertainment sources in their lives.
This shouldn’t be interpreted as me thinking that children should be forced to grow up before their time, or that their childhoods should be cut short. Rather, I think we need to remember that children are people too, and this means that they have as broad a range of likes and dislikes as any older reader, and we really need to cater for this in the books we write, publish and read to them.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.