The Problem with Being Book-Lovers by Oisín McGann

I write for different ages, from first-time readers to young adults, but my most borrowed book in UK libraries (libraries are less effected by trends than bookshops) is The Goblin of Tara. This is an illustrated book published by Barrington Stoke, who specialize in books for ‘reluctant readers’. The Goblin of Tara is aimed at teenagers with a reading level of about eight years.

When the O’Brien Press published my Mad Grandad books, they put them in a series aimed at ‘first-time’ readers of six upwards. I was in complete agreement – like most writers, I created these books for the reader I was at that age. Since then, on my visits to schools, I have regularly found the Mad Grandad books being read by fifth and sixth classes. Recently, I have been seeing them in secondary school libraries, north and south of the border. Despite my liberal pretensions, I still find myself thinking: ‘you’re too old to be reading that’.

I believe there is a fundamental gap between what the majority of children want to read, and what the publishing industry thinks they should be reading, because the book industry is run by book-lovers. And yet it desperately needs to sell its products to everyone else. We were the keen readers in our class, the ones who were passionate about books in all their forms. And I believe this, more than changes in technology, new formats or even ruthless discounting, is why our industry is in trouble. A children’s book should, first and foremost, engage children, and should be designed from conception upwards with that in mind. I think we need to cast aside our preconceptions of what a book should be, and ask ourselves: ‘What is this thing we’re making supposed to do, and how can we ensure it’ll do it?’

If you are a teacher or librarian, you will know that you’re in the strange position of being both a buyer and a marketer of children’s books. The publishing industry is one of the few businesses that essentially expects its market to do its marketing for it. Most children over the age of nine or ten do not want their teacher’s or librarian’s, or even their parent’s opinion on the music, games or films that they buy – but our whole industry works on the basis that this is how they buy books.

We are book-lovers, selling to other book-lovers who are buying on behalf of kids, most of whom would rather spend their money on something else.

If we really want to engage children, to make them enthusiastic about books, I believe we need to admit that, where reading levels – and certainly reading stamina – are concerned, we’re setting our sights too high.

We must accept that most of the kids we so often label as ‘reluctant readers’ are not a niche market of children with learning difficulties. They are what’s normal. These are the majority of readers, and with text, email and Facebook, reading is playing an ever-increasing part in their social lives. So you’d expect that it would be increasingly easy to get them to read books – but somehow we’re not getting it right. I think that is because we in the publishing industry aim our books at the readers we were, rather than the readers they are. This majority should be where we focus our efforts to sell books. Get them on board, and the rest will follow.

(Please note: This post is taken from a larger article to appear in Inis Magazine in November.)

Oisin McGann will be reading in Listowel library on Thursday May 31st at 12.30pm to 1.30pm & 2.30pm to 3.30pm, and will be directing an illustration workshop on Saturday, June 2nd at 10am in the X-istence Youth Cafe, William Street.