I’ve written before on this blog of my passion for encouraging literacy, particularly among children; if I had my way, every child on this planet would be exposed to books at as early an age as possible. If there was one thing I could do – given unlimited power and funds – it would be to equip every child in the world with their own mini-library, and with the skills to read it. I truly feel that one of the most useful things we can do for our future generations is to ensure they can read as well as they are able, and that they read as widely as possible.
Of course, there are children who just don’t like to read – that’s sad, but it’s a fact. However, they should, at least, be given the opportunity to read, and encouraged to try, and exposed to as many different types of book as possible, just in case something might engage their imagination and spark off their interest. I have a belief – and it may be a naive and silly belief, but it’s mine just the same – that there is a book for every child.
Yesterday, I had an opportunity to put this belief into practice. I was in a bookshop – one with which I’m long familiar, and which I can never resist dipping into if I’m close enough to visit it – and I was, of course, browsing intently in the children’s section. A young mother approached me, her six-year-old daughter in tow, and asked me my opinion on what she should purchase for her little girl to read.
I’m not sure if she thought I was a staff member, or if it was a case of ‘once a bookseller, always a bookseller’ and she caught the whiff of enthusiastic knowledge from me, but whatever the reason for her question, I was happy to help. I learned this lady was the mother of a ten-year-old, the six-year-old I had the pleasure of meeting, and a four-year-old, all girls. The eldest child was a strong and enthusiastic reader, she told me, but the others struggled. They found it hard to emulate their sister, and found themselves bored by a lot of the books they’d tried in the past. They liked ‘funny’ books, and were growing tired of the princessy-type, pink and glitter books that they had once loved.
I threw my eyes around the shelves, and came up with a few ideas. Andy Stanton’s ‘Mr Gum’ books were my first suggestion, followed by Francesca Simon’s ‘Horrid Henry’ series (enthusiastically grabbed by the six-year-old); for the older girls, I thought of Jeremy Strong’s ‘There’s a Viking in my Bed!’ and the wonderful books of David Walliams, which are funny but also sweet and uplifting, with a comforting focus on love and friendship and family, so important to young readers. I think the lady was touched by my efforts and glad of the suggestions, and I certainly appreciated being asked for help.
However, as pleased as I was to have helped these young readers to find something good to exercise their brains, there was one aspect of the situation that has been on my mind ever since, and it centres on the fact that the bookshop we happened to be in was one that deals exclusively in second-hand books. The reason I like to go there so often is because I always find new authors to follow and new series to start collecting, and it’s fantastic to dig around in the piles of books and uncover some lost classics and rarities. It’s also wonderful to be able to pick up a book for less money than it would be if I bought it new – but with a view, always, to purchasing the writer’s back catalogue in a ‘proper’ bookshop if I like what I buy second-hand. I discovered Catherine Fisher this way; I got heavily into Kate Thompson by browsing the shelves of this very shop. The same thing applies to Jenny Nimmo, who I adore, and most of whose books I have subsequently purchased new. Sometimes, I don’t mind buying books second-hand if the author is deceased, or if their work is out of copyright – then, I don’t feel like I’m dipping my hand into a fellow writer’s pocket and taking their earnings from them – but normally I try to purchase books new as often as I can. Not everyone feels this way, for a variety of reasons – some of them excellent, unassailably logical reasons.
The mother of these young readers, for instance, was enthusiastic about second-hand books not because they were a gateway to new writers and their back catalogues, but because of their cheapness and relative ‘disposability’; it’s always easier to give a book away, or not to mind if it gets wet or torn or dirty, if you didn’t buy it ‘new’. I can’t blame the lady for thinking this way – as important as it is for children to read, it’s also important for them to have shoes and clothes and school uniforms and food, of course, and I can completely understand why new books would slide down a parent’s list of priorities. But, as an aspiring writer, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of pain at the thought.
Every book bought second-hand benefits, in financial terms, nobody but the person selling it; the author gets nothing. If a book is borrowed in a library, at least the author gets a tiny fraction of a payment for it. It’s tough, realising that something which benefits readers so much (i.e. second-hand book purchasing) can be such a bad thing from a writer’s point of view, but that is the reality of the world we live in. I do not judge the lady I helped for her choice, particularly because I also frequent second-hand bookshops (though I do try to support the authors I love as much as I can); I just hope that, perhaps, encouraging children to read when they’re young will turn them into not only enthusiastic consumers of books, but also enthusiastic supporters of writers when they grow older, thereby ensuring there will always be a flow of new books to read. I also hate reducing the whole ‘book creation-book consumption’ thing to crass economic terms, but that’s a reality, too. Writers need to earn a living, however meagre, and that’s becoming harder and harder with every passing year.
It’s important to clearly state that of course I believe it’s more important to encourage children to read than it is to ensure they only read from brand-new books – literacy concerns trump all else – but thoughts of ‘what will become of writers?’ have been playing on my mind since my encounter with this lady, nonetheless. I’d love to hear your opinions on this, if you have any. If you buy your books in hard copy, do you like to browse in second-hand shops? What’s your thinking on the economic issues I’ve laid out here? Do tell.
Happy Tuesday! And, naturally, I hope you’re reading, no matter where you bought your book.