Many Children Want Short Books, But That Doesn't Mean They Want Shallow Ones: by N. S. Blackman
Imagine yourself young again and remember how you felt being taken into a library; the smell of a polished floor, the hushed voices, the shelves where the highest books were still out of reach and the promise that there would – perhaps – be something here for you to take home today – if only you could find it.
Think back, if you can, to a time before you knew the real pleasures of reading: when you had to decipher each word and line carefully, when you had to skip some words – too hard to pronounce, their meaning a mystery - and when getting to the end of each page was a small achievement.
When you read your first ‘chapter books’, perhaps, the occasional pages with pictures on were your stepping stones; points to aim for, waymarkers where you could pause.
It’s a safe bet, because you are reading this, that you soon moved past this stage and forgot that sense of anxiety - although maybe you still remember a particular book that was your own turning point, your own awakening.
For me, it happened when I was ten.
I found a hardback edition in my local library, away from the young readers’ shelves that I was used to browsing along. This book looked heavy, grown-up, and serious. And when I flicked through the pages I saw only words, not a single picture to invite me in.
But my heart skipped when I saw the cover. There, beautifully illustrated, was a picture of my hero, and the alien monsters that had long captured my imagination on TV. The book was a Dr Who novelisation.
Days later (I can’t remember how many, but I can tell you for sure it was a Friday afternoon and my friend and I were the last to leave) my teacher called me back at the classroom door.
“Don’t forget your book.”
She pointed to where I’d left the big hardback on my desk. “I don’t think you’ll survive the weekend without it.”
She smiled and I detected that this was the sort of humour that grown-ups shared with each other.
I nodded and understood.
I remember feeling quietly proud. In that moment, the teacher had bestowed upon me a new identity that made me feel good. I’d become reader. She had noticed.
And I stuck at it in the weeks the followed.
The shelf opposite my bed steadily filled with more titles in the same series. And then other books, other authors. When I didn’t have enough money to buy the one that I was desperate to get hold of, I usually found someone willing to do a swap. I wanted to collect them all, and read them all.
But looking back now, I’m struck by something: those books were mostly quite short by today’s standards. That first one – that hardback edition that I had imagined would be so challenging when I lifted it off the shelf – was only 160 pages long (I’ve checked – I still have a paperback edition in a suitcase in the loft).
By the standards of today’s books for the same age group, 160 pages is short. But for the ten year old me, it was just right.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was my way into reading novels, to studying English Literature at university, and to earning my living as a writer. Nobody expected it of me, and I certainly didn’t expect it of myself. My reading was getting faster, and I just wanted the next book.
It’s been a long time since I thought about any of this, and none of these thoughts have been consciously in my mind during the years that I’ve spent writing stories for middle-grade readers (aged 7, 8, 9, 10...). But maybe the memory has influenced my writing style, and my preference for authoring shorter books for this age group. This, and the knowledge that most young readers have many alternative entertainment options, and many other demands on their time.
For those young readers who are not yet convinced, we have to take it slowly. The book has to look inviting, and from the start, every page, every scene, every sentence has to count.
That is our challenge – as writers and publishers – if we want to win more children over to the joys of reading.
N. S. Blackman’s latest books, The Fantastic Electric Mash-Up Machines and Undercover Alien, are published by Dinosaur Books Ltd.