On young boys and ‘proper books’

A few weeks ago, an adult who should have known better made the mistake of saying to my eight-year-old son: ‘If you want to go to a good school and do well in your education, you need to read proper books, not stuff like Wimpy Kid.’ She then helpfully went on to give some examples of some ‘proper books’ that he should instead be reading: Treasure Island was one, The Wind in the Willows was another. It’s all about the language used, you see.

wimpy kid

Sadly I wasn’t present for this conversation or I would have responded with a (probably shorter and less politely-worded) version of what I’m about to say now. It’s unlikely, but perhaps she’s reading this post, in which I will explain why I found her comment so ill-judged. 

An eight-year-old boy’s enthusiasm for reading is a fragile thing. Perhaps it always has been, but it is doubly so now given the range of other entertainment options on offer. When I was eight, I could play with my 1980s toys, I could go to Fog Lane Park, or I could read a book. That was pretty much it. I guess there was also Blue Peter. How different from the life of a child in 2017 and all its digital temptations. Until this time last year my son would read reasonably willingly, but always prompted by me, and always with me, to me, or listening to me. 

And then last autumn, everything changed. The catalyst for this change was, as I suspect it often is, J.K. Rowling. I never read the Harry Potter books myself, and so J.K.’s ascension to the figure of deity happened for me much later than it did for many others. In my case, it was prompted by my son’s newly discovered passion for reading fiction coinciding with Rowling’s characteristically courageous and principled stand on the current dire state of the Labour Party.

Once my son started to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, he didn’t look back. I stopped reading to him, and he finished it alone, followed by the other six books in the series. And then the Cursed Child, and the Beedle the Bard one and the one about Quidditch. What those of us who love reading fiction already know is that it’s like a drug. So once he’d finished reading Rowling’s entire children’s oeuvre, he moved on, in search of the same type of entertainment offered by Harry Potter, now that he knew he could do it alone. And he moved on to the other things that eight-year-old boys read, including the Wimpy Kid series. Am I confident that this reading enthusiasm will last throughout his teenage years, withstanding all modern distractions of games, phones, Youtube, Netflix and so on? No I am not. And this is the reason why a grown-up telling him that the sort of books he enjoys reading are the wrong sort to read is such a terrible idea. 

Until my child was on the receiving end of this comment, I hadn’t read any of the Wimpy Kid books. I’d asked him for a brief synopsis, but he seemed weirdly unable to summarise the plot. Since nothing gets me crosser than an accusation of a book not being a ‘proper book’, I dipped in, and I immediately saw why he found it so difficult to pitch them to me, as we say in the biz. The Wimpy Kid books are books about a normal boy, in normal situations. From the short section I read, they seem quite funny. In this particular bit, Greg’s mum had decided to go to an evening class to improve her career prospects and the boys in the family were all left to fend for themselves. They thought it would be great, and they’d all get to eat unhealthy dinners and have loads of unsupervised fun. Of course it went wrong and they couldn’t cope without her. It wasn’t Anna Karenina, but I could see why a boy of his age would enjoy it. It was wittily told and illustrated and it taught an important lesson: don’t undervalue the contribution of your bossy yet excellently organised mother.

I will confess, I have never read Treasure Island and I have never read The Wind in the Willows. Yet here I am struggling on, with my state school education and my lack of knowledge of Ratty, Moley and whatever the other two are called; despite these disadvantages, I managed to scrape together a first class degree and a good job in publishing. I suspect the reason why I never read either of those books in the first place is the same reason why the Wimpy Kid books are so popular. It’s all about what you can relate to. I’m not interested in pirates, and I’m not interested in woodland animals. I’m sure that they are both brilliant books with much more to offer and more universal themes at their heart, but unfortunately the fact that they appeared, on the surface, to be about pirates and woodland animals meant that I never read them. For the same reason, I never read The Life of Pi as an adult. Friends tell me it is excellent, but I am just never going to read a book about someone stuck on a boat with a tiger. 

Books that draw scorn from literary snobs tend have three things in common: 1. Massive sales 2. Accessibility and 3. Relate-ability, for want of a better word. The final point is so important. It is what fuelled the so-called ‘chick-lit boom’ of the late nineties and early noughties. These were books about everyday women’s problems, that everyday women could empathise with, and read with ease and pleasure. They were seen as not being sufficiently ‘deep’ and some of their covers were pink and so derision was heaped upon them by people who never actually bothered to read them. The same factor is at play in the current popularity of domestic psychological suspense. Of course, not all of us have lying murdering psychopaths for husbands, but the set ups in these novels are close enough to our world, our relationships, our families, that emotionally, we get it. With one small twist of fate, this could be you, these books are saying – and that is what makes the psychological thriller so compelling. 

There are some people who will always believe that a book needs to be difficult to read in order to be good. Plus ca change etc… these people are wrong, as I have written about in different contexts and at length elsewhere. But if you’re going to start telling people what they should and shouldn’t be reading, start with a 40-year-old woman who can argue her case on the internet, and leave a young boy, who has only just discovered a love of reading that needs to be nurtured, alone. 

Advertisements

Holiday reading: the books

So here it is. The final selection, and I must say I’m feeling pretty confident about them all. The eagle-eyed among you may notice that I have broken one of my own rules. Yes there are a couple of over-hyped debuts in this list, but they have been so wholeheartedly recommended to me by everyone I trust that I believe they will prove to be not over-hyped, but rather justly hyped. 

Only one of these books is an actual print book, so in the absence of the ‘towering pile of holiday books’ photo, here is a collage of my holiday books on a variety of devices, most of which I still have to locate and pack chargers for in the next 48 hours.

Holiday 7holiday 6holiday 3holiday 2

holiday 1holiday 5holiday 8

The other fairly crucial rule I’ve broken is that I’ve actually read one and a half of these ‘holiday’ books already. I’ve read the Lisa Jewell in its entirety and I started the Julie Cohen last night, a full three days before my plane takes off. I’m confident that with small children taken into account, the remainder of this lot will still last me a fortnight. 

I’ll report back on my hit rate in due course. 

On The Gruffalo and deserved success

We in publishing are fond of discussing how book history could and should have gone differently. Why some publisher spent too much on book x; why book y should have sold more copies; it’s a mystery why book z sold as many copies as it did. And so on. We love a good moan about a bit of publishing injustice. Our success as publishers is contingent upon our ability to predict what will work and what will sell. Sometimes we get this wrong. But sometimes, the industry, and the reading public, gets it brilliantly, spectacularly right.

gruffalo

The finest example of this justice at work in the publishing world is The Gruffalo. It is the best-selling picture book of my parenting years. It is also the best. At the risk of sounding dogmatic, it is not one of the best, or among the best, it is objectively, in all senses, the very very best. And I believe its exceptional quality has in every way been the reason for its success.

The Gruffalo walks a line that seriously few children’s books and films manage, in its genuine dual appeal to children and adults alike. The majority of its intended readership does not 100% ‘get it’. Right now, my 2-year-old thinks it’s just a book about a big scary monster and a load of animals larking about in a wood. Perhaps as he gets closer to 4 or 5 he will understand it a bit more. But even then, he won’t understand what adults understand, i.e. the reasons why reading The Gruffalo every night for years is so much more tolerable than doing the same with its many competitors. Its total perfection. Its words, illustrations, rhyming and cadence. The not one but two clever confidence tricks pulled off by the mouse – first on the hungry animals of the wood, and then the same trick reversed, and played back on the Gruffalo himself. The way in which the end so brilliantly echoes the beginning – from ‘a fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good’ to ‘the mouse found a nut and the nut was good’. In just a few pages, the mouse goes from being potential food himself, to enjoying a peaceful meal having vanquished all the other animals, as well as the fearsome Gruffalo. It is the ultimate story of success against the odds. The Gruffalo’s perfect name and his perfect appearance – theoretically scary whilst still being charming enough to appear on stages and at shopping centres throughout the land without terrifying the toddler population.

Why mention this now, given that I’ve been reading The Gruffalo and thinking all of these things about it pretty much non-stop for the last 7 years? Because, in the last few weeks, I’ve had a rare spell (mainly on the holiday from which I’ve just returned) of feeling a similar sense of publishing justice about my other most recent reads.

First: The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney and Silent Child by Sarah A. Denzil. The bestselling psychological thrillers of recent months in physical and digital respectively. Neither is anywhere near as close to perfection as The Gruffalo, and The Gruffalo has better twists than both (sorry J. P. Delaney and Sarah A. Denzil) but with each of these books, I finished them thinking ‘yes, I can absolutely see why that is such a massive bestseller, phew’. From the titles, to the pitches, to the page-turning unputdownability of the books themselves, reading them was reassuring as well as massively enjoyable.

Then I read My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella. I’ve written at more length about my love of Sophie Kinsella, and my thoughts on the belittling of her type of commercial women’s fiction here. So I won’t repeat myself, except to say that this latest is everything that all of her books are: witty, clever, and effortlessly of-the-moment. Brilliant for its piss-takes of the word ‘bespoke’ and of how city people behave in the countryside (that was me last week), as well as for its insights into the assumptions that working women make about one another.

And finally … on the topic of working women, I read City of Friends, my first ever (I know, I know) Joanna Trollope, and thought ‘oh good, everything everyone has been telling me about why I should read Joanna Trollope for the last 20 years turned out to be right’. In a world where people give you so much bad advice so often, this is pleasing, plus it takes care of my holiday reading potentially for the next 20 years. Am off to book a few more holidays in which to read her backlist now.

What I did in my holidays

Tomorrow ends my extended holiday, my hiatus between jobs at Arrow and Bookouture, and I’m very much looking forward to rejoining the working world, remembering how to publish books and use my oyster card, and eating lunch and dinner later than noon and 6pm.

In the interests of keeping my 2017 reading-record resolution, I thought I’d end my time off with a list of everything I read during it, so here it is:

1. Lots of Bookouture reading, too much to list here, and I’m trying my best to keep the blog extra-curricular. But if you’re in search of something good to pre-order on ebook for the next few months, you can’t go wrong with this, this or this. (And you surely can’t have failed to spot this – still riding high at number 1, where it’s been throughout most of the festive season.)

2. Miss Jane by Brad Watson. An utterly beautiful book, both inside and out.

3. The Breakdown by B. A. Paris, which I’ve written about at more length here.

4. The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k by Sarah Knight. More here. And as well as reading the book, I spent much of my holiday not bothering to do a load of the things that the book had convinced me were a waste of my time.

4. Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx. I’m a longtime fan of Docx’s, and have been eagerly awaiting this one. It’s about three brothers who are taking their father to (possibly) end his life at Dignitas. It is funny and moving and sad about family relationships and life and death, but when I finished it, I tweeted this highlight about camping, which entirely chimes in with my own holiday world view:

img_0010

5. Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner. More here.

6.  The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness by Maddie Dawson. More here.

7. Some reading on digital publishing, and most recently The Everything Store by Brad Stone, about Jeff Bezos and Amazon. This is great story for all the reasons you already know, about the ways in which Bezos fulfilled his ambition for Amazon to be ‘the everything store’ and the perfect customer experience. But in addition to all of this, you get some fabulous stories of Bezos’ childhood which may help to reassure you about the oddities of your own children. Apparently when he was three he dismantled his cot with a screwdriver, because he wanted to sleep in a bed. So if your toddler does this, you no longer have to think ‘how extremely annoying’ but can instead think ‘excellent, perhaps this shows the dedication and drive that means s/he will grow up to be one of the world’s most successful business people. Hooray’.

I have also, with my 7-year-old, read parts of/watched parts of/ discussed at *great* length all things Harry Potter. I have never previously done the Harry Potter thing, magic and stuff being of zero interest to me personally. But despite my own muggleish reading tendencies, my exposure over the last few months has forced me to acknowledge what I already knew about J.K. Rowling from her adult books, i.e. that she is a fantastic storyteller. I may not know my wizards, but I do know my first chapters, and the one we have just read, The Riddle House from Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire is everything that a first chapter should be.

img_0009

 

2017 reading resolutions

I’ve seen a lot of people writing and heard a lot of people talking in the last few days about how they are not making any new year’s resolutions this year. Well, I am making loads, possibly more than any year in living memory. I was given a lovely engraved notebook at the end of last year:

notebook

… and so have even gone to the effort of writing them all down in it, and they add up to an impressive nine. Ten would obviously be rounder, and I’ve tried hard to think of a realistic tenth one, but I can’t and I don’t want to overreach.

But now, time for some reading-specific ones. In the interests of this post not seeming too ‘me, me, me’, I’m also going to selflessly include some books that *you* should all read during 2017.

But first, the resolutions:

1. More non-work reading. This is every editor’s equivalent of ‘lose weight’ as resolutions go, i.e. we resolve to do it each year, and the whole enterprise has collapsed by halfway through January. Nonetheless, it’s an important goal. We all know how lucky we are to read for a living, but it’s hard (yet important) to read beyond the books we are publishing and considering for publication.

2. Keep a list of all the books I read this year. Those who know me will be astonished to know that I don’t already keep such a list, but I don’t, and it makes things tricky when people ask for recommendations (as they usually do around holidays and Christmas) and all you can think of are the books that you yourself have published. I used to keep a list as a youngster, complete with a 5-star rating system, and am planning to start again for the coming year.

3. Read more non-fiction. Fiction is what I love to read most, so with the limited time I have for extra-curricular reading, it’s what tends to get read. But whenever I do read some non-fiction I think: oh this is good, I should do it more often. The list of non-fiction I’ve read in the last few years is random and faintly ridiculous, tending to be made up of things I’m interested in (a bit of history and biography, a few books about if, how and when women can ‘have it all’, latterly some stuff about digital publishing) combined with ‘those non-fiction books that literally everyone has read’ – Being Mortal, Do No Harm and so on. So, if you have any surprising yet essential suggestions, do send them my way.

4. Bit more of a niche one, this: seek out more legal thrillers. A friend kindly sent me The Plea by Steve Cavanagh just before Christmas and told me I had to read him, so I shall. But beyond this, why aren’t there more legal thrillers being published and why aren’t more people talking about when and how they are going to make a serious comeback? I know of two excellent ones due for publication in 2018, but beyond this: I must hunt them down. Three of my favourites here, here, and of course here, for anyone else who may be looking.

5. Read The Goldfinch. Why haven’t I done this yet? I have no idea. I know I would love it, so think I have just been being contrary. Also it’s very long of course, which relates back to the point about non-work reading. It may have to be done in August or December, but it shall be done.

So there are my five, and five being a rounder number than nine, I will stop there and move on to what you should be reading in the early months of 2017:

little-deaths

Little Deaths by Emma Flint. I have banged on about this relentlessly on twitter, so here is my final shout-out as it publishes next week. What everyone raving about it says is that it is ‘more than a thriller’, which is undoubtedly true, although at the same time vaguely insulting to books that are ‘just’ good thrillers. However, what everyone means is that it is simultaneously a mystery with a strong one-line pitch – you wake up one morning and your children are gone, and you are accused of their murder – and a brilliant literary novel about much more than just its mystery.

the-breakdown

The Breakdown by B. A. Paris. I have mentioned briefly already, but this is a must-read for everyone who loved her Behind Closed Doors last year. Someone on a blog somewhere said (sorry, blogger who I have forgotten – if you can identify yourself I will link to you!) that it reminded them of those old black and white ‘woman in peril’ Hollywood movies, which is exactly what I thought too, and it very specifically reminded me of Sorry, Wrong Number, one of my faves in that genre. It is gripping and great.

persons-unknown

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner. Not out until June but my final read of 2016 was Missing, Presumed, which again, is ‘more than a thriller’ but also introduces DC Manon Bradshaw, possibly my favourite new fictional detective since I met Jackson Brodie. I thoroughly recommend the first to anyone who hasn’t yet read it, and Persons Unknown is thankfully going to be published in time for my summer holiday.