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.

A literary history of the radiator

Those of you who know me in real life know that, family and friends aside, there’s nothing I love more than a radiator. Between the months of October and March I’m often found standing next to one in my house whilst having a conversation. I once went on holiday (a British holiday in December, I hasten to add) with two portable radiators in the boot of our car. I was mocked on arrival, but the enormous old house we were staying in turned out to be freezing with no central heating (I was young, it’s not a mistake I would ever make now) and we all ended up fighting over those two radiators like hungry animals with a scrap of meat.

I am wary of attempts to undermine and belittle the radiator. These come in many forms. ‘Don’t you just love a real fireplace?’ No, it makes one room unbearably hot, it makes my cheeks go red and scratchy, and then when you leave the room where the fireplace is, you’re freezing again. ‘Central heating dries out your skin.’ A necessary price. ‘Doesn’t the Aga create a lovely warmth in the room?’ Sadly, not as much warmth as a radiator, although I will settle for standing next to an Aga in a serious lack-of-radiators situation.

I am going to shoehorn something about books into this post soon don’t worry, it’s coming up…

Where is your favourite place to read? In bed, on the sofa, in the bath, on the train, on a sun lounger? I will read in all of these places, though if you’ve got your holiday booking right, you should really be on a holiday that is so hot, you can’t bear to read sitting on a sun lounger, and you will need to read like this, my favourite holiday reading position. Here I am reading I Am Pilgrim in Greece with my feet in a swimming pool.

img_0012

But my first ‘place to read’ love was on the floor next to the radiator. It’s where I always used to read books as a child. I had a beanbag when I was younger. I can remember many specific books I read on this beanbag, from Flowers in the Attic to Zola’s Germinal (#range). And then when I was a teenager, my parents bought me a lovely second hand green rocking chair, and I abandoned my beanbag. I’m fairly confident I didn’t read sitting next to the radiator again until my children were babies, and when they had a night of bad sleep, I used to sit outside their rooms waiting to make sure they were properly asleep before I went back to bed. I read The Help during the night sat next to a radiator like this with my older child, and I read Beautiful Ruins during the night sat next to a radiator with my younger child. Happy days!

But in this freezing cold week when everyone else is talking about the magic of snow, and I’m complaining about how bloody freezing it is, it occurred to me that reading next to the radiator need not just be an emergency scenario for lack of furniture or awkward children, it could be a planned location. And it’s still pretty good. It’s been my first week in my new job at Bookouture this week, and this is where I plan to do my Bookouture weekend reading:

img_0013

I have a significant birthday coming up later this year, and I’m hoping someone might take pity on me and buy me a beanbag whilst I’m still young enough to stand up easily from the floor.

 

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