Author, libraries campaigner and President of CILIP Dawn Finch speaks to us about reading for pleasure and the vital role of public libraries.
Dawn Finch has worked with children's books and reading for over 27 years. She began her career in public libraries before moving on to children's and school libraries where she specialised in the development of young readers. Dawn has contributed to a number of children's non-fiction books, but her own YA novel, Brotherhood of Shades, was well received and she was described by the British Fantasy Society as ‘one to watch’. She also writes children's non-fiction and her book for 7-9 year olds My Skara Brae (about the neolithic site) is out and currently a bestseller. Dawn works extensively as a literacy consultant and provides support and training for school librarians and teachers, as well as running creative writing workshops in both primary and secondary schools.
She is an active and outspoken campaigner for libraries and literacy, and in January 2016 was elected as President of the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). Dawn also currently serves on the committee of the SoA's Children's Writers and Illustrators Group.
You’re both an author and a librarian. How do these two roles work together for you? How do you see the general relationship between authors and the library system – and can it be improved?
I have always had a great love of libraries, and I would not be a writer without them. I have always raced through books and now need so many for my research that I couldn’t possibly afford to buy them all. As study spaces and reading spaces they have been invaluable throughout my life. There is a natural affinity between writers and librarians and I’ve found each role useful to the other. Some of the most influential library supporters are writers and we work well together because we tend to have the same agenda – sharing a love of books and reading. The vast majority of writers are passionate about both public and school libraries, so really they should just keep on doing what they’re doing – sharing a love of libraries.
You’re a prominent campaigner for libraries in your role as President of CILIP. What do you think the future is if the current trend of cuts continues? What can libraries do to survive? And what can library lovers do to help?
One of the key issues that is worth remembering about library campaigns is that this not just a snobby or nostalgic campaign. Libraries are very much for the people, and are the only unbiased, truly democratic place to access information in our communities. With over 280 million visits to libraries a year, it is clear that our public libraries are well visited and important. That’s twice as many visits as all of our cinemas had last year, so it is clear that people need and use libraries. In the UK there is a legal statutory requirement for the Government to ensure that there is a comprehensive and efficient library service. The failure of this provision is currently being challenged by CILIP with our My Library By Right campaign, and support of that is greatly appreciated. The bigger the names, the more support we have.
With over 280 million visits to libraries a year, it is clear that our public libraries are well visited and important.
Personally I don’t want to think about the possibility of a future without our libraries. With falling national literacy levels, more people than ever suffering from anxiety and depression, rising child poverty and a break-up of communities, it is more important than ever to have a place in the community that can support everyone. The one and only place left in our communities that can support all of these issues is a library. If we lose them, then our entire nation will suffer as a result.
How do authors’ books get into libraries?
That’s a very thorny question and I know that some authors and publishers feel that they are overlooked by the public library system, but there really isn’t a simple answer. Most library authorities have a county-wide stock selection policy that will take into account best value over large quantities. They do this to achieve economies of scale and to reduce the processing and handling costs to the libraries. Most of the counties that I know have outsourced the majority of their purchasing to companies specialising in book supply to libraries. The days of a librarian trotting up the bookshop with a cheque book are long gone. In fact in my county I remember the ability to control and spend your own book budget being removed from branch libraries over twenty years ago. To be honest, the best way of getting your book into the library is to get reviews in mainstream media, write the first book about an important subject or new subject area, write a bestseller, or to make friends with your librarian and donate a copy. I wish I could give a more positive answer.
One of the saddest things that I have ever heard a parent say is that their child is too old to be read to.
What do you make of a recent comment from Nick Kent of Peter Owen that ‘the library service has completely betrayed the publishing trade in Great Britain, particularly the shrinking independent sector’?
I can understand why he feels dismay in his sector, but he simply doesn’t understand how it works in the library world. Librarians don’t have the ability to go out and buy whatever they want. Even in places where book selection is done at a more local level, they have to consider what their specific communities want, and what will be borrowed by the majority of their members. Budgets are tighter than people can possibly imagine (and in some places non-existent) and the luxury of having shelves full of books from smaller presses is something that we can only dream of. Every librarian I know would love to have books from independent presses, and from more diverse suppliers, but that’s not how it works and they don’t have the choices or power over stock selection that they used to.
Public Lending Right rates can be confusing for authors. If cuts continue, will authors get less money from library loans? And are there any positive changes on the way?
I think that one of the main concerns that authors should have about PLR is the fact that at the moment we have no access to the lending information from independent or community managed libraries. County councils remove these libraries from the fold (so to speak) and that means that we can collect no data from them. No data means no PLR. This means that if the cuts continue and libraries continue to be handed over to volunteers in the community, there will be far less money for authors.
Protecting data is right at the top of our concerns and we are at the forefront of the privacy movement.
A while back a librarian in Japan released Haruki Murakami’s loan history, getting into hot water in the process. The so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’ threatens further incidents. Are you concerned?
Yes, deeply. In library circles we have been talking about this a great deal, and this discussion is ongoing. One of the key words that comes up time and time again in research when talking about librarians is that they are trusted. Protecting data is right at the top of our concerns and we are at the forefront of the privacy movement. The information held by a library can be very sensitive, and leaking Murakami’s teenage loan history is a small part of what could possibly be leaked. I am often asked about the child’s right to privacy and I wrote a piece about the Murakami leak on my blog.
I am very concerned about the potential for catastrophic misinterpretation of leaked library data. What would happen if your potential employer knew all of the books you had been borrowing? What if your health insurer knew? What if the police or government could access your library search history?
Libraries are vital to the health and wellbeing of their communities, but a lot of this depends on trust. The Books on Prescription scheme is seeing great success, but it relies on people being able to trust that they will have privacy when they borrow the books.
Privacy is a basic human right, and libraries have a duty of care over the information they hold.
What’s the job of a children’s book? What advice would you give those looking to work in the sector?
The job of a children’s book is to be liked by children. All children. Doesn’t matter what type of child, we should have books for children from all walks of life and all backgrounds. Children want to see themselves in the story, and they want that story to absorb them. Sometimes they want beautiful books. Sometimes they want silly books. Sometimes they want books with their face in. Sometimes they want books with a polka-dot-jelly-monster-from-outer-space face in.
In a book for older readers or teenagers, it is simple. All the things! That’s what we want. Books that cover every single aspect of their lives, and a whole bunch besides. Books that normalise the extraordinary, and value the unusual. Books that cherish and challenge, and books that scare and embrace. All children are different, and the books for them should represent that.
There has been some discussion recently suggesting that young readers do not specifically need diversity in books, they just need great books. I'm afraid that just isn't enough.
The digital revolution is done. There, I’ve said it. I don’t mean that we are all going to pack up our computers and grab our wax tablets, rather that the younger generation is not impressed by computers. They have never lived in a time without the digital format and so they are not as wowed by it. My daughter is 23 and she has only ever known a digital world, but she knits and sketches and reads real books and so do her friends. When I talk to young people at schools I always ask this question and the response is overwhelmingly in favour of physical books. They tell me that the reading ‘feels more real’ in a physical book, and that they like to keep it separate. Last week a 12 year old boy told me that reading a digital book ‘feels like homework’ but a printed book ‘feels like listening to the words.’ I use both digital and printed books, and I know what he means.
In terms of the acquisition of reading skills, you can’t beat a physical book in my opinion. I’ll use all sorts of technology and gadgets working with children to get them reading, but the children still tend to drift back to a physical book. The printed word does not jump around, or scroll, or glow! For new readers a physical book is a simple and uncomplicated link to the written word that even the smallest child understands. Even before a child knows how to access a computer, they can turn a page and look at letter shapes and unconsciously contextualise thanks to the illustrations, and they can do that completely alone. Batteries not required!
One of the saddest things that I have ever heard a parent say is that their child is too old to be read to. I’ve heard parents of children as young as six or seven tell me that they no longer read to their child. Never stop reading aloud. If we all read aloud on a regular basis we would have more readers. I worked in a school where the pupils of one class had significantly better vocabulary, and the pupils were reading at a higher level than the other children in the school. I looked into the work of the teacher and the one thing that he was doing that was different to the other teachers was that every day he read aloud to the pupils. Every single day, no matter what, he found the time to read aloud. He made time.
I think that we should also value reading more, and show that it is not a chore or a homework task, it’s an escape and a joyful and rewarding pastime. We, as adults, should celebrate reading for pleasure more and should talk about it more. An environment that is print-heavy is more likely to turn children into life-long readers, but it’s not enough to just give every child a book. You could put me in a fully equipped operating theatre and put a scalpel in my hand but it would not make me a brain surgeon. Children not only need access to books, but they also need to have someone in their life who champions reading and nurtures a love of reading. I strongly believe that both children and parents should be supported from Early Years by a school librarian and that well-staffed school libraries should be a statutory requirement.
I’m very pleased that the publishing world is moving towards the removal of gendered books. The world of Pink vs Blue is so dated that it surprises me that we are still having this conversation. I have put books in the hands of thousands of children and most of them only want an eye-catching and stylish cover that sums up the content of the book. Young readers are not stupid, they know how to read a blurb and choose what they actually want. Creating covers and packaging that could potentially alienate 50% of the readership seems a rather short-sighted business plan!
The books we discovered as small children leave an indelible mark on our psyche. That's why children's books are so important, because they never leave us.
Do children need more diverse characters in their reading? What can be done to address this?
There has been some discussion recently suggesting that young readers do not specifically need diversity in books, they just need great books. I’m afraid that just isn’t enough. When you have heard children as young as seven tell you that they won’t use their name in a book because ‘heroes and princesses don’t have Muslim names,’ or when a child makes their protagonists white because ‘that’s what real children’s books are like’ then you know that we really do need more diversity in children’s books. I would like to see a time when diversity is not just in the ‘We come from all countries’ type of books and that any child can pick up a book and see their faces, and their lifestyles, normalised.
I think that’s what’s most important – normalisation. I try to write a world that fits my daughter’s normal and that includes young people from all walks of life and backgrounds, LGBTQ people, and people with varying strengths, weaknesses and abilities. That’s her normal!
I still hear, however, of publishers who when offered a book that features (for example) people from the LGBTQ community they will be refused on the grounds that they already have a trans/lesbian/gay book and so don’t need another. Yes they do! I know it’s not easy for publishers when considering profit margins, but this is far more important than revenue. The right book at the right time can change, or save, a life. The right book for a young adult is the one that makes them feel less alone.
Did you have a favourite children’s book growing up?
I was a voracious reader as a child and have had thousands of favourites. I do have a very soft spot for Winnie the Pooh as it was the first chapter book I read on my own. My beloved godmother, Lynette, gave me books right through her life and that was one that she gave me when I was six. She wrote me letters talking to me about the book and I was so determined to read it all by myself. I still have it, with my heavy scrawl on the title page, my mark of ownership. It reminds me of her and I still find comfort in the gentle beauty of the prose. It really is a beautiful piece of writing and I think that sometimes we forget how important children’s books were to us, and that they can still have a place in our adult lives.
When we ask adults to name their favourite books, the books that they have fondness for, or that they most remember, they name children’s books. We find these books when we first clumsily work out that the strange shapes on the page combine to make sounds, and words, and sentences. We struggle through them and then one day, if we are lucky or if we are well guided, we have an epiphany and it all clicks into place. The books we discovered as small children leave an indelible mark on our psyche. That’s why children’s books are so important, because they never leave us.
Every child has a right to experience that feeling, and to feel uplifted by it, and every child has a right to own that feeling for the rest of their lives.