School Librarians Revealed: Part 3: The Books Librarians Want Written!

This is part three of School Librarians Revealed, a report on the joint SCBWI-BI Central East Region/Ipswich Children’s Book Group meeting with two Suffolk school librarians: Jayne Gould and Alison Baker.

What Librarians Want: Gaps on the Shelves

We talked with our panel and audience about what they felt the gaps on their shelves were and the books they wished more writers and publishers were producing.

  • Good middle year readers and shorter books for older readers, especially in a market saturated with “brick size” trilogies. Year Six students need meaty books, but don’t necessarily have the stamina to read at great length. They would welcome good books that they could get their teeth into but not too long.
  • Good but not lengthy fantasy – Spiderwick Chronicles (Holly Black and Tony DiTertizzi) were really popular (although helped by the film).
  • Broke Hall School finds it hard to keep Horrid Henry (Francesca Simon and Tony Ross) and Beast Quest (Adam Blade) on the shelves, so more like these would go down well.
  • Good, short books that would make good class readers for Year Five/Six would be welcomed. Anything ideal for teachers to read aloud to their class, but doesn’t take up a term to read, would be good. Once by Morris Gleitzman was cited as a good example of a book very easy to get through in class but has a lot to build lessons and discussions around.
  • Fiction about Sport: although there are a few series on football, they could do with more stories including more sports as well as football, for example, a rugby series.

As part of the discussion, one author noted that this runs contrary to the advice given to many writers who have been told that publishers aren’t after books for middle age readers (7 to 9-year-olds) or shorter books for older readers. The prevailing economic demand seems to be for “value for money” books, which in other words, offer more pages per pound.

  • More action and fantasy for boys (Charlie Higson, Anthony Horowitz, Robert Muchamore)

Laugh Out Loud Funny

  • More humorous stories for older readers – somewhere between Horrid Henry/Jeremy Strong (too young) and Louise Rennison (too old).

High Interest, Lower Challenge

High interest level but easy reading books are in great demand. One in 10 students at Stoke High School is an EAL (English as an Additional Language) student, many from a Polish, Portuguese or Afghan background. It is difficult to source books in their own language to help them keep up their mother tongue as well as helping them to read English.

This is even more of a problem in special need schools, where teenage interest needs to be expressed at Biff and Kipper reading level. Students who use the Makaton symbol system to aid their reading find it hard to have any books suitable for them and staff often resort to remaking the books for their students. As an audience member said, it’s like “learning to play the piano at 11 and having to play nursery rhymes. It’s embarrassing.”

Scary

Students are always asking for “really scary books” (from Year Three onwards). However, what staff find scary and what the students find scary is another matter.

Alison was scared by Breathe by Cliff McNish, she even dreamt about it, but students didn’t find it scary. Stephen King was a little too old for most of their students, but an author who could “do” Stephen King “without the other bits” would do well. One of the troubles is that books now compete against TV, film and video games.

From Scary to Censorship

Interestingly, Darren Shan is not stocked by many librarians. In the primary school library in particularly there was a fine line between stocking a wide range of books and keeping them suitable. Even Robert Muchamore’s CHERUB series is not stocked after the second book at some libraries because it was felt the violence and teenage content escalates through the series, although CHERUB is very popular with many students.

A red dot system helps to indentify books that need to lend out with care (identified with small stickers) and may not be suitable for all readers. For example, Broke Hall School Library stocks Garth Nix’s Sabriel but are careful who borrows it (I am reminded of the system they use in the Clayr library in Lirael by Garth Nix). Children grow up and mature at different ages making many decisions on a pupil by pupil basis. With the introduction of self-service takeout systems, it makes borrowing easier when librarians are not there to offer guidance, however, it is possible to put a block on certain books (in other words, an electronic red dot!).

Parents, it was felt, are responsible in monitoring and being involved in their children’s reading. Surprising it’s often the books children coming in from home that are not suitable reading and parental complaints about the school libraries are, thankfully, rare.

Manga is popular at the high school library, but titles are selected with great care as most of the publications are only suitable for 18+ (and often contain offensive (violent and sexual) material not suitable for a school library). The school does have a Manga club — which also has a cultural focus on Japan. However, most manga’s violence and gore is mild compared with many of the computer games children play.

However, it could be argued that it is better to read about some of these areas than it is to see it on TV. At least with reading, there can be a difference between what is written and what is understood by the reader. Most people recognise the children see worst things at home — many students have watched 16 and 18 rated movies with their parents. (Year One, Two and Three students have seen Lord Of the Rings, and at least one Year One student has seen The Dark Knight).

Biography

Age appropriate biographies are a real gap in the market. Marley and Me by John Grogan was cited as a prime example of a biography that worked very well. The author adapted to his biography for younger readers (Marley: A Dog like No Other) and it’s very popular. The students would not have tackled the adult version.

Students wanted to read about people in the news — books about Richard Hammond (On the Edge), Lewis Hamilton and Jonny Wilkinson were read by many students, although it was felt that a more age-appropriate version of their biographies would go down well. When Year Eight and Nine students do biography work they can struggle to find contemporary biographies, either the books are not written yet, or, in the case of Katie Price’s autobiography, are not suitable for younger age group.

Many girls are into the so-called agony biographies — often led by their mothers reading, for example, Child Called It (David Pelzer) or My Sister’s Keeper (Jody Peacock). While the grown-up version isn’t really suitable for Year Six, an age-appropriate version would be desirable.

Coming soon – Part 4: What are the Best Books and Who Writes in a Shed?