Barry Cunningham on Children’s Fiction and Empowerment

“Children’s writers are the secret friends of childhood.”

The annual Scottish Book Trade Conference took place this week in Edinburgh’s beautiful Central Hall, attended by a record number of booksellers, publishers, students, and industry professionals.

We were delighted to hear first from Barry Cunningham, Managing Director of Chicken House Books, and more widely known as the editor who discovered J. K. Rowling. Already a popular figure, Barry instantly bonded with the Scottish members of his audience as he took the stage with a bottle of Irn Bru, commenting that his father had grown up in nearby Leith “back when it was less full of wine bars”.

bc2In a previous life, Barry worked as a bookseller. He believes this entry-level job taught him how children really interact with books, and paved the way to his future career. J. K. Rowling is sometimes asked why she thinks he took on her manuscript after being turned down by so many editors. Her response is that he was the only one who had also been “a giant costumed character” (he dressed up as a puffin to sell books in his first job). Indeed, it was by getting down to the level of young readers that Barry learned how books “connect to the secret world of childhood”, and led him to see the potential in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Having had plenty of time to ponder the issue, Barry now believes villains are children’s fiction’s most defining element, whether these come with a face or in the form of a situation that must be struggled against. Although books mean different things to young readers around the world, they can impart common messages about what to do when facing unfairness or oppression. These kinds of lessons are the most important, offering empowerment and advice where it may be lacking. Barry’s message is a timely one, translating equally to adults as we live through times of challenge and uncertainty. More than ever, readers across age ranges need books about how to be brave, which Barry says the best children’s books do – whether that bravery comes from reaching out towards unlikely friendships, or in making tough decisions.

“I didn’t know you could feel like that…

I didn’t know you were allowed to.”

Barry says that much less is off-limits these days in children’s fiction. Adults are portrayed as “interesting and flawed, just as they really are”, rather than coming from a position of condescending authority. Increasingly, children are trusted to comprehend complex realities, with books opening up new avenues of experience. Barry says he often hears the reader response “I didn’t know you could feel like that; I didn’t know you were allowed to.”

Authors often use humour to secure their audience, but also to deal with danger and difficulty by making these less scary. For young readers, laughter is often the best (and sometimes the only) defence, much like with Rowling’s boggarts. Animal books also continue to be hugely popular. According to Barry, this might be due to children’s ability to relate to shared experiences of limited autonomy (like being moved around or scolded).

Despite a hugely successful career, Barry continues to investigate the engagement of young readers. On a recent school visit, he was told by a pupil that she knew the reason why grown-ups wanted children to read: “Because if we understand these [stories] then our own story doesn’t have to end where it began.” Perhaps it is these emotional messages that help explain why children’s fiction also continues to appeal to parents, teens, and others. 2016 was another outstanding year for the genre, which was up 11% and formed 37% of the UK’s print market.

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However, that’s not to exclude the struggles of those who work behind the curtain, getting these stories into children’s hands. The writers who contribute this value to our societies also need support, such as that provided to J. K. Rowling by the Arts Council Scotland when she was beginning her career. Barry feels that providing funding to new authors is crucial, allowing them the time and financial security to get down to the most important task. Chicken House regularly participate in initiatives like The Times Children’s Fiction Competition, the ’24-Hour Coop’, and The Big Idea, competitions which can offer significant funding to writers.

The other main challenge, raised by the audience, was of ‘browseability’: how to make a wider variety of titles available to parents who might be confused about where to find a sought-after book, or may only encounter what’s stocked by a supermarket during a weekly shop. ‘Click-thrus’ to online merchants or ‘also bought with’ algorithms don’t achieve the desired impact of getting customers to truly engage. As an alternative, Barry recommends getting creative with links, such as using the BA’s ‘find your local bookshop’ button, or linking to other, wider types of content about the book or its author.

The conclusion for 2017 was that children’s books “must continue to be both responsive, and responsible”. Given that his work twenty years ago had such a profound impact on many of our own childhoods, Barry’s insights into children’s fiction were truly an inspiring way to kick off the conference.

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