I read a lot of books as a teacher-librarian, and I’m no literary snob when it comes to children’s fiction. I’m delighted to see children reading series fiction, and the kind of stories that will be called genre fiction when they are older: adventure, fantasy, mystery, science fiction. I’m happy to see them devour cookbooks, sports books, record books, joke books, how-to books, graphic novels, comic books, books that describe pranks, YA novels about the lives of teens from the wrong side of the tracks, non-fiction, and magazines on everything from science to movie stars. Anything that inspires a love reading in kids is a good read.
When I’m not at school, I write stories and novels and think about publishing them, either traditionally or independently. To learn how, I watch online videos, and read e-books by self-publishing gurus and independently published best-selling authors. Some of these videos are also made by entrepreneurs who aren’t interested in writing, so much as in creating a mailing list of people to whom they can sell courses, coaching, and digital ‘content.’ I’m sure some of these marketers create useful products while others are complete flim-flam artists. That’s okay. Everyone knows that when you buy something, it’s ‘buyer beware.’ We’re all adults here on the internet.
Except we’re not. Recently, I watched a free webinar on writing books for children and publishing them independently. I was horrified by how cynically the author of the course recommended that we create titles based on the kind of keywords parents and children would be looking for inside the top-selling categories for children’s fiction on Amazon.com. Next, we were supposed to combine these keywords with the latest trends such as Minecraft, or recent hit toys or Hollywood movies to create a sure winner. Once a bestselling concept was created by combining a fad, some popular keywords, and concepts from pre-existing best-selling books, the work of actually writing the book was so unimportant that this guru suggested hiring an unknown to do it on a cheap work-for-hire site such as Fiverr. With this sales method, quantity and discoverability are everything. Good writing is beside the point. How offensive to assume children don’t know quality when they read it!
I looked up some of the books created this way on Amazon to see if they were any good. The first couple I looked at were, predictably, terrible. I used to take a George Brown children’s writing class with well-known children’s editor Peter Carver. Not one of the students in that class ever turned in anything as flawed as the first page of this self-published book. It’s the difference between caring about writing as an art, and trying to rip off as many suckers as possible for money.
I am in favour of self-publishing, and I have no problem with the existence of books that are imperfect, tacky, or not to my taste. Adults are welcome to write and sell any kind of erotica the law allows, without it becoming my concern. It’s when crass marketers try to make a buck by methods which will put boring books into the hands of children that I get upset. Very young children work hard to learn to read, some of them very hard. When they reach the early stage of independent reading and can finally choose their own material, they deserve to read something hilarious, or intriguing, or imaginative, or exciting, or thoughtful, or better yet, all these things at once. They should never be exposed to something which is wilfully awful and boring, created just to have great SEO.
What’s to be done? Censorship is out of the question. Amazon.com does not and should not decide which books get published through its Kindle self-publishing platform. I suppose I could badmouth every disciple of this cynical hack meister, except some of his acolytes might write good books despite their commercial intentions. It can’t be any other way. In the hands of someone with talent and the intention of entertaining children, someone could follow his shallow advice and produce a compelling book that motivates children to read. So if censorship is out, but letting awful books fall into the hands of children is still a tragedy, what is the remedy?
I just spent this Saturday at TDSB Google Camp, a daylong conference for educators wanting to use Google applications in education. Something George Couros said in a workshop about digital footprint resonated with me. He said not to worry about students who might post a bad comment on digital platforms. The essential is to bury the bad in an overwhelming quantity of good.
Putting my anger at the creators of bad chapter books together with Couros’s advice then, I spent much of Sunday writing my very first kid’s chapter book. It involves magic, comedy, adventure, and a plucky heroine who doesn’t let a bully or a mad scientist’s cursed elixir ruin her life. A tentative title might be: Darling Jackie and Missy Hyde.
May it be the first of many, since I really enjoyed writing something that wasn’t too ‘adult’ to read to my students for a change. Ideally, I’ll get feedback from children and my writers’ group to make the story better. I’ll polish it and work at it until the story is something I would be proud to have young children read. And if I publish it or get it published someday, may it serve partly to bury those terrible, cynically concocted e-books that made me so mad.