Saturday, October 18, 2008

Are Readers Fickle or Set in their Ways?

My cats drive me crazy. One day they'll eat only fresh meat, the next they turn their noses up at it. I try one brand of canned food that they like - a week later they refuse to eat the same thing. I end up feeding cat food to our chickens every now and then (and boy, they don't complain!). But I feel like I'm locked into this expensive guessing game about what they'll eat this week and what they won't. And yes, I've tried the kid's version - Either eat this or go without. They go without. And then reproach me with ribs showing. (Actually, they're probably sucking up to the neighbours...)

Are book buyers the same? We have this series craze going on in Australian children's books at the moment. If you don't have a hot series idea, you're kind of on the outer. Not because you can't write, but because the perception is that kids buy more series books and the stand-alone novels are only bought by "serious" people like librarians and teachers. Series have become a kind of collectible. My daughter was doing the series thing 18 years ago, but back then it was a case of "find a book I like and I want another one". Series still buy into that notion, but there's more to it now.

There's the TV show, for instance. Saddle Club. Old Tom. Spongebob Squarepants (I still don't get that one!). And the trilogy that morphs into more and more books, as long as there's a demand. There's also the Magic Treehouse, the Aussie Bites and Nibbles, the Go Girls - the collectibles. How many have you got? Which is your favourite? More and more, it seems like novels that are shining little beacons of originality, without any brothers or sisters to make them into a series, are struggling. Maybe that's the way the marketplace works right now, but it's a great pity if series are all we are left with.

But to answer the subject question - personally, that is - I'm in the middle somewhere. I love series where the main character is engaging and the voice is strong. A good example is Michael Connolly's latest - The Brass Verdict. His viewpoint character featured in The Lincoln Lawyer, but Connolly also includes, as a major character, Harry Bosch who has been the MC in many other books. We get another, diffferent look at Harry, which is fascinating in itself. But at the same time, I also love a novel which is about ideas and language and story, like The Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Houses in New England. I wanted to slap the main character, and I don't want to read about him again, but the rest of the novel was great.

I think, as good readers, we all like variety. I can go from a literary novel to a crime novel to an in-depth feature article to some history and enjoy all of it, for different reasons. If I didn't read widely, I'd be bored. Everything informs everything else. I read Kate Mosse's book Labyrinth (and then saw many of the places that feature in the book) but I actually like the factual history books better. That's not usual for me, but so what?

I think what bothers me a little about the mass market series books for kids is the idea that they might stop there and never discover what else is out in the wide world of books for them. That's where librarians come in. Public and school. We're fighting the battle here to keep school librarians, and not winning. It shows, in our levels of literacy and engagement with reading. On the news two nights ago, they talked about the new curriculums for schools. One news service actually mentioned that part of the new approach is to encourage teachers to read books out loud to their students.

Whoo-hoooo! If there has been anything that I have heard from teachers in the US, complaining about No Child Left Behind, is that this school draconian testing system has killed reading to the kids. And teachers everywhere over there have seen the terrible consequences of a program where all that matters is tests. At least here it looks like the testing over the past couple of years has shown that we have an awful lot of kids who can't read and write very well. Fingers crossed that the new approach might start to produce confident, enthusiastic readers at last. And really, I guess, does it matter what they start with?


Anonymous said...

Love your cat/booksellers analogy, Sherryl. I heard on the radio that 'they' are thinking of introducing a new system in the writing field in schools ... Oh, yes! ... Grammar! The heart specialist said I'll recover from the shock in time.

Kristi Holl said...

You're so right about the teachers having to teach for the tests in the U.S. Two of my kids are teachers, and it's so frustrating to them to have their precious time eaten up by teaching nonsense stuff because it will be on some test. And the very ones that are supposed to be helped--the kids--are the ones who suffer for it.