Liz Cross, Head of Children’s Publishing for Oxford University Press shares with us what she looks for in a children’s book when deciding what new books to publish.
As a children’s publisher, I am in the privileged position of doing a job which not only do I love, but which I also believe is hugely worthwhile – because of the fundamental importance of reading for pleasure.
There is so much incontrovertible evidence of the benefits that are brought by reading for pleasure. We know that children who read for pleasure are shown to have better educational outcomes, lower levels of stress, and even improved medical outcomes well into later life. We know that reading for pleasure can develop empathy, can help a child discover their own identity, can help them explore difficult situations and feelings in safety.
It sounds – and is – extremely worthy. Like eating your five a day, or going to the gym. But all of this talk of benefits can obscure one other very important and fundamental fact about reading for pleasure, which is precisely that it is – totally – a pleasure!
In fact, I personally don’t really like the term ‘reading for pleasure’. You wouldn’t say ‘watching movies for pleasure’ or ‘eating chocolate for pleasure’. So, the very fact that we need this phrase points out the underlying fact that a lot of people do NOT think of reading as a pleasure. They think of it as a chore. Something that is good for them and that they should strive to enjoy if they possibly can. But surely our aim should be to turn this right around – to help people see how incredibly enjoyable and fun reading can be in its own right. It’s pure glorious entertainment – AND it has all these benefits too. To go back to the chocolate analogy, it’s as if chocolate was not only delicious but also, incidentally, a magical, health-giving substance that would fire your imagination, and help you to learn, grown, and discover your best self.
So, when I am deciding what books to publish, it’s the fun and the joy of the reading experience that is the first thing on my mind. Are there children out there who will be utterly delighted by this book? To have it read to them, to read it by themselves, to gallop through the whole thing in one sitting, or to dip in and out at their leisure? To quote Marie Kondo, will the book ‘spark joy’?! Of course, that doesn’t mean it has to be a funny or even a happy book – sometimes a child, like any of us, can delight in being thrilled or feeling sad or shocked or made to think. But it’s about the reading experience being a satisfying and desirable experience in its own right.
This isn’t the only thing I am thinking about when acquiring books, of course. An equally important question is – will we be able to get this book successfully into the hands of those children who are going to take such delight in it? Will bookshops stock it, will parents buy it, will librarians recommend it? These questions are important not just because publishing is a commercial enterprise – though that can’t be ignored of course – but also because there seems little point publishing a book that you believe would bring children great pleasure if hardly any of those children will ever get their hands on it. As an editor, if you love a book, there is nothing you want more than for as many people as possible to read it.
A cynic might say that this second question could tend to outweigh the first – that editors will strive for sales above all, and so will jump on trends and favour style over substance, flashy marketing messages over really great stories, writing, and art. And of course, there will always be examples of this, but I think I can honestly say that no editor I know wants to publish a book which will get widely displayed, picked up and bought, but which will disappoint the children who read it. That would be creatively and personally unsatisfying, and a business mistake too – if readers are disappointed, they will not recommend the book, and won’t come back for another in the same series or by the same author. And worst of all, each book that a child does not enjoy could potentially make it harder for that child to discover and embrace the joy of reading.
So, as a children’s publisher, I’m looking for books that will enrich and educate and inspire, but which above all will entertain. And I am looking for books which have appeal both to the child who will love them and to the librarians, booksellers, parents, and teachers who will help them get their hands on them. It isn’t always easy to get this right and to work out how to help the book find its way into the world – and of course this is where conversations and partnerships with librarians and others are so crucial in making sure we are doing all we can to help our books get to the right places. But once the right child has got the right book at the right time, and truly reads it for pleasure, then we have the deep satisfaction of knowing that not only is that book bringing them a moment of pure joy, but that also, magically, wondrously, it is helping to enhance their life and bringing them lasting benefits of many kinds.
Click here to find out about children’s books from Oxford University Press.