In a discussion which explored what freedom means as a reader and as a writer, award-winning authors Lari Don, Candy Gourlay and Elizabeth Wein shared their perspectives, chaired by Elizabeth Fratarolli and Justin Davies from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Elizabeth's latest books, Firebird is forthcoming from Barrington Stoke;
The panel talked about the freedoms gained by reading as a child, with Don relating, “The books you read as a child are the first time you get to experience being someone else. I found that very freeing.” In contrast, Gourlay, who grew up in the Philippines, shared her experience of living in a place without libraries, where all the books she read were imported from other countries. “I felt that I was looking out at this incredible, utopic fantasy world. But – I never saw a child like me in these books. A brown child in a hot country.” She therefore didn’t believe that she could write her own stories.
Wein admits she was fortunate to be given an expansive choice of reading by her father, and she read books about varying ethnicities and geographical locations. The panel agreed that children now have much more access to gender and race diversity, largely with thanks to young adult books which now fill the long-overlooked gulf between children’s and adult books. On the theme of access, Don raised the pressing issue of library closures, saying not every child has access to bookshelves stuffed with books. “We need our libraries to provide free access to reading.”
Gourlay talked about what freedom means to her as a writer, and raised the question of foreign rights ownerships and their impact on independent publishing communities. She pointed out that American foreign rights include the Philippines, which now has its own lively publishing community, and so she has to negotiate to have those rights given to the publishers there. Her latest book, Bone Talk, considers the freedom to be yourself.
On sharing stories from other cultures, Don emphasised that she feels no need to only write about Scottish folklore and mythology. “We’re in danger of losing stories if we don’t write about other cultures.” She believes that sensitivity is key and that some communities must write their own stories, but that a combination of respect and freedom is the ideal.
When the question was raised if dyslexia is still a barrier to reading, Wein talked about her latest book, Firebird, publishing with Barrington Stoke; a Scottish publisher specialising in accessible books. They consider the font, spacing, paragraph length, margins, and not having two similar-looking words together, making the reading experience much easier for dyslexic readers.
Finally the panel addressed the pitfalls of ‘reading age’ guidelines for children’s books, highlighting that children can get stressed about their abilities if they fall either side of their category. It was advised that parents should guide their children in their choices, instead of simply choosing for them. Don’s final comment, “Let young readers choose their own books” left no doubt as to where freedom really lies for young readers.