Can Con vs. Pokémon

Can Con vs. Pokémon
My last blog posting provided a CBC link to a program about the future of book publishing. Following from the panelists’ discussion, I’m sharing a piece I wrote a while ago:

The Scholastic Book Fair is at my children’s school. I shudder. Don’t get me wrong. I love books. I write children’s books. I’m all for promoting literacy and getting kids enthused about reading. In addition, as an editor, I adore Scholastic. They are my best client. Their deadlines are reasonable; they pay me in less than three weeks. So, what’s the problem?

My kids—who never watch TV and have been raised on a steady diet of quality children’s books, with an emphasis on the Canadian ones—invariably choose the schlockiest, most commercial, American-made title that makes my skin crawl. The paper is thin, the word count is low, and the covers filled with computer-generated artwork. My youngest daughter squeals with delight. She needs to have this one. She looooves it! I feel ill.

In a weak moment, I’ve indulged my kids in one or two of these mass-produced, overly commercialized pamphlets. They proudly carry them home, flashing the cover to curious classmates and toting one of Scholastic’s inspirational animal posters to plaster on their bedroom walls. At home, they devour the $6.99 books in less than 10 minutes. The books hang out on my coffee table for a couple weeks (where they appear to be mocking me), before I shelve them and they’ll languish, forgotten.

Similarly, in the book club catalogue, only a handful of the books feature Canadian authors and illustrators—and, when they do, they are mostly biggies like Robert Munsch and Paulette Bourgeois. Nestled among the Wii sets and the Official Pokémon Guide, I see a book by Hugh Brewster, another by Jean Little, and one by Marsha Skrypuch. Now we’re getting somewhere!

I’ve learned, when leafing through the catalogue, to gravitate to the nonfiction books and the Canadian-based series. “This one’s about wolves,” I say. “How about this book about Canada’s rocks and minerals?” My suggestions sound feeble and are ignored. Up against the excitement of peers who’ve discovered Rainbow Magic cut-out dolls and a Justin Bieber quiz book, my quiet coaching is stone-walled.

Flipping the catalogue over, so my daughter can fill in her selection, I spot the FSC and Ancient Forest Friendly logos. Well, that’s some concession, I sigh, thinking about the volume of these catalogues printed, shipped, and distributed to schools across Canada—I mean, North America, and beyond.

My kids and I visit the library most weeks, trucking home backpacks full of children’s books: large-format picture books, rich with guache prints; stacks of nonfiction covering the latest science-class topic; thick fantasy novels that my oldest daughter devours in three or four days, reading up to three hours some days. Books arrive at Christmas, Easter, birthdays, and for no occasion at all. My kids are lucky. We have a literary home environment. But we may be in the minority. For a lot of children, the school-based book clubs may be their only access to books in their home. In fact, when my husband was a child, his home library was made up of book club books exclusively.

Looking at today’s schools, however, we are faced with a conundrum. The money families spend at the Book Fair earns teachers free books for their classrooms. The more money parents spend, the more free (Scholastic-published) books the school stands to get. In cash-strapped Canadian classrooms, it’s a pretty sweet deal.

Parent councils work tirelessly to generate extra money for schools. Students sell magazine subscriptions to earn money for school fundraising projects. But fundraising money rarely goes to expanding and improving school library collections. The trend these days is to purchase technological tools for the classroom. Across the country many teachers’ wish lists include Smart Boards, data projectors, ERIC information systems, flat screen TVs, and wall mounts for these sleek screens. This is the modern classroom. How long it will be until these technologies, which amount to thousands of dollars in expenditures, are obsolete and taking up space in landfills? Don’t go there.

All right, so we don’t want schools to remain in the dark ages. Teachers want up-to-date tools. But what about quality Canadian books in classrooms and school libraries?

Most of the books I see in Canadian schools are American and British and many are old favourites from my generation. There’s Little House on the Prairie, Charlotte’s Web, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Has anyone read anything new since the seventies?

During my trip to Labrador a couple years ago, for the Labrador Creative Arts Festival, I was surprised — indeed, shocked — to learn that Happy Valley-Goose Bay does not have a bookstore. Not one! So apart from ordering books from online sources, good ol’ Scholastic is the number-one choice. Still it’s a tad off-putting when teachers ask, “Can I order your book through Scholastic?” Sigh. To date, through chance and circumstance, I haven’t published any trade books with Scholastic, though a French translation of Making Shadow Puppets appeared in the catalogue several years ago. The authors whose books appear in the Book Fair catalogues get wonderful exposure. But what does the author earn when the book sells for $2.99? Let’s swallow that sugar-coated pill in the name of Literacy and put up with it. After all, any books that get kids reading have merit. Book series are effective at hooking young readers and building literacy skills. I applaud them for that.

In a tumultuous publishing climate, where creators, illustrators, and publishers all struggle to eke out a living and stay afloat, it feels wrong to point fingers. We’re all in this together, folks! I like to believe, like everyone, that selling a certain amount of schlock helps publishers afford to get out the gems and promote quality children’s books. But finding a way to get more quality Canadian books into our schools, and exposing more kids to great books by Canadian authors, is essential for our publishing culture to survive.

There must be a way to work together on this.

(Canadian!) Historical Books for Children
To order Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson, click here.
Here is a Teacher’s Guide for Charlie Wilcox by Sharon McKay.
To find out more about the Our Canadian Girl series by Penguin, click here.
To learn more about the Dear Canada series by Scholastic, click here.
To order The Pioneer Alphabet by Mary Alice Downie, click here.

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  1. March 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Oh, I hear you loud and clear, Jill! When my eldest (now in university) started school there was at least a competitor for Scholastic – Troll Books. I think they might have even been Canadian, but perhaps that’s my selective memory at play. My youngest was a pretty reluctant reader (thankfully now rectified – she devours books – and I can thank Rick Riordan for that) so I made a deal that I would buy books, but not if there was any crap attached. If she wanted necklaces and other doo dads, she had to pay for it herself.

    My other battle throughout elementary school was the library. Our elementary school does not have one. (Well, they have one, but there is no librarian, no new purchase of books, nothing, plus decades old books. The dozens and dozens of books I donated never got shelved.) Each classroom has a library, but that ignores the fact that a library is more than just books and a librarian is more than just a shelver of books. Okay, I feel my blood pressure rising.

  2. Jill
    March 29, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    Thanks so much Adrienne! I agree that any books that engage a reluctant, or new, reader are winners — even if they are formulaic or predictable. The hope is that kids will go on, like your daughter has, to read more challenging and stimulating books.

    You are so right in saying that librarians do a lot more than shelve books. The loss of teacher-librarians in schools has been catastrophic to young readers. Canadian publishers, the National Reading Campaign, and 49th Shelf website < http://49thshelf.com/> are all helping to promote reading and quality books in Canada. But they have their work cut out for them, that’s for sure. As writers, we should give ourselves some credit, too. We are constantly out there promoting books.

  3. Jill
    May 8, 2012 at 11:39 am

    Hey, folks! You might want to read this online article from the Spring 2012 issue of Education Canada called “Ignoring the Evidence: Another Decade of Decline for School Libraries.”

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