Catch 'em while they're young

21st April 2000 at 01:00
David Kewley, children's publisher and now leader of the book trade, explains to Caroline Horn why he is passionate about the power of reading

BEFORE the next Harry Potter title becomes the main topic of conversation, perhaps we can reflect for a moment on another recent children's publishing phenomenon; Goosebumps. Remember that one?

Goosebumps stormed into the playground five years ago and suddenly children who had never so much as looked at a book were fighting over the latest title in the series. Sound familiar?

While the scary Goosebumps series, currently published by Scholastic, remains a favourite in many school libraries, sales are nothing like the heady 150,000 copies a month of its heyday and children's attention has switched to the likes of JK Rowling and Jacqueline Wilson. But just like these big British names, Goosebumps' US author RL Stine can be credited with encouraging a generation of children to read.

That success reflects the core values of its publisher, Scholastic, founded in the US in the 1920s with the aim of "enabling children to reach their potential in life through reading".

David Kewley, its UK managing director since 1991, points out wryly: "That was our aim in the 1920s. It took until the 1990s for this country to develop a

literacy strategy that recognised the importance of reading for children as a preparation in life."

Scholastic started by publishing magazines for teachers and children in remote US schools. Today, the company (both in the UK and US) remains heavily involved in the schools market, reaching teachers via a number of monthly magazines, including Child Education and Junior Education, as well as its web site, www.scholastic.co.uk

Many other publishers eye its access to schoolchildren, through School Book Fairs and direct- mail magazine Red House Book Club, with envy. But the publisher's focus is no longer purely educational. In the 1960s, Scholastic turned its attention to children's "leisure reading" and today, Goosebumps sits comfort-ably alongside more literary titles such as Philip Pullman's Northern Lights and Susan Price's The Sterkarm Handshake.

David Kewley's career has spanned several publishers, most with interest in the schools' market, but his role has varied from sales and export to publishing director, which has given a rich vein of experience across the trade which will stand him in good stead in his new post of president of the Publishing Association.

His love for books is evident, he is animated and passionate about his role, particularly in relation to the children he serves. He says he doesn't mind which part of Scholastic's wide-ranging list children aim for - as long as they pick up something. "I just want children to read. The most important thing is that children grow up to be readers and at Scholastic we feel that particularly powerfully because of the way the company was founded."

His own favourite childhood reading included The Forest of Boland Light Railway by BB and - unusually for a boy - Anna Sewell's Black Beauty. Today's child has different tastes - neither o his daughters was enamoured of Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water read during a Scottish holiday last year - and his other favourite, CS Forrester's Hornblower, came over as stilted and passe.

But he has always read with his daughters, now 12 and 14, currently Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

While he readily admits that his younger daughter never enjoyed Goosebumps, and that his elder daughter has never had time for that other Scholastic

success, the Point Horror series, they liked having the books around the house for their friends to pick up - top marks to Scholastic for making books cool.

And, he adds; "I listen to what they are saying although they might not know it. In children's publishing, you have to learn about your market directly."

The professional teaching magazines Scholastic produces give the company access to the main issues affecting the classroom. Among the most recent of these are the literacy hour and the National Numeracy Strategy, which David Kewley says are producing positive results although he feels some areas are being neglected. "Because the literacy hour is so prescriptive and what has to be achieved is so demanding, there's not enough time for children to read on their own and not enough time for creative writing."

He would also like to see more time given to poetry and rhyme. "They are a very helpful way of learning the process of reading and my experience with children is that they love poetry when given access to it."

But he adds: "My biggest concern as a parent, as a publisher, and also as a citizen, is that we make teaching a respected and desirable profession again which people really want to go into."

The status of children's publishing is also on his agenda. Just as the profile of teachers has suffered, so children's books are viewed as something of a poor relation in publishing circles - one of the reasons why he is so pleased to be taking up his post at the PA. It also another outlet for his prodigious energy, which carries him through the round of parties, fairs and conferences which pepper the world to which he is dedicated.

Nicholas Perren, managing director of educational publisher John Murray, says:

"Certainly it is great for the children's book industry to have a major player taking on the presidency, but it is equally good for educational publishers and smaller publishing houses across the board.

"David's style is very inclusive and collaborative, and I am sure he is a terrific choice to have at a time when so much change needs to be understood and supported."

With the development of CD- Roms and the Internet, David Kewley says it is an exciting time to be in children's publishing. "This is a content-creative industry and we have more opportunities to reach the consumer."

But he adds: "Children's publishing has always been exciting because children are entirely fickle and changeable and responsive to new ideas and developments.

"I'm happy to be in an incredibly fast-changing market, and especially one that is integral to children's development."


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