'Children make the best critics'
All publishers of children's books naturally believe they are producing the books that children really want to read. But how many of them actually consult their young readers? And how many then take notice of what these readers say?
Barrington Stoke is an award-winning publishing company that not only solicits children's opinions, but actively involves children in the minutiae of book editing. This is crucially important to Barrington Stoke's success, because its readers are the growing constituency of children, from eight to fourteen plus, who are poor readers, reluctant readers or dyslexics. These children experience great difficulty in making the leap from the end of a reading scheme to so-called "chapter books", and are disenfranchised from the reading process as a result. Barrington Stoke, formed in 1997, represents an effort to bridge the gap.
Patience Thomson, chairman and editor-in-chief, has spent more than 30 years attempting to pin down exactly what it is that makes reading so difficult for some children. She is now bringing together, in Barrington Stoke books, the components she has identified which can help to make the process easier.
Thomson's first encounter with dyslexia was back in the 1960s, when her bright seven-year-old son found school such a struggle that he packed his pyjamas in a rucksack and tried to leave home, "in absolute despair".
Dyslexia was barely talked about at that time, but Thomson read everything on the subject that she could lay her hands on.
Her interest led her, some years later, to teach at a young offenders'
centre, where she discovered that a significant proportion had dyslexic-type problems, then, in the early 1980s, to a Masters degree on teaching children with specific learning difficulties. She went on to teach study skills to poor readers at a local public school and to become principal of Fairley House school in London, for children with specific learning difficulties.
Finding good books for all these unconvinced readers was a constant problem. Books appropriate for their low reading ages were frequently babyish, dumbed down or patronising. "There was no sort of style or rhythm, and the language was in a no man's land - neither literary nor colloquial," she says.
But she was convinced that all these children should be reading fiction - as a way of exploring the "emotional landscapes" necessary for more empathetic social interaction. She observed that, in conversation, her poor readers had difficulty retrieving words and tended to avoid eye contact.
This meant that they failed to "read" the body language, or the facial expressions of the people they talked to. Consequently, they had little body language themselves. "This is why non-readers tend to get bullied: not because they can't read, but because they haven't got the right body language of the rest of the pack."
On retiring from Fairley House, Patience Thomson was delighted to find that the offer of financial backing from a wealthy parent at the school would enable her to publish the kind of books she felt were so badly needed. She teamed up with her daughter-in-law, Lucy Juckes, who had just completed an MBA and assumed responsibility for the marketing side of the operation. The company's name came from the legendary story-teller, Barrington Stoke, who would take his stories from village to village on dark nights.
From the start, Thomson was determined to have only the best children's authors on her list. Michael Morpurgo was among the first to sign up, followed later by, among others, Terry Deary, Ad le Geras, Philip Ardagh, Jeremy Strong and Vivian French.
The next precept was to let these authors write exactly as they wanted - but to restrict them to 6,000 words (around half the length of a conventional chapter book). Illustrations were retained for readers up to the age of 13 ("Children now grow up in a very visual, tactile world, so the 'imageability' of books is very important").
Significant changes were also made to the look of the books: off-white paper, to help children with perceptual problems; print neither too small nor too large; a slightly wider gap between letters (for example, between r and n) to help visual discrimination; and no right-hand justification of lines, to give "more character" to each line, and to do away with confusing hyphens. "You need to iron out all these potential difficulties, in order to get a smooth read," explains Thomson.
Then came the master stroke. When the authors submitted their manuscripts, they were sent out to a panel of 20 children (with specific learning difficulties), who were asked to mark words they didn't understand, as well as to comment on aspects of plot, character or conversation. This is the process which authors now refer to as "being done over" by Barrington Stoke.
"These children make better critics than competent readers, because they miss nothing: they go slower; they are more literal," says Thomson.
After five years of working through the children's comments, with the help of a speech and language therapist, she can now predict which words the children will or will not like. Concrete nouns are in (even complicated ones like "cybergloves"), while abstract adverbs - "usually", "really", "utterly" - are definitely out . Figurative speech can be difficult ("He pushed the glasses up his nose" they read literally and say "yuk"), but double inversion or ellipsis is too much. They don't mind "cryogenics" or "paranoid", but they detest "glum".
Part of the explanation, according to Thomson, lies in the way the brain stores words: words with an image such as "shuddered" are easier to retrieve than more abstract, open-ended words such as "imagined" or "contemplated". Her task, as editor, is then to steer a course between the literalistic text the children like and the figurative language that the authors are steeped in. But nine times out of ten, she says, the authors are happy with the finished product.
And for the unconvinced reader, this product may be the first book that they enjoy reading from cover to cover:
"The first chapter book is a rite of passage," says Thomson. "After that you can describe yourself as a reader."
Barrington Stoke at Nasen: Stand 17 www.barringtonstoke.co.uk