Children's books and reading have a forceful advocate in Lindsey Fraser. Elaine Williams talks to the new head of Young Book Trust.
Lindsey Fraser is an unapologetic champion of books and everything about them - which is just as well for the new head of Young Book Trust. She is also aware of the difficulties of her task: "I say 'Books are great' and journalists reply 'Oh yeah? so where's the story?'" In effect, she has a very seductive story to tell. An hour spent with Lindsey Fraser eulogising about books and no impressionable adolescent would ever feel the same about computer games again. There is a lot of snobbery about books and many people are afraid of them, or worried about them, she says. Books are in competition with different media and need to be presented as a leisure alternative: "There is no point in going out and saying these are superior to computer games. We would never sell them with that kind of attitude." Books are about taking time out to be in a "little world of your own". That can be no bad thing, Lindsey Fraser believes. "Reading is a solitary activity, an antidote to all of this gung-ho group and project work at school.
"I'm a very successful insomniac and I often read in the night. I take a book with me everywhere. I don't find every book easy. I read rubbish too. I take long books on holiday and pay attention to recommendations from friends. I love talking about books with friends.
"I would like to think I represent the ordinary inquiring reader. I want to remove any excuse for not having a book on the go."
Lindsey Fraser's passionate eclecticism has served her well. Formally, as executive director of Book Trust Scotland she ran a series of successful campaigns which led to a substantial increase in Book Trust's funding from the Scottish Arts Council. One of those, Radical Reading - Books for Teenagers is to be relaunched. A simple but effective idea aimed at "lapsed and lost readers", it listed a variety of current books for adolescents, from sci-fi to historical romance, and was highly successful. Thousands of leaflets were sold to schools and libraries leading to book displays and a variety of related activities such as lunchtime readings and book jacket design. The secret of its success? It was a lot of fun and had nothing to do with school reading lists.
Book Trust Scotland is housed in outwardly dour premises on Edinburgh's grimy Dundee Street. But the Scottish Book Centre is lively and imaginative. Apart from the Trust it also accommodates the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Scottish Publishers Association and Readiscovery which is a Scottish Arts Council initiative to promote books and reading all over Scotland in 1995, taking writers and authors out to far-flung islands on a Book Bus.
Lindsey Fraser will remain in Edinburgh in her dual role as deputy director of Book Trust and head of Young Book Trust responsible for exporting the vibrancy of Scottish campaigns south of the border. Here she also oversees the children's library, an invaluable collection of all children's books published in the last year - some six or seven thousand. Book House, the Trust's London headquarters in Wandsworth, holds a collection of children's books published in the last two years. Both collections attract many visitors and queries.
Faced with overwhelming choice in contemporary literature, Lindsey Fraser believes people need as much guidance as possible, subjective as it might be. At present, she is working on the launch of Book Start, a pack introducing children to books and reading, to be passed on by health visitors and willing employers to first-time parents.
Lindsey Fraser trained as a teacher and for seven years managed Heffers' children's bookshop in Cambridge. But working in a bookshop was "like preaching to the converted". "When I did teacher training I was told to teach children to turn the page. Many children hadn't been given the desire to see what was on the other side.
"Reading with an adult from babyhood is like sharing a joke with an adult - it places the child on an equal footing and that is an important incentive for children to carry on reading for themselves."
Lindsey Fraser is not short of campaigning ideas but the Trust, which has a turnover of about Pounds 400,000, is desperately short of funds. It had a deficit of Pounds 70,000 in its financial year and that is expected to rise again. But Book Trust fulfils a role no single publisher could undertake. As well as high-profile activities such as running the Booker and Smarties prizes (the latter to be announced next week), Book Trust's information service deals with 70,000 queries a year, from teachers, librarians, newspapers, TV and film companies. Providing access to databases and on-line catalogues could easily expand this service.
Lindsey Fraser said: "There is the sense that literature doesn't need sponsoring. But turnover for the whole of publishing is less than one division of ICI. Publishers don't have unlimited funds for the promotion of books. This is the role of Book Trust. We have to find the reader for the writer."