Earlier this year the press enthusiastically reported that Norwegians were borrowing mainly Norwegian books from their libraries. It appeared that on a nation-wide basis 17 of the most popular 20 books were by Norwegian authors. Nowhere, however, was it pointed out that these figures referred only to literature for adults. A glance at the list of library borrowings among children and young people reveals a completely different picture, since 18 of the 20 top places are held by books translated from foreign languages. Furthermore, many of these are older works, some even regarded as classics. Among the books popular with adults, however, we need to go as far down as number 89 on the list before finding anything even resembling a classic, a Norwegian book published in the 1980s.
Does this mean that children relate primarily to realms of fantasy and wizardry, while adults prefer the reality of crime stories closer to home? Are grown-ups uninterested in the history of literature and the masterpieces available in translation, whereas children have these international classics thrust into their hands at an early age by librarians and parents? As far as I can see, the truth of the matter is even more disturbing. People simply don’t know any better.
In Norway the attention paid to the very small percentage of writers who sell well is so great that they can rightly be called A-class celebrities. This creates popular literature, but common to these authors is the fact that they write for adults. In children’s literature today only one living writer is ever referred to and she is not Norwegian. I need hardly mention her name.
I often wonder about this lop-sided situation. In an age when various surveys suggest that Norway is down at the bottom in Europe with regard to reading skills, the press and many other commentators choose to ignore the breadth of literature available today.
Parents in Norway remain ignorant of the enormous developments in literature for children and young people that have taken place during the last few decades. A literary genre once dominated by older women writers and their edifying, politically correct stories has today become the arena for an incredibly wide variety of authors, now including just as many men as women.
The problem is that only a few of these books reach any readers, not because Harry Potter blocks their path but because the libraries lend out enormous amounts of the old favourites, those books which parents, grandparents and librarians themselves know so well from a generation or two ago. There is nothing wrong with the classics, but few children are likely to be drawn to literature by reading moral stories and accounts of life in the 1950s. Furthermore, if books are to compete against films, television, PlayStation games and the Internet as leisure activities, both the stories and the packaging require some updating. New generations, new needs.
Meanwhile Norwegian publishers are also following an international trend in persuading royalty and celebrities to write a sub-standard children’s book now and then. After all, these people are famous and their books often sell much better than those written by talented, but unfortunately unknown professional authors. In this way children’s literature is reduced to an activity one can do on the side and therefore clearly without any real literary significance. The whole thing becomes a vicious circle.
The majority of writers resolutely continue to write good books which time after time achieve wretchedly low sales figures. The best librarians introduce children and young people to new books suited to their needs and interests, but parents and teachers are satisfied with whatever was popular twenty or fifty years ago. Now and again, perhaps when suffering from an attack of bad conscience, the press may review a new book, but even this is happening less and less often. Most articles on children’s literature tend to conclude that young people have no interest in reading.
In interviews with newspapers I find myself continually answering questions about this apparent lack of interest. So far, however, nobody has asked me about my own books, books which could perhaps persuade children to read more.
So how can it be that my books nevertheless sell fairly well? Fortunately we still have something known as the school library. Some are musty-smelling rooms, many are extremely small, while others are impossible to find.
Nevertheless, thanks to the Norwegian central purchasing system (1550 copies of the most recent titles for children and young people), the majority of school libraries have a fair selection of new literature. This is where children find new books, but these borrowings are not reflected in the statistics for public library lending.When authors like myself visit schools, however, we soon discover that the pupils do in fact read. They read books that deal with the present day, books set in an environment familiar to the children themselves and books with characters they know and recognise. But we also hear their complaints, since most school libraries have too few of such books. Far too few.
A few years ago I heard of a school library with so few books that the parents were asked to look in their attics and cellars for books which they could perhaps donate to the school. I can hardly think of a surer way to scare pupils away from any school library. Books should not smell of the attic or the cellar. Books should smell of fresh printer’s ink.
My hopes for young readers of the future lie in an updated school library; a place where pupils can borrow stories to take them round the world, from dark neighbourhood corners to the extremes of their fantasy, awake their first adolescent love and perhaps sometimes change their lives. Then we shall have readers.
Translated by Eric Deverill