Shout out for the ‘quiet book’: Nicky Singer at #IBBYCraft

The 22nd annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 14 November 2015 at the University of Roehampton. This year’s theme was ‘Steering the Craft: Navigating the process of creating children’s books in the 21st century’. This week on the NCRCL blog, alumni and current NCRCL students will be reporting on various aspects of the conference, including the speakers, panellists and parallel sessions.

Shout out for the ‘quiet book’: Nicky Singer at #IBBYCraft

By Suzanne Ellen Curley

Nicky Singer, author of the wonderful Feather Boy, ended the first morning session with a wonderful, funny, ranty, but above all, informative talk about the publishing process. The movement of importance from quality to quantity in terms of sales, and where the writer fits in to this new equation.

Already one of my favourite authors, I had high expectations of the talk, and she did not disappoint.

She spoke of how the power has shifted from the editors to the marketers. As she quoted in her own blog post on the subject, “what happens to children’s books when the definition of success is how many units you can sell, rather than how many souls you can nourish?”

Singer began by speaking of the lack of ‘Quiet Books’ in modern children’s fiction, and the new fashion for simple books that can be summed up in a single sentence for marketing purposes. She explained how her own book Island, was turned down by publishers for being ‘too quiet’ and too literary. It was too challenging, and not a mainstream, easy-reading adventure story. Therefore it would not sell the required ‘shed loads’ in order to make lots of money.

Riddell Island

A sketch for the front cover of Nicky Singer’s Island by Chris Riddell

She told an amusing anecdote relating to these issues with her experience in rewriting Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which she had to drastically change for today’s supposedly fragile child audiences. She had to remove the hams hanging from Badger’s ceiling, as this would allegedly make it difficult to sell to Muslim audiences; she also had to remove much of the colourful literary language. And the clincher for me was her having to remove the references to weaponry, which are an important part of story’s climax, due to American children who are clearly too innocent to come across guns in stories.

Singer argued that children are, in fact, more resilient than adults give credit for. She argued that violence in children’s books does not necessarily lead to violence in real life, and that books are actually a safe space to test morality and should not be censored so thoroughly.

She also mentioned that, for this book, she had not yet signed a contract, and was at risk of losing respect from many publishers, editors etc, and according to her lawyer husband, she may never work again due to the talk, and her subsequent blog post on the subject.

Luckily however, in a bookshop, she met a relatively influential chap named Chris Riddell, who went on to illustrate Island, generating interest from publishers all over the world.


Nicky Singer met illustrator Chris Riddell by chance in a Brighton bookshop

The story came to a happy conclusion, however, her morals and ethics are still firmly as they were.

I admire her for standing her ground and opening up about the state of the industry, despite a lot of (in her words) DGB (Doom, Gloom and Bitching),

Riddell Singer

Doom, Gloom and Bitching: Another sketch by Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell.

I learnt a lot about the publishing industry and how difficult it is for writers to publish what they want to write.

I strongly believe that there is an audience for Quiet Books, and I found Singer’s talk brilliantly engaging and enlightening.

Suzanne Curley is currently in her second and final year of a part time MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton University, where she has a particular interest in 19th century children’s books. Follow Suzanne on Twitter: @suzanne_curley.


About Sarah Pyke

NCRCL PhD student currently researching LGBTQ adults’ memories of childhood reading as part of the AHRC funded project, Memories of Fiction: An Oral History of Readers’ Life Stories.

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