How do writers of children’s books meet their readers during a pandemic?

Thanks to Zoom , shaking shoulders are a welcome Covid-era form of positive feedback

 

On March 12th last year I was sitting in a blustery, empty car park in Blackpool, Lancashire, eating a bland prepacked sandwich beside a giant mural of Barry from The Chuckle Brothers. I was feeling pretty good about myself.

Sure, school closures had just been announced and the St Patrick’s Festival (at which I had an author event) had been cancelled, but I’d just finished a school talk about my children’s books. It had been the last of a four-day book tour of England and my 39th author event in 40 days.

Irish events included every Dublin city library, several bookshops, a delightfully raucous event with illustrator Ben Mantle at Liberty Hall Theatre, a school in the Dublin Mountains, classes of kids spread out on the floor of O’Mahony’s Booksellers in Limerick, a packed-out art workshop in the Hugh Lane Gallery, a lot of M50 miles, a couple of flights, and a handful of hotel breakfast buffets I now regret not taking full advantage of.

It had been exceptionally busy, but still just about within the range of expectations when you write books for children. I had done hundreds of events over the preceding years, to audiences as high as 700 and as low as one (there had been a mix-up, I was assured). This is the life of writers for every age and genre, in fact. Talking about writing is how we meet readers, promote books, seek inspiration, find ideas and – crucially – earn income.

Eating my lunch on my lap in the Blackpool car park before heading to the flight home felt like the beginnings of decompression. Sure, festivals were in wait-and-see mode – the whole country was – but the timescale seemed short enough. What was the worst that could happen?

A year on

Well, it happened. And it was worse than anyone dared predict.

That blustery day out in Blackpool was my last.

A year on, festivals have moved almost entirely online. Schools – when they’re open – resemble bio-secure zones into which no outsider must pass. Library doors are closed. Travel abroad is a no-no. Bookshop signings are impossible when the shops are currently delivery only, sometimes powered by drive-by booksellers dropping packages to doorsteps.

Writers have spent much of the year trying to figure out how best to meet readers when we’re no longer allowed share a space.

Faced with an emptied diary, I was among those writers to go into a mild state of paralysis while wondering what should be done

“When we’re not experiencing that feedback and that sense of wonder children get from books, we do lose something as writers,” says writer Sarah Webb. “We write for children because we love engaging with children and we have children’s imaginations sometimes and a child’s sense of wonder. And that sense of wonder is being slightly stifled by not being able to share it and also not being able to listen to them, listen to their questions, their thoughts – not just about our books but about everything.”

As a festival programmer, reviewer and general champion of Irish writing, Webb has also seen authors struggle to both to write and, crucially, earn a living. In the early months of the pandemic, a Children’s Books Ireland survey showed that a third of writers had seen all of their events cancelled without an online replacement.

“The lack of events has quite serious repercussions for some writers in that it was half of their income,” says Webb of the practical realities.

Dreaded ‘upskilling’

That CBI survey likewise showed that most writers were attempting a dreaded “upskilling” into online presentations. Webb – whose most recent book, The One with the Waggly Tail, was published last October – was one of the first writers to adapt, almost immediately making popular Creative Bursts videos for kids (and homeschooling parents), moving her writing classes online and co-founding the  online festival Wonderfest.

Likewise, her co-author of Animal Crackers, Alan Nolan, has been among the writer/illustrators making excellent videos throughout these lockdowns.

Faced with an emptied diary, I was among those writers to instead go into a mild state of paralysis while wondering what should be done, envying those who had just gone and done it, and panicking over suddenly needing to develop film-making and social media skills that were not in the job description.

There have been several prerecorded videos, tortuously made once I’ve put the laptop on a pile of books, arranged desk lamps at flattering angles and turned the background bookshelf into a shrine to my oeuvre.

There have also been occasional YouTube interviews and a largely-failed attempt to up my Instagram game. But the path has led me to the obvious place: Zoom.

This has worked out far better than it should.

I’ve recently spoken to groups of primary school students as big as 80, logging in from home each on their own screen. It should be chaos but it’s not. They stay engaged, pitch in with ideas, ask questions. They even laugh at the bad jokes, although muted mics means you can only see them do it. Shaking shoulders are a peculiarly Covid-era form of positive feedback.

It has brought absurdities, of course. Talking to schools before Christmas, technical hitches meant I occasionally found myself talking to silent, blank screens with only typed questions and emojis as signs of life on the other end.

A year on, there’s a sense that the new ways of meeting readers won’t all be jettisoned once we’re allowed in a room together again.

Photograph: Ger Holland
Photograph: Ger Holland

Festival

For a perspective outside of children’s writing, I call Liz Nugent, bestselling writer whose most recent novel is Our Little Cruelties. She has just finished watching an event at Aberdeen’s Granite Noir Crime Writing festival without having to leave her house.

Nugent has managed one socially distanced in-person event, at the Galway International Arts Festival in September, but otherwise has missed real-life encounters with readers, book clubs and other writers.

At an online festival “you’re not really meeting the readers. You’re not having a chat with them afterwards and asking them ‘so what’s your favourite book’ – which is a question I often ask people when I’m signing their books. Because I always look for ideas from readers, like what would you ideally like to read, because that inspires me and gives me ideas.”

Yet, there have been advantages.

“I think the exciting part of doing the virtual stuff is that you’re reaching readers that you wouldn’t have reached before,” says Nugent. “People who suffer from agoraphobia. Or people who cannot travel because of disabilities.”

Nugent has discovered Instagram’s vibrant #bookstagram community, and also found there’s a chance to talk to readers in places where tours aren’t an option. Sarah Webb also saw this, with Wonderfest actively seeking out the Irish abroad so that their audience of over 3,000 included readers from well outside the usual catchment area. Webb’s online creative writing classes include kids from around the country, and she’ll keep teaching through Zoom in the future.

Writers benefit in other ways, says Nugent, because while going out into the world to talk about writing is expected of them, not every writer wants to do it.

“There are a lot of people who suffer from social anxiety, for example, who don’t like going out there. There are a lot of writers who suffer from social anxiety who find the festival circuit really panics them. They’re now getting the opportunity to reach readers as well. Where they might have shied away from being in a room with 100 people in the audience, they are in their own bedrooms or in the corner of their kitchen with their bookshelf background usually. It benefits both readers and writers on some level.”

There is a privilege in being able to have the conversation at all, Nugent says. There are plenty who work in the arts who don’t have the chance.

And here, perhaps, is the twist that writers didn’t anticipate this time last year. Writers have suddenly found that to reach readers, they often need to allow them into their writing rooms.

Precious encounters

It can’t possibly replace the giddy buzz of, say, Listowel Writers’ Week, or the energy of a library packed full of imaginative fourth-class kids. It certainly doesn’t replace those precious encounters with readers who quietly tell you that they really liked that book you anguished over for years. And it means sprucing up the bookshelf and praying to the wifi gods. But talking to readers from your desk means giving a different insight into where you create, how you find ideas and the nitty-gritty of the process.

This will be the way of things until we’re allowed meet up again – but it seems certain the past year has changed things forever. Festivals will take place in hotel function rooms, but they will also take place in writers’ rooms. Staying in is the new going out, and all that.

BOOT! with Shane Hegarty is at the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival, March 28th.

Mountainstosea.ie

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