This weekend, I went to the annual SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, pronounced like Shaggy’s crime-solving doggy pal) conference in Winchester. I love the support network SCBWI provides to writers and illustrators and I love the conference – it’s a chance to connect with other authors, all in different stages of their careers, share wisdom and writing tips, and generally talk about the thing we love best: children’s books. (And wine. And cake).
Because Murder Most Unladylike launched this year, I got to be part of the annual Mass Book Launch at the Saturday night party.
I got to see my book on a cake, which is a particularly exciting lifetime achievement in my head.
I also had the pleasure of meeting Zoe, the very first ever Murder Most Unladylike scholar: she’s using it as an example in her MA essay on lessons in children’s fiction!
As part of the Conference, I listened to incredible, inspirational talks by some of my own writer heroes: Sally Gardner, Nick Butterworth, and my newest favourite author, Cathy Cassidy. I’m ashamed to say that I’d never read any of Cathy’s books before I heard her speak on Saturday, but she was so incredible about books and writing that as soon as she was finished I leaped out of my seat and dashed to the book stall to buy Cherry Crush, the first in her Chocolate Box Girls series. I read it on the train home yesterday, and it’s brilliant. It’s smart and thoughtful and brave, just like Cathy herself – which brings me to the second (and more important) part of this post. Cathy spoke wonderfully about how she became an author, but she also talked about what books mean to her, and what they mean to all of the children who read her novels.
Books, said Cathy, give children belief. They let them see themselves as they are and imagine ways in which their lives could be different – and that’s why libraries, purveyors of free books to any child who wants them, are so crucial. Reading is not a luxury, it is essential – and because of this Cathy asked us all to join her fight to stop Mayor Anderson from closing down 11 Liverpool libraries. I absolutely support the campaign, and I want to use this blog to tell both the Mayor and the rest of the world why what she and so many other authors are already doing is so important. So, Mayor Anderson, I hope you’re listening. This is what I want to say.
I’m not a member of a library. That may seem ironic, given what I’ve just said, but that’s not the whole story. What I mean when I say that I’m not a member of a library is that I’m not a member of a library now. And that’s because I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have a job that pays well enough to give me a disposable income that I largely spend on books. I’m lucky that my job is in the book industry, so I’m surrounded by books all day and encouraged to take them home in the evening. I’m lucky because I’m a (relatively) wealthy, educated adult.
But, like all of us, I used to be a child. My disposable income used to be £2 per week, which was enough for several Refreshers bars or a very small Sylvanian but did not, obviously, cover a £5.99 paperback. Again, I was disgustingly lucky, as children go – my parents owned a large number of books, and often let me buy more. But that didn’t fill up the yawning hole inside me that needed more stories, and more, and more, all the time and every day. So I went to the library. My mother helped me get a card for the Oxford public library, and we visited at least once a week. Just stepping through those doors sent me absolutely dizzy with excitement: the whole place smelled of books, there were more books than I could ever read all around me, and they were all mine. So many of the books that made me who I am, both as a person and as a writer, I first encountered in that building: Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Lucy M. Boston, Noel Streatfeild, Dick King-Smith … It’s a neverending list. I read those books and suddenly saw my ambition as a real possibility: to have my book on a shelf next to them one day.
As I grew up, I kept on using libraries, for school and university, and again I was lucky to have access to them. I couldn’t have got the A-levels or the degrees I did without them. But that wasn’t when I needed libraries the most. That moment came after I had finished my MA. I was looking for a job in publishing, every single day, and getting nowhere. For the first time ever I was trying very hard and failing, which was strange and scary and utterly demoralising. I didn’t know what I should do, whether I was on the right track or not. I didn’t really have a reason to get up in the morning. And then I joined my local public library.
Suddenly, I had a nice, warm, free place to go every day. I had a reason to leave the house. I had something to aim for, something to occupy my time, a place where I could get new ideas for the writing I was still doing when I wasn’t jobhunting. It made me feel as though I had value, it made me remember what a day with structure in it was like, and it was one of the little things that kept me clinging on, even when I couldn’t see light at the end of the tunnel.
Several months later, I got a job, and now I am one of the happy, striving taxpayers that this government is so very fond of. But I don’t know if I could have got to this point without my local public library, and that is why I cannot understand why it is even thinkable to deny the millions of people still struggling with poverty and joblessness a place of refuge, a place that keeps their dreams alive, a place where they can gain the skills they need to move into work.
Libraries are not for me. They are not for the rich and the powerful. They are there because some people are not rich, or powerful. They are there because those people need to have dreams, and they need to see that those dreams could become a reality. There is always budget for what is truly important, and libraries are exactly that. They deserve to be valued. Please, please, don’t close them down.
And if you agree with me and Cathy, please contact the Mayor on his website. We may not win out, but we have to try.