Why the Future of Books is Safe with Our Hungry Young Readers

Me Reading to a Child
Me Reading to a Child

CHILDREN are still reading. That's a fact. Children and teenagers have not fallen into a technological black hole – they still want and need books.

Irish and UK sales figures for the first half of the year show a healthy rise in sales of novelty books (6pc), picture books (2pc) and, if you strip out the phenomena that is 'The Hunger Games', a whopping 12pc rise in sales of teenage fiction. Publishers are putting money behind children's books like never before and Dubray Books has just invested in 'Mad About Books', a full-colour guide to more than 400 books for children and teenagers.As a parent, a bookseller and a writer, this is all very reassuring. Yes, reading fluently has been proven to give children an advantage in all areas of their education, but books have a far more important role to play in young people's lives.

Books make children think – they make them engage their brain. Readers are not passive vessels, watching images flicker across a screen; they are recreating the story in their heads. They are fighting alongside Skulduggery Pleasant, lolloping across the hills with Sophie and the Big Friendly Giant.

Books are quiet. There are no bangs or crashes. While you are reading, virtual zombies do not point guns in your face and threaten to blow your brains out. Other gamers are not shouting obscenities into your ears through your headset. Yes, there is violence in fiction. What happens in 'The Hunger Games' is not pretty. Harry Potter has to battle pure evil. But there is cause and consequence. Lives are lost, but we care about those who are now dead. The reader can pause and reflect on the loss of characters who have become very real to them. Charlotte the spider, Dobby, Sirius Black. There is no 'kill/die', then step over the bodies.

Children learn from picture books without even knowing they are learning. My kids know all about the life-cycle of the butterfly from 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar'. They also learn more subtle things, like how a good plot is constructed, or how rhyme scheme works.

Books encourage empathy. While reading, children walk in other children's shoes. They travel to Africa with Michael Morpurgo and his Butterfly Lion; to the concentration camps of World War II with John Boyne ('The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas'); and to Ireland during the Famine with Marita Conlon-McKenna ('Under the Hawthorne Tree'). They learn how it feels to be hungry or terrified; to come up against enormous obstacles and to win.

Children's books feature plucky, brave characters, both male and female. Especially female. The characters in Judi Curtin's tales (aimed at pre-teen readers) stand up for themselves. My own character, Amy Green, is a kind and loyal friend. These girls are not covered in make-up or fake tan; they do not aspire to be 'famous', or if they do, it is for a talent they have worked hard at. In Anna Carey's new book, 'Rebecca Rocks', 14-year-old Rebecca and her friends have an all-girl rock band and work hard to improve their skills.

They do not speak like vacuous American teenagers. They are interested in boys, but their love lives do not define them. They call a boy out when he tries to show them porn on his mobile phone. In a world of premature sexualisation, Rebecca and her friends are strong role models for girls.

Teenage boys also need strong role models. I was at an event in the RDS in the spring with more than 800 screaming teenagers, at least half of them boys. What was making them so hysterical? An American writer called John Green and his brother, Hank. John's bestselling teenage book, 'The Fault in Our Stars', is about 16-year-old Hazel, who has thyroid cancer, and Augustus, a boy she meets at her cancer support group. It's real, touching and full of emotion. It's just the kind of novel I'd love my 19-year-old son to identify with. And guess what? Teenagers, both female and male, love it, including my son.

The future of books is in good hands.

'Mad About Books: The Dubray Guide to Children's Books', edited by Sarah Webb, is available for €2 from all Dubray bookshops or at

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

Date A Girl Who Reads

One of my lovely readers, Amy F, found this on a blog and I thought I'd share it with you. It's by a writer called Rosemary Urquico. Date a girl who reads. Date a girl who spends her money on books instead of clothes. She has problems with closet space because she has too many books. Date a girl who has a list of books she wants to read, who has had a library card since she was twelve.

Find a girl who reads. You’ll know that she does because she will always have an unread book in her bag.She’s the one lovingly looking over the shelves in the bookstore, the one who quietly cries out when she finds the book she wants. You see the weird chick sniffing the pages of an old book in a second hand book shop? That’s the reader. They can never resist smelling the pages, especially when they are yellow.

She’s the girl reading while waiting in that coffee shop down the street. If you take a peek at her mug, the non-dairy creamer is floating on top because she’s kind of engrossed already. Lost in a world of the author’s making. Sit down. She might give you a glare, as most girls who read do not like to be interrupted. Ask her if she likes the book.

Buy her another cup of coffee.

Let her know what you really think of Murakami. See if she got through the first chapter of Fellowship. Understand that if she says she understood James Joyce’s Ulysses she’s just saying that to sound intelligent. Ask her if she loves Alice or she would like to be Alice.

It’s easy to date a girl who reads. Give her books for her birthday, for Christmas and for anniversaries. Give her the gift of words, in poetry, in song. Give her Neruda, Pound, Sexton, Cummings. Let her know that you understand that words are love. Understand that she knows the difference between books and reality but by god, she’s going to try to make her life a little like her favorite book. It will never be your fault if she does.

She has to give it a shot somehow.

Lie to her. If she understands syntax, she will understand your need to lie. Behind words are other things: motivation, value, nuance, dialogue. It will not be the end of the world.

Fail her. Because a girl who reads knows that failure always leads up to the climax. Because girls who understand that all things will come to end. That you can always write a sequel. That you can begin again and again and still be the hero. That life is meant to have a villain or two.

Why be frightened of everything that you are not? Girls who read understand that people, like characters, develop. Except in the Twilight series.

If you find a girl who reads, keep her close. When you find her up at 2 AM clutching a book to her chest and weeping, make her a cup of tea and hold her. You may lose her for a couple of hours but she will always come back to you. She’ll talk as if the characters in the book are real, because for a while, they always are.

You will propose on a hot air balloon. Or during a rock concert. Or very casually next time she’s sick. Over Skype.

You will smile so hard you will wonder why your heart hasn’t burst and bled out all over your chest yet. You will write the story of your lives, have kids with strange names and even stranger tastes. She will introduce your children to the Cat in the Hat and Aslan, maybe in the same day. You will walk the winters of your old age together and she will recite Keats under her breath while you shake the snow off your boots.

Date a girl who reads because you deserve it. You deserve a girl who can give you the most colorful life imaginable. If you can only give her monotony, and stale hours and half-baked proposals, then you’re better off alone. If you want the world and the worlds beyond it, date a girl who reads. Or better yet, date a girl who writes.

Hear, hear! Yours in writing, Sarah XXX

60 Seconds with Sarah

This is a quick q and a I did for Bord Gais last night - as you can see, I didn't answer all the questions as I couldn't think of a super power I'd like at midnight! Wonder Woman's energy springs to mind this morning as I yawn. I'll wake up soon ;).I'm off to West Cork on Friday to write and have a lovely 2 week holiday, so I won't be posting much for the next 3 weeks - have a brilliant July and talk soon. Yours in writing, Sarah XXX

60 Seconds with……….Sarah Webb

1. What was the last book you read? The Help by Kathryn Stockett, about the world of black maids and the families that hire them. Set in Mississippi in the 1960s, it has some fantastic characters and knock out scenes. I loved it and would highly recommend it.

2. What kinds of books do you most enjoy reading? I read all kinds of books, including books for children and teenagers, which often have brilliant characters and cracking plots. For example I'm off on holidays at the end of this week and I've packed the following: So Much to Tell by Valerie Grove, the biography of Kaye Webb, ex-editor of Puffin Books she was amazing and had such an impact on children's publishing; The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller - as I've heard great things about it; Joseph O'Connor's Ghost Light - he writes beautifully; The Love Verb by Jane Green - she's one of the best popular fiction writers around when she's on form; Rules for a Perfect Life by Niamh Greene - great Irish popular fiction; Moneyball by Michael Lewis, a book about baseball and the legendary Oakland A's - I love good sports books!; Personally I Blame My Fairy Godmother by Claudia Carroll and No Ordinary Love by Anita Notaro - more great Irish popular fiction; The Radleys by Matt Haig - zingy crossover vampire book with a difference; and finally Stories from the Queen of Teen Award - stories from last year's shortlisted authors, as I've been shortlisted this year. Oh and also the proofs of John Boyne and David Almonds' new children's novels. Phew! Will I get through them all - just watch me!

3. What was your favourite book as a child? As a child and now my favourite book is Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. It's funny, searingly honest and it makes me smile. I read it every year. I also love Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. I still read a lot of children's books as they are so darned good!

4. What author past or present most inspires you? Judy Blume first off for changing teen girl's fiction forever. Periods, bras, divorce, peer pressure, bullying - it's all in there - she was the Jackie Wilson of her day and is still writing for children now, well into her seventies. And also Marian Keyes for being so honest in her books and also so honest in speaking about her personal life. Her recent blog entries on her 'black dog' depression have been so moving and I know have made a difference to other people who have exprienced similar feelings, myself included.

5. How did you get into writing? Was writing something you always wanted to do? I used to fill notebooks full of stories from about age 10, and a kept daily diary from 13. I think a lot of writers try to make sense of the world by writing about it from a pretty early age. Plus I've always been a huge reader. I used to read while walking home from school and bumped into many lamp posts and tripped over many dog leads in my day! I think most big readers try writing at some stage. I wrote my first book, a children's cookery book, as a single mum working in Waterstone's Bookshop on Dawson Street. To be honest, I needed the money. I'd been writing articles and reviews for various papers and magazines and I guess I saw a book as the next logical step. It was called Kids Can Cook. My first adult novel, Three Times a Lady, was published in 2000. That was directly inspired by Maeve Binchy, Patricia Scanlan, Sheila O'Flanagan, Cathy Kelly, and Marian Keyes - all trail blazers in their own way.

6. If you could have written any book throughout history which would you pick? Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret. It's inspired. And The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, another brilliant book. I'm sure I'm supposed to say something high brow like Ulysses, but that's just not me. For me, in novels, the character is the thing. To fall in love with a book, I have to love the characters.

7. What do you do to unwind? Read! Walk the pier in Dun Laoghaire. Chat to friends. Watch Grey's Anatomy (the only telly programme I watch) or a DVD.

8. If you had to choose a favourite holiday memory, what would it be?

9. Do you have a guilty pleasure? If so, what is it?

Sport movies or films with any kind of sport in them - it's true. I don't watch sport on the television, ever, but I love films like Field of Dreams, Jerry Maguire, and Bend it Like Beckham. 10. What super power would you most like to have?

11. If you could have three wishes come true, what would you wish for?

12. When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? A ballerina. I never dared dream of being a writer. I think I wanted it too much to even dream about it for fear of jinxing things.

13. What famous person dead/alive would you most like to meet and why? Maurice Sendak, because he has produced some truly amazing books and I have a feeling he's just a big kid at heart!

14. What three words would describe you best?

15. Do you have a facebook or twitter account? Yes, I like Facebook very much. It's a great way to keep in touch with friends and family, and it also makes it nice and easy for readers to pop in and just say 'hi'. I love connecting with readers. I don't Twitter. I waste enough time on Facebook.

16. Who would you most like to write your biography? Martina Devlin, novelist and columnist. Although she probably knows me a little too well for my liking!

17. What three items could you not live without? Books, my family, my laptop. Oops, sorry, that should of course read - my family, books, my laptop.