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 http://www.dubraybooks.ie/
This article first appeared in the Irish Independent