As more schools introduce iPads in favour of library books, a top children’s author fears for the future of children’s non-fiction books. Nicky Sollway meets Anita Ganeri.
Author of the popular Horrible Geography series, Anita Ganeri is a prolific writer of children’s books. Over the last 25 years she has penned a staggering 300 non-fiction books, ranging from an Atlas of Exploration to the Inside and Out Guide to Animals and the award-winning The Planet in Peril.
But just like the polar bears wobbling around on a slab of melting sea ice, she warns that the future of children’s information books is equally unstable.
“The internet has massively shrunk our market,” she says, adding that many schools are now turning away from books and telling children to do all their research on the internet.
“As a parent and as a teacher, surely the thing you’re most concerned about is that the information your child is reading or receiving is well-researched, accurate, appropriate and interesting and the books we have produced are all those things, whereas with the stuff you get on the internet there’s no discernment or checking.”
As more schools issue iPads in favour of library books, Anita warns that the non-fiction book could soon be on the endangered list.
She is speaking at her home in Ilkley, surrounded by her family pets. An elderly cat cosies up on a seat in the kitchen while her two greyhounds and three-legged lurcher snuggle up in a room next door. Her husband Chris Oxlade, who is also a writer, works in a shed in the garden and has himself notched up around 150 children’s non-fiction books on technology and science.
It all seems pretty great, but Anita says while she has been lucky up to now, writing non-fiction is a precarious way to make a living.
“I love it and I feel very fortunate but it’s also extremely stressful, pressurised and insecure because you never know what work is coming. Work is getting scarcer and scarcer and contracts are getting shorter, so I might be phoned up tomorrow and offered a book but only if I can do it by next Wednesday. It’s getting absolutely ridiculous.”
Non-fiction is often seen as the poor relation of fiction. Information books about subjects such as puberty, birds and rivers are not seen to be as important as fiction, yet she says they are a really important reading resource, especially for boys.
“I work very quickly partly because I really love what I do and partly because it’s not massively well-paid and the quicker you do it the better. As with anything the more you do it the better you get at it.”
Before the summer she had eight small books to finish and a longer encyclopaedia to research.
But her dexterity on the keyboard is currently hampered by a broken finger. Not a casualty of her lightening quick keyboard skills, but a clash with the upholstery on her couch. “I tucked a cover in and it just went snap.”
She has to wear a splint for six weeks. “Which clunks when I touch type, it’s the ‘O’ key which is not good,” she laughs.
She currently writes about 15 or 20 books a year; not bad for someone who admits she never had a burning desire to be a writer.
Anita was born in Calcutta, but has lived in Britain since the age of one. Her father, who was Indian, met her mother while studying medicine here. They returned to India but Anita’s mother couldn’t settle, so they came back to the Midlands. She recalls an unhappy childhood and when her parents split up, she went to live with her father while her two younger brothers stayed with their mother.
After boarding school in Stamford, Anita went on to study French and German at Cambridge University.
Her first job in publishing was for Walker Books as a foreign rights manager. She then worked as an editor at Usborne Publishing for three years until leaving to work as a freelance writer after her husband found a job in Leeds.
Her first published book was a Ladybird book on How Things Work. “I was really chuffed because I used to love Ladybird books.”
The commissions seemed to pour in and she found herself writing reference books about everything from the human body to world religion and from the natural world to stories of explorers. Her packed book cases are enough to open a whole library in their own right.
When her children, aged seven and nine, return home from school with homework, she will often be heard to cry ‘Oh I’ve got a book for that’.
Yet they are often told to do all their research on the internet.
“My son had a project to do about the brain and I had the perfect book about the human body for his age group yet he’d been told to find everything out from websites.”
She hopes there will eventually be a backlash against such a reliance on the web.
“They’ll have to go back to books because I don’t think the children will get the quality of information they need and at some point I think that will show. The information on the internet is either so dumbed down and inaccurate or inappropriate and it isn’t even checked.”
While she says she is not against the internet and uses it a lot herself, she is very concerned at the lack of discernment when it comes to taking information from it.
“It’s almost that schools think simply because it’s there or simply because it’s free, it’s right.”
Anita’s most popular series is the 15 Horrible Geography books, a follow-up to the phenomenally successful Horrible History series. They led to her becoming a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. While she freely admits she is not a geographer, it is a subject she has grown to love.
“When I was at school geography was all about coal-mining, rocks and pig iron. But these days geography takes in rainforests, volcanoes, earthquakes, holidays and countless other fascinating topics. I guess because I’ve travelled a lot and have met polar researchers, volcanologists and earthquake scientists, I’ve become a type of convert geographer, I find I’m quite evangelical about it.”
One of her other most popular books is The Planet in Peril, which focuses on environmental issues and which won the Blue Peter Book Award in 2009. She says she was thrilled to win two Blue Peter badges, having been a very loyal Blue Peter viewer as a child.
“I even named my dog Petra after the Blue Peter dog.”
She has just completed another book on Planet Earth and is just starting another about the rainforest. Currently there are no more plans by Scholastic to publish any more Horrible Geography books, though she says the Royal Scottish Geographical Society is interested in a Horrible Geography of Scotland.
“I am very proud of the Horrible Geographies because they enthused a lot of children to appreciate geography and the natural world and if I’ve done anything in any tiny respect to help that then I feel it’s been worthwhile.”
Awards won by prolific author
Award-winning author Anita Ganeri was born in India but grew up and went to school and university in England and now lives in Yorkshire.
She still retains a love of travelling. Anita spent many years working for publishers as an editor and foreign rights manager.
Since then, she has written a staggering 300-plus books and is especially well know for the best-selling Horrible Geography series which won the Geographical Association Silver Award.
Her book Planet Peril, won the Blue Peter Book Award 2009 for the Best Book with Facts.
For more information see www.anitaganeri.co.uk