A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
It’s easy to be cynical and say, My favourite bookshop is any one that stocks and promotes my books. Or even just stocks them. Or one of them.
The sad truth is, bookshops, once straightforwardly high on my list of ‘Favourite Places’ have now become rather fraught destinations. Ask any author not lucky enough to be a best-seller, and they might – if they’re honest – tell you the same thing. I imagined when I was published, and especially when my first few books won awards, that it was simply a matter of walking in and seeing my name and feeling happy, perhaps giving my books a cheeky turn-out so the cover faced the buyers.
But it’s not like that, and too often now I don’t go into a bookshop, or don’t venture near the YA section, because I don’t want that sting of Where am I? Why am I not…? When people started to tweet me pictures of Street Song in the W H Smith charts in UK airports, I could hardly believe it. In a good way. But joy was swiftly followed by worry about the next book, Star By Star – what if the bookshops don’t like it? What if it sinks without trace…?
Authors – you’ll know what I mean.
But I don’t want this to be a whinging post. I want to celebrate bookshops, which have always been among my favourite places. So here is a funny bookshop memory, which happens to be the only time in my life I have ever committed a crime.
I’m nine. Mummy has brought me into Belfast city centre. Queuing up at the barricades to get frisked by the security guards makes it feel like a big adventure. But excitement drains as I wait outside the changing rooms of Marks and Spencers, waiting for Mummy to try on a million different outfits. I wriggle and whinge. I am not the ideal shopping companion Mummy hoped for.
There is a bookshop opposite the back door of M & S. I won’t name it for reasons which will become clear, though sadly, like every other Belfast bookshop from those days, it is long gone. With a stroke of genius, Mummy says she will bring me in and buy me a book and that will shut me up make waiting for her a more enjoyable experience for both of us. There is a small but enticing children’s section. I choose carefully – or as carefully as Mummy will allow me; she regards this as a waste of proper shopping time. (She still has C&A and BHS to go, not to mention the posh shops, Anderson & McAuley and Robinson Cleaver.) No point in a Famous Five – the library has the ones I don’t have; and I already have all the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books at home. I could try something completely new but this feels a bit dangerous – what if I don’t like it? I would be stuck all day in the city with a book I hated, and besides, 45p is a lot of money! I’ll risk an unknown author in the Cregagh Library, my paradise, but not when actual money has to change hands.
The answer is a Chalet School book – I’ve read lots, but there are plenty I haven’t read. (It will be some years before I make the wonderful discovery that there are 59). I can’t decide between Rivals and Jo Returns. In the end I reject Rivals, even though the cover looks dramatic, because Jo Returns has the tantalising mention of Jo writing a book… I love Jo, and I think she’ll be an admirable companion as I sit outside all those changing rooms, with their grown up lady smells and strange rustlings.
She is. Her adventures keep me enthralled throughout C &A. And BHS. And even Anderson & McAuley where the shop ladies don’t sound like they come from Belfast at all. I’m not really in Belfast by now: I am high in the Tyrolean alps, with Jo and her friends. But then a terrible thing happens. I get to the end. You can’t have finished it, Mummy says, not a whole book! But I have. I’m the fastest reader in P5 after all. What a waste, Mummy says, and I haven’t even got to Robinson Cleaver’s yet.
And that’s when we hatch our cunning plan. It is criminal. It is defrauding the book trade. It is very Unlike Us: we are both preternaturally honest. My mother would be horrified if she knew I was writing about it online. (Fortunately she has no interest at all in the interweb.)
Reader, we went back to the bookshop. And we said – well, I suppose Mummy said, that we had bought the book that morning and then realised I had already read it. (A somewhat Jesuitical truth, as I had indeed read it by the time we went back to the shop.) Might we possibly exchange it for another Chalet School title? I handed over the book with trembling hands. I held my breath. Would they realise? I had read it very carefully: it looked as pristine as when it had left the shop that morning.
The bookseller suspected not a thing. We must have looked so innocent, and besides, what child could have read Jo Returns To The Chalet School so quickly? The books were exchanged and off I went with Rivals in the little paper bag with the shop’s name on it.
I did not embark on a life of crime. A life of books – well, clearly I’d already committed to that.