Once upon a time, nine-year-old bookworms used to curl up with Little Women, or burrow under the bedclothes with a torch to read Swallows and Amazons after hours. Childhood reading was an idyll in a walled garden and books forever shaped the landscape of our minds.
Did that golden age ever exist? One thing is certain: in troubled times the nationâ€™s reading habits have become a lightning rod for parental pessimism about video games and the end of civilisation as we know it. There is, however, a silver lining to these clouds.
This week, as Britainâ€™s schoolchildren creep like snails back to the classroom, fretful parents can take heart from statistics that demonstrate a mini-boom in juvenile reading. In 2016, for example, sales of childrenâ€™s titles rose 16% to Â£365m, an increase attributable to the buying of printed books.
Forget the merchants of doom. According to The Bookseller: â€œChildren are now reading more and want to read print.â€ This is confirmed by the Publishers Association, which recently reported that book sales for the previous year had jumped 7% to Â£4.8bn, and data suggests that this has been driven by that whopping 16% jump in revenues from childrenâ€™s publishing.
More significant still, as e-book sales fell by 3%, the Guardian noted that â€œBritons are abandoning the e-book at an alarming rate, as â€˜screen fatigueâ€™ helped fuel a five-year high in printed book sales.â€ Moreover, for the first time since records began, nearly Â£1 in every Â£4 spent on print titles is on a childrenâ€™s book, a market share of 24%.
The boom in childrenâ€™s lit has begun to have a tangible impact on adult bookshops. In the words of James Daunt, chief executive of Waterstones: â€œWe have been seriously increasing the amount of space we give to childrenâ€™s titles.â€
Those childrenâ€™s books that outperform all other genres are seen to prop up the publishing industry. On this analysis, bestselling David Walliams, described by some commentators as â€œthe new Roald Dahlâ€, is now as important as any Booker prize winner and the heir to JK Rowlingâ€™s success.
Another symbol of a rejuvenated childrenâ€™s book market is a self-styled â€œkaleidoscope of creative genius for kidsâ€, the magazine Scoop, a startup based in Dalston, east London, which the author Neil Gaiman has described as â€œthe kind of magazine I wish weâ€™d had when I wasÂ eightâ€.
Scoop is the idea of the writer Vita Sackville-Westâ€™s great-granddaughter, the publisher Clementine Macmillan-Scott. A year ago, hers looked like a quixotic venture fraught with jeopardy. But, against the odds for little magazines, Scoop has survived. Chris Riddell, the former childrenâ€™s laureate and Observer cartoonist, has called it â€œthe perfect accompaniment to the beautiful books we see on our shelvesâ€.
Macmillan-Scott said: â€œI really wasnâ€™t certain we would get to this point, but we are now approaching our first birthday.â€ She links the magazineâ€™s fortunes to a dynamic market and reports that â€œthrough the hundreds of children, parents and teachers we speak to at our workshops, we know that children are greedy for storytelling.â€
The Scoop story illustrates the resilience of print and paper in the face of the digital revolution. Inspired by an Edwardian model, Arthur Meeâ€™s Childrenâ€™s Newspaper, Scoop is a mix of crusade and creativity. Establishment heavyweights such as the playwright Tom Stoppard, plus childrenâ€™s writers such as Raymond Briggs, author of Fungus The Bogeyman, have adopted its cause. The magazine has also given space to 10-year-old writers and pays all contributors, high and low, the same rate â€“ 10p a word.
Itâ€™s a winning formula. Macmillan-Scott reports â€œa quarterly sales increase of roughly 150% every issueâ€, but is cautious about her good fortune. â€œItâ€™s all too clear to us that these children are hungry for print.â€ One of the biggest secondary schools in Hackney, east London, has just ordered 300 copies of Scoop for its Year 7s. Thereâ€™s also been an approach from Great Ormond Street hospital.
Scoop focuses on the most lucrative sector of the childrenâ€™s market, Britainâ€™s eight to 12-year-old readers. In literary culture, this is the crucial bridge between toddlers and adolescents and its publisher knows it. Macmillan-Scott is committed to listening to readers aged eight to 12, who have an editorial board where they can express their ideas about the magazine. â€œIf we donâ€™t get these children reading,â€ she says, â€œwe will lose out on adult readers. To be fully literate, you have to start as a child.â€
Macmillan-Scott disputes the suggestion that reading is in decline. â€œIf you look at our figures,â€ she counters, â€œyouâ€™ll find that children do read and that Scoop is part of a craze for reading hardback books. Kids love paper and print. They might play games on a digital device, but they prefer not to read on a Kindle. The real market for e-books is among YA [young adult] readers.â€ Some of her evidence is anecdotal, but her sales figures and readership surveys support a picture of eight to 12s immersed in books.
â€œWhat our research shows beyond question,â€ she says, â€œis that children have a love for reading thatâ€™s not seriously threatened by other kinds of entertainment. Reading for pleasure is a very real thing at this age, and the worries that some adults have about children losing interest in reading are simply not grounded in reality.â€
Addictive digital games do not trouble Macmillan-Scott. She concedes that â€œvideo games are incredibly sophisticated now and very appealing, especially to boys. But they have been around for at least 25 years and have not taken the place of reading. Books and magazines offer an alternative to the screen. Our surveys show that reading books is still desirable.
â€œBesides,â€ she adds, â€œkids who were born after the millennium donâ€™t see a conflict between old media and digital. They just love the written word, in whatever form.â€
In this, these new juvenile readers are at one with the adult market. As the Observer has often noted, this is a golden age of reading in an unprecedented number of formats. Scoopâ€™s editor, Sarah Odedina, says, â€œkids judge books like their parents. Theyâ€™re looking for strong characters,Â a great plot, good sentencesÂ and a satisfying resolution.Â Now isnâ€™t that as oldÂ as the hills ?â€