Ostrich Boys

“Kids Need the Best Books!” – Meeting Keith Gray

December 21st, 2012 by Miriam Knafla | Posted in Blog | Comments Off on “Kids Need the Best Books!” – Meeting Keith Gray
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Keith Gray, advocate for the physical book and supporter of school libraries, visited us to give a passionate talk about the boom and development in children’s and young adult’s publishing, the beauty of books, and, well, his admiration for John Green.

From when Keith first started writing to today, a lot has changed in the children’s and young adult’s literature market. Back in 1996, a category for young adult’s fiction did not even exist. Barriers had to be brought down; teen fiction had to be established as its own category. Junk by Melvin Burgess, which, according to Keith, can today be seen as the first YA’s novel, and the big selling Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling introduced novels to the market that were neither written for children nor adults but for teenagers. Ever since, the young adult’s book market grew; competition got fierce. The positive side of this is that there is a lot of good material out there today which is brilliant as Keith states: “kids need the best books!” A matter that seemed to be close to Keith’s heart in this context is the closure of school libraries. To him as an author for whom school libraries are the biggest bridge to reach his audience and who wants to see children having access to good literature in general, this is an alarming trend. He has joined in on the protest and I think everyone should. Of what worth are the best books if you take away one major platform that enables children to access them?

Another topic that Keith couldn’t avoid talking about is the controversy around the digital book. If we talk about the best books, about which format are we talking? Does the format even matter?

“A book is a solid block of virtual reality – why put buttons on it?”

Read digitally, read enhanced or stick to the traditional pleasure of skipping pages, smelling paper, feeling the texture of a book cover? Which format has more to offer? Which format is more suitable for children? Books become more and more what can be called media packages. “Everything is turned into an app.” Book characters have their own fictional blogs and websites; entire communities are created around them. And even though Keith sees the potential of such promotional activity, he also considers it to be a worrying trend. What will become of simple books? What will become of authors who are reluctant to give away what happens to their characters once the book has finished. Can they keep up with the competition? Will younger and future generations still acknowledge the beauty of the physical book? Keith’s tip is to make a book into an object that you want to own, something you want to show-off on your bookshelf, something you like to identify with. Make every effort to turn a manuscript into a “lovely, brilliant book experience.”

Finally, after a lot of swooning over the physical book, and don’t get me wrong here, his enthusiasm was delightful and entertaining, he started to rave about a certain author. As I am a fan of that author myself, I was quite delighted when he mentioned him and his promotional strategies on today’s competitive and fast evolving YA’s market. The author he was talking about, and this shouldn’t be a surprise as I mentioned him in the introductory lines, is John Green. Green can be seen as a prime example when it comes to reaching his audience. He and his brother Hank built up an online community par excellence over the past years. The two brothers share their everyday life experiences in a weekly Vlog-format and talk about interesting matters that come to their minds, all on YouTube. Their channel VlogBrothers currently has over 807.000 subscribers and more than 261 million views. Their Nerdfighter community not only watches their videos and reads John’s books but they also attend conventions and events that the two participate in. ‘Terrifying’[1] gatekeepers such as parents, grandparents, librarians and teachers are simply bypassed and the target audience directly addressed. This guarantees Green a sturdy fan base and a solid clientele. On a personal note, it is exactly this social media strategy that got me hooked to start reading his books. And after Keith’s talk, I realised that a friendly character can indeed make sales and it wouldn’t surprise me if the next book my classmates bought, would have the name Keith Gray on it. I, at least, already have a copy of one of his books on my bookshelf.

Keith Gray is an author of children’s and young adult’s fiction and has recently worked as an anthologist and collaborated with other authors to write about intriguing topics such as losing one’s virginity (Losing It) and what would/could/should happen in an afterlife (Next). His publications reach from Creepers published in 1996 by Mammoth, about gangs of kids who do garden creeping respectively hedge hopping or, how the police would call it, trespassing, to his latest book Ostrich Boys which won the Angus Book Award and the silver medal in the Smarties Prize and which was also adapted into a play. Keith usually targets his books towards boys (he does have a female readership as well, though) dealing with the overall theme of what it is like to be a young boy.


[1] Yes, they can be terrifying; they can be your alley or your worst enemy. Try to market a novel so that both the adult, (who might be of an overprotective kind) who usually provides the book, and the kid, who is supposed to read it, like it. Your book can be held up at so many stages before it actually reaches the child it was dedicated to.