Nicolette Jones planned a modest book giveaway for trick-or-treaters. Then her tweet went viral
In the run-up to Hallowe'en I made a pile of review copies of spooky stories and picturebooks, in the hope of getting a chance to recommend them (a couple were mentioned in the Sunday Times), and perhaps of a round-up, which never happened. There were 27 books in the pile, and on 31 October I decided I would offer them to trick-or-treaters with the sweets - because there is no joy greater than putting good books into the hands of children (and they were all good books, which deserved reviews). Ours is a mixed neighbourhood, and Hallowe'en a bit of an opportunity to reach children of all backgrounds and greater and lesser degrees of privilege. (This is also why I initiated a "Little Free Library" in a local street, for exchanging books.)
As well as putting out the Jack O'Lantern a daughter carved, I took a photo of the offered books and posted it on my street's Facebook group, to encourage the neighbours to come and collect them. I also tweeted the photo, because it showed such a fine and tempting array, and because many of my followers are book lovers who, I thought, might like the idea. No one was tagged, and I expected two or three people to catch sight of the tweet and approve. As I write this, the next day, 1,250 people have Liked the post (a personal record).
So far, this is a non-story: I gave away a box of books (not unprecedented), and quite a lot of people Liked a tweet. But a couple of interesting things may come out of it.
Gloriously, many of those who responded on Twitter said they would copy the idea next year. Some of these (Imagine's Nikki Gamble and critic Imogen Russell Williams, for instance) are, I think, in my position of receiving a lot of review copies, so can assemble a box of Hallowe'en-y books for the purpose. (Not that for any of us parting with books isn't always some kind of a sacrifice.) It is possible that some of the authors who made the same promise (such as Katherine Rundell, Hilary McKay, Sharon Gosling, and Michelle Harrison) may also receive a lot of books, or perhaps they are just particularly generous. Chris Judge said he was inspired to give out books of his own - also impressive largesse, given how few copies authors actually receive. I worried that the enthusiastic tweeters who called me a "saint" or a "hero", or said I "won Hallowe'en" assumed that I had bought all the books - probably about £150-worth, which would indeed have been magnanimous. (I hope my Tweet thanking the publishers may have helped to clarify the matter.) But many of those who responded similarly are not, I assume, reviewers, so they were offering to find or purchase a cache of books to share with local kids. What a great development that would be, turning Hallowe'en into an opportunity for booksharing.
I do hope those with access to a lot of books will do as I did. And those with big libraries, budgets, or hearts. Even if this doesn't catch on very widely, every single happy match next year of book and child will be worthwhile. (Neil Gaiman, as Caroline Fielding of the YLG pointed out, has already suggested something similar: All Hallow's Read - www.allhallowsread.com.)
Apart from being, potentially, the germ of a "movement", as Nikki Gamble called it, my small gesture made me reflect on children's relationship to books. Reactions to the offer included a polite "No thank you" from a boy too cool for a costume but very interested in sweets. (His accompanying adult took one for when he "changed his mind later".) A girl, invited with her friends to choose, said, "Do we have to?", and then picked the thinnest book she saw. A child who looked about five or six was offered a board book by her sister; she seemed keen, so I let it go, though I feared it would not hold her attention for long. Others, more satisfyingly, took books with as much enthusiasm as they took chocolate. One boy said, wonderingly: "I've never HEARD of being given BOOKS for Hallowe'en", and selected his book with care and evident delight. A girl asked: "Can we have two?", while a parent murmured: "This is the best call of the evening." And hearing children say to each other as they went down the garden path: "What book have you got?" was great. Really, thank you to the 16 publishers who enabled all this to happen.
What stays with me is partly the pleasure of hands that snatched as eagerly at the books as at the Heroes, but partly the child so unused to books, that at the age of six, board books were what seemed familiar. And those two children who thought they didn't want one. Somebody somewhere had made books and reading feel like they weren't for them. The girl who chose the thin book wanted to have to read as little as possible. It will take more than one free book to turn that around.