Mairi Kidd Talks To Bookbag About The Founding Of Barrington Stoke
A book reviewer once said that it is impossible to remember life before Barrington Stoke. Of course, Barrington Stoke founders Patience Thomson and Lucy Juckes remember only too well the frustration they witnessed on the part of the many children and young people who were excluded from the world of books by dyslexia or other reading issues. It was this frustration that led to the set up of Barrington Stoke in Lucy's living room fifteen years ago.
Back in '98, Patience was Principal of a specialist school for dyslexic students and Lucy was fresh from a marketing role with the publisher Bloomsbury. Both had personal experience of kids who had failed to engage with the written word, and both believed that the key to helping these kids lay in a tricky balancing act. Could books be specially adapted in design and editorial terms to support less able readers but still pass the 'school bus test' of looking like 'proper' books?
Lucy decided that authors were key to ensuring that no child should ever feel ashamed of reading a Barrington Stoke book. If Barrington Stoke could publish big 'bookshop' names, she was confident that struggling readers' self-esteem would be boosted by the ability to access the same authors as their peers. She was also convinced that these authors were best placed to deliver a cracking, age-appropriate read in a short word count.
Lucy began a long round of letter-writing and soon the company could list titles by Michael Morpurgo, Malorie Blackman, Mary Hoffman and many other well-known writers in its catalogues. Authors were asked to keep their stories short, action-packed and age-appropriate, and not to 'dumb down' their style. Patience took charge of editorial adaptations once stories were written, working with scores of young reviewers to identify potential stumbling blocks and find ways round these for less confident readers. Interestingly, a number of authors have reported that they subsequently adopted some of Patience's tricks in their standard fiction!
Patience also took charge of the design, layout and editorial adaptations Barrington Stoke still uses today. The glare created by black text on white paper was identified as a key problem for many children and a raft of experts helped test tinted backgrounds. The final result was a pale yellow, which reduces visual stress but does not interfere with the coloured acetate 'filters' many dyslexic children use when reading. Back then Patience and Lucy printed on yellow paper; nowadays the yellow background is printed on each page.
Type design was next for attention, and Patience commissioned a dyslexia-friendly font that Barrington Stoke still uses today. Our typesetters and designers also use special line and letter spacing and other tricks to support readers with poor visual discrimination and eye muscle control.
We know that most children want to fit in with their peers, and so we work really hard on our covers to make sure that the books look every bit as exciting as standard fiction, with foil and glitter and other effects. In fact, we try to go one better if we can – for example, we used a special 3D image on Hagurosan by Darren Shan and a motion effect on Gamer by Chris Bradford.
Over the years many brilliant authors have written for the company. We've welcomed five of the Children's Laureates - Michael Morpurgo, Anne Fine, Julia Donaldson, Michael Rosen and current incumbent Malorie Blackman. We've been honoured to publish many winners of the prestigious Carnegie Medal, Roald Dahl Funny Prize, Blue Peter and Red House Children's Book Awards and lots of beloved bestsellers – Eoin Colfer, Darren Shan, Meg Rosoff, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Stanton to name just a few.
The Barrington Stoke postbag groans with letters from parents, grandparents, teachers, tutors and young people who have written to tell us that our books have made it possible for a person who could not read before to unlock the great joy, pride and self-esteem that comes with being a reader. Many of these bring a tear to the eye:
I just wanted to let you know how much you have changed my son's life. He absolutely LOVES books. He has Asperger's Syndrome and is severely dyslexic. Any books that have print which is at all manageable have always been far too young for him. This has been a source of despair and has contributed to his depressive moods. I found your website and together, he and I chose two books to try out. Well — how can I possibly explain the change these two books have made to my son? When we opened the parcel, he immediately opened Alien and read the authors notes — the whole page. Just like that. This was the first time he had ever read a whole page of words. We both cried. He is now well into Chapter 4 and I am about to order more books. How exciting! Thank you so very much for providing these books. There are many doors which may or may not open for my son in the future, but you have helped him open a door which we thought was firmly bolted shut for years to come. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
The eagle-eyed reader of the above letter may have spotted an obvious fact – before this boy's mother found our books, he was just as surely excluded from print as any of the children who inspired Patience and Lucy's start-up back in 1998. Hundreds of thousands of children in the UK today are reading below level, for a whole variety of reasons. We believe that our books could help many of these children and our challenge is to get the word out there, to and through teachers, librarians, teaching assistants, SENCOs, parents and others. If you know a dyslexic child or struggling reader, please pass on our info!
And a last word on ebooks…
We believe that Patience's accessible design is key to breakthroughs like the one detailed in the letter above. Ebook readers and epub formats do not support these features at the present time – it is likely that an ebook version of a Barrington Stoke title would not have provided the same breakthrough for that child. He and the many thousands of children like him are uppermost in our minds when we publish our books, and that's why, for the time being, we are sticking with print.