Some authors aren’t natural performers. One author (a good friend of mine) told me of how crushed he felt when seeing an author read her own work live, only for her to be so deathly dull, so blatantly boring, that he hasn’t really enjoyed her books since. Most authors make a good portion of their living not through royalties or advances, but through live events. I’m particularly popular around Scotland for live events because Librarians have been very good to me and spread the world. And so I perform live storytelling events around theatres, schools, and other venues.
Something I’ve noticed while touring is that a) school libraries are increasingly under assault from budget cuts b) school librarians are almost as rare these days as a BBC News broadcast without the word ‘Brexit’ being mentioned somewhere and c) because of the severe budget problems, many old classic books I read as a child still exist on school library shelves.
Whenever I’m in a school library, just before I begin my event, I take a look around for certain books. My favourite books as a child were Doctor Who Target Books, Nancy Drew, The Three Investigators, and any book with the TRACKS logo. What? You don’t know what I’m talking about? TRACKS was a teen fiction imprint of Lions, existing in the mid-80s to the early 90s. ‘Young Adult’ fiction hadn’t yet been invented or co-opted by middle-class writers, so what we got was far more diverse and interesting than a lot of the books we have now. Facts are facts, folks. They were ‘Juvenile’ fiction, or just ‘Teen Fiction’. The TRACKS imprint brought a lot of American fiction to British shelves. They were distinctive, a brand the reader could trust. Even now the covers, quaint in their experimental graphic art, look striking and interesting. Or so I feel.
Authors such as Robert Cormier, Zibby O’Neal (a lost genius of this genre), Jay Bennett, Francesca Lia Block, Paul Zindel, Berlie Doherty, Janni Howker, Louise Lawrence, Jacqueline Wilson and many more contributed. There were books starring PoC. There were feminist books. Nothing was off-limits. Nothing was taboo. Only one thing mattered: the storytelling. Thankfully, the writing in these books were mostly of a very high quality; whoever chose them had extremely good taste. Even now, when I find a TRACKS book on a shelf in a school library, I feel that pulse of excitement that the tiny version of me felt back when I first started reading them. And they’re still excellent books. I’m not sure why I’m surprised, but with the exception of a few minor details (modern YA if crammed with social media and mobile phones whilst these books exist in a time before them), these books have staying power.
Many of these lost classics are no longer in print, which means a rare find is a special moment. But these authors deserve to live again and whenever I re-read a TRACKS novel, I feel like I’ve brought them back – if only for a short while. Books that won The Whitbread Award (it was the precursor of The Carnegie) are now out of print. Some are still available online with awful covers. The FELL Trilogy (which I absolutely insist you go and get as soon as possible) can be downloaded, but I’ve got my own copy with the lovely silvery TRACKS logo on the side. A literal stamp of quality.
I don’t know why this imprint came to an end, but I suspect habits in reading had changed. One theory I’ve got is that Point Horror took over. Oh yes, Point Horror hit in a big way. Teens everywhere read them, including me. Years later, I discovered an old TRACKS book in a school library, a battered copy of Robert Cormier’s I AM THE CHEESE, and that started me off again. Now I’ve got a few of them on my shelf, but it isn’t enough. It can never be enough. So I keep on collecting and reading and collecting and reading. The chances are I’ll never have the full set. Some of these books are too old to exist. But there may be a few on school library bookshelves, still there because Librarians can’t afford to throw them out. I’m no fan of budget cuts in school libraries, but that’s an odd upside isn’t it?
It reached a point where school librarians contacted me to ask whether or not I’d take some books from them. They hadn’t even finished talking when I yelled YES PLEASE. I’m still looking, searching. But the searching is part of the fun and I’m not sure I want to finish collecting all of these books. What would I do next? Maybe I could collect everything in the wonderful Harper Collins ‘Flamingo’ imprint?
Now there’s a thought…