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Picture Book Club – virtual #20

As there was no physical #picturebookclub in November we’re thrilled to be able to bring you a virtual interview instead. Georgina Atwell, the very busy and rather marvellous head honcho at book review website Toppsta, agreed to tell us about what she does to help spread the good news about children’s books:

“Four years ago I set up Toppsta from my kitchen table. Today, we have 35,000 reviews, many of which are from children, and I consider myself to have the best ‘job’ in the world, mainly because it doesn’t feel like a job at all! Although we’ve grown as a business (and thankfully as a team), the essential elements have remained the same.

Firstly, I wanted to celebrate reading and readers. All too often we have prizes and awards for academic achievements, sport, or teamwork. But I wanted to shine a light on bookworms and the often solitary activity that is reading. The quiet heroes I call them.

Next, I knew I wanted to make it fun. I have always deliberately avoided using the word ‘literacy’, I don’t think people connect with it and it sounds worthy and, let’s be honest, hard work. By running book giveaways, we build in a fun, competitive element, plus if you win you then have the anticipation of waiting for the book to arrive. And which of us don’t enjoy receiving a nice gift in the post?

I wanted to create a democratic platform where everyone’s opinion was valid. You don’t need to be an expert, just a reader (or listener!). I often describe Toppsta as a party where readers are the VIP guests. There isn’t a single voice, or a single opinion, it’s a democratic community where everyone’s voice is heard. Interestingly, and it’s taken me a while to work this out, despite being a website where people pass judgement on books, there’s no judgement of each other. More specifically, there’s no “Like” button because I think we could all do with an online space where children are free to speak their mind without worrying about the number of likes they do or don’t get.

It’s also one reason why I love that picture books are so prevalent in our best children’s book by age charts, right up to the teen ages. Dear Zoo for instance, is our most popular book for 8 year olds. I’m sure if we had forums there would be people criticizing both children and adults for not reading something more challenging but as we don’t, I hope it encourages other children and parents to continue reading picture books well beyond the early years.

I wanted to get books into the hands of children who wouldn’t normally have access to books. 90% of our community are outside of London, from Plymouth to Inverness, and we still get messages telling us how their giveaway books is the first book they have ever had at home. That’s frightening and alien for those of us who have grown up surrounded by books, but a reality in these tough times for schools and low income families.

And lastly, I wanted to provide free resources for schools, parents, librarians and home-schoolers. So we have our book review template, which is free to download; our Reading Record which was sent out to Primary Schools, and features like our Alice in Wonderland quotes.

I don’t quite know where Toppsta will go next. We have tons of projects lined up and we’re constantly innovating in order to reach more readers but as long as I’m able to stick to the list above, I’ll be happy.”

Thanks so much Georgina! Don’t you love what she said about older children reading and still loving picture books?