How do you make books for kids who can’t- or won’t read? In a talk at the The Bookseller Children’s Conference, Ailsa Bathgate from award-winning children’s publishing house Barrington-Stoke outlines how they’re making reading more accessible to children of all abilities and backgrounds

Barrington Stoke, an independent children’s publishing house located in Edinburgh, have drawn attention and acclaim for not only their roster of well-loved and award-winning authors and illustrators (boasting household names such as Michael Mopurgo and Julia Donaldson), but also for their innovative focus on producing children’s books that are both easy and fun to read, from bringing in specialist editors to make sure their books are easy for dyslexic and struggling readers to collaborating directly with libraries and bookstores on how to make their physical spaces both accessible and appealing.

Bathgate detailed how years of research into dyslexia had resulted in them developing their own unique dyslexia-friendly font used for their books. This font is sans serif and is designed so each letter is its own unique shape (rather than, for example, b and d being simply mirror images of each other) and is adequately spaced from each other. Text are all equal sizes and clearly placed on the page rather than wrapped around illustrations and even the paper is specially tinted on off-white or coloured paper.

Page from Prince Frog Face by Kaye Umansky. Source: Barrington Stoke

In-house editors aim to maintain a balance of easy reading comprehension and unique author voice. Authors are advised to avoid unnecessary metaphors, overly long or wordy sentences, and using names in the place of pronouns, while also keeping their own brand of writer voice that wins awards and fans over the years. Authors are also encouraged to appeal to age-range rather than reading level: this way, children can read books that are not condescending or childish, but rather exciting and challenging.

They also expand to engage with schools, libraries and bookstores on how to make their physical spaces more engaging and accessible. For example, placing books at eye-level shelves with bright posters work at making the books more eye-catching to parents and children alike. Barrington-Stoke also advises to place their dyslexia-friendly books mixed in with others rather than their own specialist area in order to make struggling readers feel less excluded due to their ability.

Making reading more accessible to children of all abilities and backgrounds has garnered more focus in recent years, especially with reports of millions of UK school children struggling more and more with reading. Lack of school funding and closure of local libraries have reduced access to books; 1 in 8 primary schools in the UK report having no library and local libraries have faced either budget cuts or closure since 2010 due to Conservative austerity measures (despite library funding only constituting about 0.6% of council budgets). The pandemic has only extenuated this strain, with school closures and lack of home resources in disadvantaged households meant many children were entering secondary school not being able to read at an appropriate or expected level.

Barrington Stoke has demonstrated that pouring funds and expertise into not only the production of their books but also expanding to collaborate with stores and libraries into making the physical space of reading more appealing and accessible. They have opened up the conversation on accessibility beyond mere representation and into how to make the very fabric of texts and reading spaces not only accessible but engaging and exciting too, never comprising the quality of books. Discussions need to move beyond just representation and wheelchair ramps; tackling the societal factors that may pose barriers to children’s enjoyment of reading so that the next generation of readers and writers can be fostered.