A site for the study of twentieth century British children’s books, particularly historical fiction, and their relationship to social change
Clive Barnes


A life in children’s books and libraries

“I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.”

African American author Richard Wright, in his autobiography, Black Boy, describing the impact of the novels he borrowed as a nineteen-year-old from a segregated public library in the Southern U.S.A. using a white co-worker’s ticket.

I have worked all my life as a professional librarian in public libraries, working with children. Public library work was becoming a graduate profession when I began in 1972. As a result of cuts in public library services, there are now very few graduate professionals working in public libraries and no prospect of any young librarian making a career there. In the space of my working life, my chosen career has disappeared.

Marksbury Road Library, Bristol

Marksbury Road Library, Bristol

This is first public library I used when in my early teens. A place of reassuring safety and fantastic possibility, reflected in the appearance of many of the books on the shelves then: dull plain library binding on the outside but full of strangeness and excitement on the inside. Tragically, like many small neighbourhood libraries across the country, Marksbury Road is now under threat of closure. What chance now for young people finding the kind of life changing reading that Richard Wright describes just a quarter of an hour’s walk away?

I trained as a librarian in Hertfordshire. I also worked in Herefordshire and Hampshire, all places “where hurricanes hardly ever happen”. And, in the administrative whirlwind of local government reorganisation in 1997, by staying exactly where I was, I found myself in charge of children’s library services in Southampton for the last ten years of my career.

In 1995 I began reviewing for the children’s books magazine, Books for Keeps: then a print magazine, now entirely online. You can keep up-to-date with children’s books by reading it at www.booksforkeeps.co.uk. My reviews and interviews of authors and illustrators can be found by using the search option there. I was also lucky enough to contribute entries to 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, edited by Julia Eccleshare and published by Universe Books in 2009.

I am a member of the committee of the International Board on Books for Young People, United Kingdom Section, and served as its Chair from 2010-2014. With my wife, Diana, also a former children’s librarian, I compile two children’s book quizzes each year. These are the brainchild of Peter Bone of Portsmouth Schools Library Service, and are very popular with schools in Portsmouth and Chichester.

135th Street Branch of the New York City Library

135th Street Branch of the New York City Library

In a previous life, I studied African American History at York University, but never completed my M.Phil. dissertation. I co-authored a GCSE textbook with my first wife, Roma, Impatient for Justice: Black Americans 1945-85 (1992), which sometimes still pops up on Amazon. As part of our postgraduate research, Roma and I spent a lot of time in the Schomburg Collection in 1970-1, one of the great repositories of African American historical material, built around the collection of a far-sighted bibliophile, Arnold Schomburg, and then housed in the branch of New York City Public Library on 135th Street in Harlem. It’s now in much larger premises just around the corner on Malcolm X Boulevard.