Mum of two, Georgina Atwell, tells us why she created Toppsta – the UK’s largest online community reviewing children’s books – and her inspiration for the Toppsta Reading Record.
We recently ran our first online book club on Twitter with the brilliant Adam Baron, author of Boy Underwater. Adam talked about how the story and even the character names were bubbling deep inside him. He didn’t choose the names or even the story as such, they were buried deep inside him and his only option was to draw them out by writing the story down.
That’s really how I feel about www.toppsta.com. Back in 2009 I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted to run my own business. It needed to be something which genuinely solved a problem and helped other people. Bizarrely, despite having worked in a publishing house for nearly a decade, the idea took a while to develop. I was working at Apple at the time, running their ebook store in 2013 when I realised that when you’re an author or a publishing house, you’re so focused on your own books that it’s easy to forget just how many books there are to choose from – 10,000 new children’s books each and every year, and that’s just in the UK. The only way I could get my head around the issue was to think about how, if we went to the supermarket and were faced with 10,000 new types of cereal each year, we’d probably run out screaming and decide to eat toast instead!
And so, in 2014, Toppsta was born. I wanted it to be the place where anyone and everyone could discover brilliant children’s books. To reach beyond those who grew up with books at home. Beyond those who had a lovely high street bookshop within easy reach. Beyond those who felt comfortable asking for book recommendations at the school gate. So we started on Facebook, targeting those parents who weren’t actively looking for books but were at the park, pushing a child on a swing, catching up on their Facebook feed.
This approach allowed us to grow quickly and provided a fun way to challenge the serious issue of literacy by getting kids to try new books. My goal was to match each child with a book, which would ignite their interest in reading. A book they’d want to share with others. Isn’t that how we all start? A story which grabs our attention, a book we can’t put down. I think sometimes adults, despite their best intentions, don’t always help the situation. One of our most popular pages on the Toppsta website is our page of Enid Blyton books. And it’s very easy to fall back on books we have loved from childhood but I think book recommendations from children, peer to peer suggestions, can carry more weight, particularly with a reluctant reader.
We now have more than 33,000 book reviews, predominantly from children. And alongside the numerous reviews of David Walliams books, we also encourage children to read books aligned with their interests, so there are handy lists on topics such as minecraft books, or children’s audio books. There’s no judgement on the website; a book recommended by a child is a big thumbs up and we don’t care how literary it is, what format it’s in or how long it took them to read it. Reading is not a race. When I’m trying to describe the website I often say that we simply throw the party and the readers are the VIP guests.
This year we’ve really developed our projects for schools. I’d noticed that the number of teachers and librarians joining the website was growing sharply, partly I think because I’ve been careful to create as safe an environment as possible. There are no photos, no real names and no forums. What we have provided for schools, aside from the books from our giveaways for them to review for us, is useful tools like our book review template, Summer Reading Guide and fun resources like our Alice in Wonderland quotes to pin up in classrooms.
But I am well aware of the increased pressure on schools, teachers and budgets, so this year I wanted to go a step further. I wanted to create a resource, which really helped schools, fitted in with their existing commitments and saved them money. And so our Toppsta Reading Record was born. A free, high-quality and unique, 24-page reading diary with space to track reading progress, eight pages of book recommendations and tips for writing a book review. This was a wholly new project and I wasn’t sure whether it would be popular or not – it was another leap into the unknown. I needn’t have worried. 12 hours after emailing our subscriber list with the idea, we’d allocated all of the planned 10,000 copies and could have sent out more. We’re now working on increasing that number next year as well as launching a pilot project with a nearby school to see if we can get a local business to sponsor the school library – something we’d really like to roll out nationally providing we can find the right partner.
We’re always looking for more readers to share their recommendations. Anyone can register to review books and we also have a Toppsta monthly newsletter for book news, exclusive giveaways, booklists and more. So come and join the party!
This is a guest blog by Georgina Atwell and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. Georgina is the founder of children’s book review community https://toppsta.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org