Monday, 28 October 2013

‘She was inspiring’- The true value of an author visit

Last week the Society of Authors published the results of their survey on the impact of author visits to schools, the summary of the findings can be seen here. I contributed to this survey earlier this year and that author visits have a positive effect on promoting reading for pleasure amongst school children came as little surprise to me. For the past fourteen years I have been a school librarian working with children aged 3 –11 and during that time have arranged numerous visits by children’s authors, illustrators and poets.These events have enthused and excited our pupils and with support from the school the positive impact can be long lasting too.


As a child I don’t ever remember an author visiting my school, in fact I don’t think I knew a great deal about my favourite authors. The world of children’s books is very different today. Despite the gloomy stories in the media of the death of the book, since the arrival of J K Rowling in the late 90s children’s literature now operates at a different level. The growth in the number of literary festivals and visits to schools has brought children’s authors and their readers together. Reading among both children and adults has become a more communal activity, hence the success of book clubs. Many children’s authors have responded to this with engaging and interactive websites that their readers enjoy visiting. However nothing quite matches meeting the author or illustrator ‘for real’.

James Mayhew 'painting up side down'
Clara Vulliamy entertains Reception Class

Author/illustrators are particularly effective in firing the imaginations of younger children and over the past two years visits to our school by James Mayhew and Clara Vulliamy have been huge successes. You could have heard a pin drop during James’s story telling sessions and pupils still refer to the ‘clever man who did the upside down paintings’. Perhaps more importantly when they look at his paintings in pride of place in our library today some pupils can both remember and retell the story that James told their own class nearly eighteen months ago. Clara Vulliamy visited during our Arts Week and engaged our youngest children in a winning combination of storytelling, art and craft sessions. These sessions went down a storm with both pupils and teachers and the lovely happy buzz throughout the day would convince the most sceptical of the positive influence of such an event. Some of these children were only four years old but months later teachers reported that they were copying and expanding on the activities Clara had shown them. In education today when it can feel as though everything must be assessed and measurable it is difficult to quantify the impact of these days but surely the fact that these special events are remembered and valued by the children themselves is important too.

In my experience as a school librarian the very best way of ensuring that books are borrowed from the library and read in large numbers is a successful visit by an author. Two weeks ago Kate Maryon visited our school for the second time to work with pupils in years 5 and 6 and to officially open our new, larger library. Kate’s books are already popular with our girls but as the day of her visit approached requests for her books increased and the waiting lists for each of her books grew steadily longer. The teachers were reading her books aloud in class and I was constantly being asked about the lady herself. Her visit was a big hit with queues out of the door at her book selling and signing session at the end of the day. Kate talked about her latest book, ‘Invisible Girl’, and the issues raised in this and her other books. The discussion touched on difficult subjects and our pupils were engrossed and thoughtful throughout Kate’s talk. The opportunity to talk about and overcome difficulties and to learn to empathise with others is an important aspect of children’s books and I think that this particular author visit was more effective than a lesson on the subject would have been. Something that an author can do that even the very best teacher can’t is offer an insight into how an author writes. Following Kate’s creative writing workshop one of the teachers told me that her pupils ‘were bursting to write’ when they returned to their classrooms. The result of a successful author visit goes beyond raising the profile of books and reading but can also have a direct influence on the classroom too. 
Kate Maryon opens our new library during her visit

The Society of Authors report recommends that all schools should have a school library and a trained librarian to run it who can take responsibility for the organisation of author events. I realise that I am very fortunate to work in a school where the library and enriching activities for the children are valued and therefore have the budget required to allow me to organise these visits, but the report also illustrates that there are ways of funding such events by teaming up with other local schools to share costs. It could also be possible to work with your local library, literary festival or bookshop to reduce the expense.

Most importantly the report asks that the vital role of school libraries and the impact of author visits be recognised by OFSTED. Having seen first-hand how important and worthwhile author visits can be for both school children and teachers I think it is vital that these types of events are actively promoted and their positive contribution to children’s education recognised. Organising author visits is only one aspect of a school librarian’s job but it is undoubtedly an important one.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Shadowing The Carnegie Award

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton

I loved this. From what I have read this may not be a hot favourite to win the Carnegie award but nonetheless I loved it. When I am choosing a book to read one of the things that deters me is a review that tells me a book is “heart-warming” or that I will find it “uplifting”. This tends to make me feel manipulated by the publisher and the general hype surrounding a book. It is going to be difficult for me to describe this charming and slightly surreal story without using either of these descriptions.  

This is about a boy who gets into a boat with a bear and asks to be taken “to the other side”. We never learn why they are taking this journey nor where exactly they are travelling to and we don’t even discover their names. At first things go well for the duo; the sky is blue, the sea is calm and the mood is tranquil. After a couple of days it dawns on the boy that they may be lost. Will the bear admit that they are lost? Oh no, definitely not. He is most definitely a “glass half full” type of bear. From this point on there are a number of adventures or “unforeseeable anomalies” as the bear describes them. These range from a rather dodgy looking last sandwich to a large and terrible sea-monster and events of varying difficulty in between.

It is the journey that is important rather than the destination as we eavesdrop on the conversation between the boy and the bear as they continue on their way. Dave Shelton’s writing is so engaging and if there can be such a thing he appears to be a master of comic timing on the written page. There were several points where I chuckled out loud, especially during the “on-board entertainment”. The relationship between the two is appealing and the bear particularly is a loveable character being kind, caring and comforting although at times a little clueless. At first the boy is frankly a bit irritating but as the story progresses his character develops as he matures and accepts some responsibility. I grew to care and it can’t only be me who is willing the pair on to find land and happiness.

The best children’s books are those that can be enjoyed on many levels and this one does that extremely well. It would be possible to view this as an allegory of life itself and the need to keep going no matter what and to learn to rub along with others in sometimes trying circumstances. Perhaps a useful starting point for a philosophical discussion in school?  However it would also be great read aloud for younger children and could be read by competent readers of about 9 plus.

The illustrations throughout by the author are a huge part of the story and convey the emotions of the characters beautifully. They are simply gorgeous and add much to the story. I enjoyed this book very much and would recommend it highly to children and adults. It is both heart-warming and uplifting. Please don’t let that put you off. 

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Shadowing The Carnegie Award

Wonder by R J Palacio

Wonder is an extraordinary book. It tells the story of a ten year old boy called Auggie who is about to start at middle school and his experiences during his first year there. Auggie was born with severe genetic facial disfigurement and has been home-schooled by his parents up to now. Starting a new school is difficult for many children but for Auggie the situation is made much harder as others appear to be unable to treat him as the ordinary boy he so desperately wants to be because of the way he looks.

The story is initially told by Auggie himself, an endearing and likeable boy with a sense of humour and obsessed with Star Wars; I warmed to him quickly. As the book progresses the story is told by several of the other characters including Auggie's elder sister, Via and his friend Jack. This works very well as the story continues to move forward and each of these characters is altered in some way by their relationship with Auggie. I particularly liked the section by Via as it conveyed extremely well the complexity of her feelings and the inevitable problems encountered by siblings of children who require so much of their parents' attention. The chapter "written" by her felt very real to me. Despite the difficulties she faces coping with typical teenage traumas, to a certain extent on her own, her love for her younger brother is obvious. Although there are no sections written by Auggie's parents the author manages to make them come to life through others' descriptions of them. The telling of the story in different voices also adds an extra dimension to some of the incidents that occur explaining why a character may have acted in a particular manner. However there are still some characters who come out of this story badly, in particular a mother at Auggie's school.

This is a relatively easy read with short chapters, some less than a page long, suitable for children of about ten plus. However this is a special book with an important message. Although there are quite a few books about children overcoming adversity this one stands out. It demonstrates the importance of celebrating difference and is full of warmth, sadness, bravery and humour, but more than anything it is about the power of kindness. I think every child should have a teacher like the wonderful and wise Mr. Tushman, the headmaster of Auggie's school. As a school librarian I will be recommending this to pupils, teachers and parents. A must read.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Shadowing the Carnegie Award

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner 

This is a book that I had heard and read much about over the last few months and yet I was still not prepared for its impact. This is a bleak and shocking tale and in Standish Treadwell Sally Gardner has created a teenage character with a strong and unique voice.

The story is based upon a "what if" scenario of nightmares, being set in an alternative dystopian past in which 1950s England is a totalitarian state and those who disagree with the authorities routinely disappear. For those unfortunates who are considered different or to have "impurities" life is grim in the extreme. Violence is commonplace and descriptions of this are sometimes graphic. In the middle of this horror we meet Standish and his best friend Hector. Standish struggles at school being dyslexic and has a quirky view of the world. It is Standish, I think, who gives this book its heart. I warmed to him easily and there is something very moving about his relationships with his Grandfather and in particular with Hector. Despite the chilling subject matter there is a theme of love and a commitment to standing up for what you believe to be right running through the book.

Maggot Moon would be a wonderful trigger for discussion about a wide variety of topics for although it would be easy to dismiss this as a horror story there are some parts of the world where people live in fear under brutal regimes. It conveys excellently the bravery of an individual standing up for his beliefs in the face of not only hostility but extreme danger too.

This is a highly original book which it is difficult to assign to any particular genre although at times it reminded me of 1984. The extremely short chapters and the writing style in clear language give the impression of an easy read but it is certainly not an easy read in content. The matter of fact descriptions of extreme violence and the language used mean that this is very much a book for teen
readers rather than younger children.

I can now understand the media attention and accolades that this book has received and would imagine that this has a very good chance of winning the Carnegie too. In all honesty I cannot say that it is a story that I would read with pleasure or for fun but nonetheless I am glad that I have read this stunning book. 

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Shadowing The Carnegie Award

A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle 

Twelve year old Mary O’Hara thinks that her life is heartbreaking. Her very best friend has moved away and she does not want to try and face up to this separation. Her beloved granny is seriously ill in hospital and although she cares very much for the old lady she hates visiting the hospital with its strange smells, noises and sick people. Even the name of the hospital, “The Sacred Heart” frightens her. Soon Mary will be thirteen and although in many ways she already feels like a teenager she worries about this too. She feels distant from her older brothers and fears becoming like them. Then one day while walking home from school Mary meets a lady, a stranger. Her mother has told her not to speak to strangers but there is something about the woman that Mary finds familiar. Within days the reason for this familiarity becomes clear; she is Mary’s great grandmother, Tansey,  who died many years ago at a young age and is in fact a ghost.  Tansey did not live to see her children grow up and she now needs Mary’s help to carry out her last task as a mother.

Mary and her own mother Scarlett ( yes, Scarlett O’Hara!) plan to take Tansey to visit her daughter, now a frail elderly lady approaching death in hospital. Subsequently the women from across four generations of the same family decide to undertake one last journey together back to the original family farm where Tansey died. This charming ghost story covers the big issues of life and death but I feel that it is chiefly about the bond between women across the generations and their relationships with each other. The dialogue between the women is wonderful conveying warmth, humour and love. I also thought that the kindly family banter of Mary, her parents and her brothers felt realistic. Tansey is a very engaging character being matter-fact in attitude but with a strong sense of humour too. I would have liked to have got to know Emer better but the way in which the story moved backwards and forwards in time resulted in me feeling that just as I was getting to know one character the book moved on to another. I imagine that the author wanted to concentrate on the strong bonds between the women but this does mean that the male characters feel very peripheral to the story. This is a children’s book that I doubt very much would appeal to boys. However female readers of Mary’s age or even a little younger would probably enjoy this story and empathise with Mary. In addition to its value as a work of fiction, since it deals with the subject of death in a positive manner this book would be useful to have in a school library for this reason too.

Although I do think that this is a lovely story, with likable characters, great dialogue and gentle humour, for some reason I did not feel a personal connection with the book as a whole. The reading experience is not just about reading the words on the page, it is affected by the place in which you are reading, your mood when you read a book and your expectations too. Perhaps that is why this particular book wouldn’t be my personal Carnegie winner. I had read highly favourable reviews and the wonderful Frank Cottrell Boyce described Tansey as “the best ghost since Christmas Past” so perhaps my expectations were just too high. Also I read the book over a busy weekend so maybe settling down undisturbed and reading this book in one sitting would have been wiser. For me A Greyhound of a Girl was a very enjoyable read but not an outstanding one.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Shadowing the Carnegie Shortlist

The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

The Weight of Water tells the story of twelve year old Kasienka and her mother as they depart their native Poland, with only a suitcase and a laundry bag containing their possessions,  to make a new life for themselves in England. Kasienka’s father left them two years previously and his devastated wife has decided to follow him to England in an effort to find him. The story is told by Kasienka as she struggles to cope with life in a strange country, living in one room with her mother and being bullied by girls at her new school.

In all honesty if I had not decided to try to read all the books on the Carnegie shortlist this is probably not a book I would have picked up. In addition to the subject matter, which sounded a little depressing, the story is also told in verse so I was initially sceptical and didn’t expect to enjoy this at all. How wrong I was, for this book is a little gem. Kasienka is a very engaging character and the writing style is delightful, moving the story along quickly and making it very easy to read. I think that the  poetry and spareness of the text highlights the poignancy of Kasienka’s plight without ever becoming over sentimental. At times this reads almost like a personal diary and although told entirely by Kasienka, with her inner thoughts driving the story rather than dialogue, I felt great sympathy for her mother too. Somehow the author also manages to convey the kindness of the neighbour, Kanora, and their growing friendship with him.

This book deals with some weighty issues; growing up, first love, absent parents and immigration but principally it highlights how it feels to be “different” in any way. The sense of isolation that Kasienka feels is brilliantly described  and the cruelty of the other girls to her and the thoughtlessness of some adults is well written and thought provoking. I think that this would make a terrific book for use in the classroom as it would both stimulate important discussion and introduce pupils to a different writing style. Maybe a much better lesson in the benefits of poetry than learning by rote!

I think it is is interesting that more than one title on the Carnegie shortlist deals with the topic of being alienated or somehow different from others around you.  "Wonder", another book that I whole-hearedly recommend, is about a child with a facial disfigurement and in "Maggot Moon", which I hope to read soon, the central character is dyslexic.  One of the very important things about children’s books, apart of course from the enjoyment, is that they allow the reader to experience the world from another’s point of view and in doing so they may develop some empathy with people very different from themselves. "The Weight of Water" will achieve this excellently I think as it  conveys extremely well the sense of alienation felt by a stranger in another country.

As the story progresses Kasienka develops an inner strength that is impressive and I found myself willing her on. This is not a depressing story, it is an uplifting one. Without giving away too much of the plot the way in which Kasienka deals with and overcomes her difficulties is heartening. It would also be an empowering book for teenagers coping with bullying to read.

This is a coming of age story with a difference and highly recommended for readers of 11+  I really enjoyed this and having read Wonder too I already think it is going to be very difficult for the judges to decide on a winner!