When is a Children’s Book Not a Children’s Book?

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The Importance of Taking Children’s Books (& Adults Who Read Them) Seriously

“You blog about children’s books but you don’t have children? Has anyone ever questioned that you’re not qualified to do this?”

” I see you write about children’s books. Do you have your own children? No? Oh, you’re a teacher. So you’re coming from a professional point of view then.”

These are a couple of examples of responses I’ve had in relation to me and my children’s book blog www.booksagogo.co.uk.  Being questioned by strangers about my suitability as a reader of children’s books has always struck me as a bit odd (and a bit rude). I find it embarrassing and uncomfortable and I’m ashamed to say that in order to avoid these sort of comments I find that I self-justify before they can begin.  I get in there first and say that as I teach and am also doing an MA in Children’s Literature it makes a lot of sense for me to be interested in children’s books. The truth is it’s actually the other way round. I’m a teacher because of my love of children’s books. I’m doing the MA because of my love of children’s books.

Children’s Books for Everyone

What if I wasn’t a teacher? What if I had no reason deemed ‘proper’ for writing about children’s books? What if I simply loved to read them- would that not be justification enough?  To be a proper champion of children’s books, I need to be up there waving my copy of Jill’s Gymkhana with pride and claiming children’s books on behalf of everyone. So here I am, waving.

Back Up

C.S. Lewis had it right. He wrote this brilliant piece on writing for children and shared his thoughts on being a reader of children’s books at any age:

(In defending children’s books) “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.”

Also:

“They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two.”

Children’s Literature as a Genre

If we consider children’s literature as a genre open to any age, it begins to make sense. For a start, childhood is not a static state of being. Children (like adults) are all different depending on time and circumstance. Children today read books written for the children of 20, 50, 100 + years ago without any thought to it.  For example, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden might be a ten year old child of The Empire who has never been to school, but she remains credible today because she has a spirit children can identify with.  It works because children recognise the similarities rather than the differences. So should we.

What is children’s literature anyway? Robinson Crusoe was written for adults but has always held a fascination for children. It has been abridged over time and is considered by most now as a children’s book. Tom Sawyer is a children’s book but not one I’ve seen in any of the schools I’ve worked in, which is a shame and a loss. The picture book Rosie’s Walk is one of the most satisfying reads I have had the pleasure to analyse as part of my course. Fairy tales are not always about the happily ever after. Accepting that children’s books are complex is essential. This is something you can remind yourself of every time there’s a controversial winner of a children’s book prize. There is nothing that children’s literature doesn’t deal with: war, poverty, death, cruelty, violence, abandonment, it’s all there. Can you handle it?

 You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Children’s fiction has come a long way from its moralistic and didactic roots. We are in a new golden age and the choice out there is astounding. I can only begin to touch on all the good things going on in the children’s book world. I encourage you to take a look and ask yourself what you expect from a good book. I suspect it will be very similar to what you hope a child will get from reading.

Expectations for All & Some Suggested Reads

  • Expand Horizons. (Rebel of the Sands, Doomspell Trilogy, Bartimaeus Trilogy, Deathscent)
  • Feel Empathy. (Wonder, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, The Incredible Journey, Perijee and Me, The Arrival)
  • Learn new things. (Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm, Voices in the Park, The London Eye Mystery)
  • Be Delighted (The Bell Family, The Little Grey Men, Holiday House, I Capture the Castle)
  • Fire imagination. (The Earthsea Quartet, Strange Star, The Snow Merchant)
  • Have a laugh. (Who Let the Gods Out, Pugs of the Frozen North, I Can Only Draw Worms)
  • Get emotional. (Black Beauty, Skellig, Listen to the Moon)
  • Lose Yourself. (If You Find Me, Five Children on the Western Front, Darkmere)
  • Think. (Tape, Picture Me Gone, Noughts and Crosses, Winter Damage, Wells & Wong Mysteries)

Children’s books are for everyone. Have the hock and the lemon squash. Be enriched.

 


Re-reading for Pleasure and Purpose

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repeated reading

“My child only ever reads *insert book or series here*. How can I get them to read something different?”

Any primary teacher will tell you that there are some questions regarding children’s attitudes to reading that never seem to go away. One that I’ve spent a lot of time considering is the issue adults- both parents and teachers- have when a child is repeat reading the same book or series of books. The concern is that the child treads water academically, consequently restricting their breadth of experience. More often than not I’ve found the questioning adult already has a solution: to interest the child in a new book of a similar theme. The hope is that I, as the teacher, can suggest the right one.

The Answer Is You Shouldn’t…

I’ve found this to be something of a poisoned chalice. Introducing children to their next favourite book or finding something to excite a reluctant reader is a wonderful thing, but what about when the child has already found that perfect match? That’s not something I would ever want to dismiss. Sometimes, the only book a child wants to read is the one they’ve just finished.

I get this; I read like this as a child and to some extent if my ‘to read’ pile runs low, I will happily revert to type. When I was eight I would greedily borrow Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr from the mobile library every week. Likewise, the Alice in Wonderland audio book from Earlsdon Library. At home, even though I’d inherited a stack of varied Enid Blytons from my brothers, I was only ever really interested in the boarding school books. The Famous Five never got a look in. I would read my way through Darryl Rivers’ school career up to the point where she is leaving for university and feel so sad that it was all over that I would immediately return to the very first term again.

I didn’t see a problem with repeated reading back then, and to be honest I still don’t. What we read is our personal choice. Once we question someone else’s personal choice, no matter how solid we may think our intentions are, we interrupt a crucial process.

Margaret Meek considers how children read in the brilliant How Texts Teach What Readers Learn.  This was written in 1987 and is so good that Meek’s thoughts are certainly still pertinent today. I’d recommend school leaders take a couple of hours to read through this short but mighty book for insight and inspiration. When considering the issue of repeated reading, Meek makes the excellent point that maybe we, the adults, are actually less not more skilled than children in making reading decisions. That more often than not, we are the ones who read only what we’re comfortable with and never happily take risks.

To illustrate this point, I was reminded of a conversation recently had with an ex-colleague who loves reading. She explained her favourite genre: she reads books where the plots were set in American High Schools, based around sports- ideally hockey- and involving a friends to lovers story line which is written in the first person. Pretty specific, and that’s fair enough, because as an adult she has the benefit of complete and utter control over the contents of her own kindle. Be honest, most of us do this to some extent: we stick to type.

Children, on the other hand, are constantly being introduced to new genres. More than that, they are expected to read, absorb, comprehend and even emulate texts in style, week in week out as part of their ongoing learning. Maybe they’re the adventurous ones. Maybe adults should question whether they are really the right ones to be making all the decisions about children’s independent reading habits.

What are the benefits of repeated reading? Simply this: children need to read the same thing again and again.

Truly no one reads the same book twice.

The first read might tell a child what happens, but it’s by reading for the second, third, tenth time where true discovery can take place. The practice of reading becomes easier, new words are understood and noted, sub-text is revealed too. Multiple meanings may even emerge. The child begins to get into the author’s head, to really comprehend fully the whole spirit of the book. In short, they are undertaking the sort of immersion teachers dream of, but doing it all on their own and quite naturally from an early age.

Literacy leaders won’t need me to point out how this could impact across the board when assessing reading, including the holy grail of developing inference. This is something that can be gained by reading picture books right through to Middle Grade titles. We mustn’t make the mistake of underestimating the power of something as seemingly simple as Rosie’s Walk or The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

For me it’s all about celebrating independence and trusting a child to make their own decisions. For schools running reading schemes, it shows clear progression from a mind-set that reading is about completing all the levels to one where reading is about pleasure. Now that’s something worth having a conversation about. Have that conversation. Ask the children what they love about the books they go back to time and time again. You never know, you might learn something.


The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey

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bad guys done

” Good deeds.

Whether you like it or not.”

We Can be Heroes

The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey, suitable for children of seven years plus, is just the thing to get your reluctant readers reading. Cool, cheeky and packed full of funny, the antics of Misters Wolf, Shark, Piranha and Snake will particularly appeal to kids who need a bit of help in finding reading fun.

Everyone knows you don’t mess with these animals; they’re the bad guys, more likely to gobble you up than lend a helping hand… until now. With Mr Wolf’s encouragement, they set about to change their reputations, to be heroes doing good deeds with hilarious results. Prepare yourselves for fast cars, fart jokes and Mr Shark dressed in a frock as the bad guys learn how to be good.

Shelf Awareness

There’s plenty going on here to keep even the most easily distracted reader entertained: varied written content combined with big, bold illustrations give a comic book feel, and a variety of size and style in fonts keeps things fresh. Then there’s the four main characters who will have even the grumpiest grown up chuckling (especially Mr Piranha, who I loved).

The Bad Guys would be a fabulous addition to any classroom or children’s library. It’s a book that’ll work hard for its shelf space, although I suspect it won’t stay on the shelf for long. With more episodes to follow, it’s likely this series will become a favourite with both the kids they’re aimed at and the adults who are keen to promote reading for pleasure. This makes it pretty heroic, in my opinion.

Kick-Starting Reading for Pleasure

Kids are great and in my experience they will try an awful lot of books before they give up on being readers. We have a long window of opportunity in primary school in which to provide books that will children will enjoy and once they find them, they even help us out by sharing them with their friends. All that the school needs to do is give its pupils the right books and the time to allow this process to happen.

From my point of view, it’s important to understand that unlocking the reader within doesn’t mean that every child should become voracious bookworms, but rather that they are armed with the knowledge of genre preference and feel confident in choosing books for themselves. These kids might not read constantly, but they will see reading as a something enjoyable they could choose to do, and honestly, we need books like The Bad Guys to kick-start this process and spread the joy.

 

Big thanks to Scholastic for sending me this copy of The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey.


Reading for Pleasure: 11 Point Plan to Get Kids Reading!

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My 11 Point Plan To Get Kids Reading for Pleasure Has Landed…

Reading for pleasure is everything. Let’s spread the word and share the joy!

1. Remove Boundaries

First stop, talk to the kids- what kind of reading do they enjoy? Find out, listen, use or adapt this questionnaire from the National Literacy Trust and give it to your class. What does it tell you? Every class is different of course. Encourage all kinds of reading- comics, instruction manuals, whatever floats your boat. Keep a suggestions box in plain site so the children can recommend new book purchases; even better, take the children to the book shop to choose their new school books. Don’t make reading for pleasure a chore. Instead, observe the wisdom of Daniel Pennac, who wrote The Rights of The Reader and follow the instructions of his brilliant poster, illustrated by Quentin Blake. Quite the simplest and most effective explanation of creating happy readers that I’ve seen. Here’s a little version:

daniel pennac

2. Adults Get Reading

Get some reading for pleasure recommendations. There are plenty on my site, and I’d also recommend the excellent www.lovereading4kids.co.uk. Invest in the right class readers for your current cohort. Make it your business to read like billy-o. Teachers and parents need to read for pleasure too and children’s books are a source of constant delight for everyone. Find out what books parents liked when they were at school and use the information to create a lovely big display. Offer parents a space in school to develop their own book group. Provide a good example.

3. Flaunt It

Look to the reading for pleasure Experts. Go to your local library book shop and see how they present and display their books. How are they promoting them to create sales? What makes you want to borrow or buy? Look out for prominent displays, short punchy recommendations and think about how this could work in your school. Reading spaces matter. Does your book corner look exciting, welcoming and well-cared for? Does it have to be constrained to just a corner? Display all sorts of books: shiny new fiction ones, picture books, ones bursting with facts and figures, giant old mysterious books that look like they’ve been plucked from the Hogwarts restricted section. Books are beautiful for many reasons, so keep your eyes open for inspiration everywhere.

4. Tell Stories

Read to your class every day and complete at least one book a term. Run story telling clubs at lunchtime or after school. Tell parents about www.readaloud.org, a non-profit organisation that is ‘working to make reading aloud for fifteen minutes every day  a new standard in childcare’. Here’s their poster:

read aloud

Share stories with your colleagues. Make time in staff meetings to regularly share reading for pleasure gems: books, book news, sites of interest, events, competitions and soon you’ll have a whole school bank of knowledge to feed into your classrooms.

5. Make it Competitive

How many insects did James join in the giant peach? What district did Rue come from?  What gives Mr Strong his strength? Everyone loves a quiz. Get some teams together, including teachers and parents and have some fun. And make sure there are amazing bookish prizes too, of course- as well as chocolate. Remember, there must always be chocolate.

6. Promote Poetry

Entertaining, thought-provoking and creative, you should be making poetry a part of every day. Poetry is awesome. Every child can find pleasure in finishing a poem. Michael Rosen is the ultimate poet of glory. I won’t even consider visiting a school without taking my memory stick loaded with Rosen performing his poems. Pure joy. He is the absolute expert here. I recommend you check out his video tips on creating a poetry friendly classroom.

7. Inspire

Choice and motivation. Take care to recommend the right books to read for pleasure, especially for children who have just come off a prescriptive reading scheme, or those who don’t know which books to choose. Create a classroom reading box with a variety of easily accessible books that you have already read as a supportive way to encourage confidence when choosing a book. Make sure every child has a reading buddy in another year and ensure they spend time with them weekly. Cool your boots and  give children time to choose books. Tell your class about Faith, whose mum tweets  her reading habits as @272Book Faith. Faith reads a book a day and has more than 2500 twitter followers. Something of an inspiration, she donated all her finished books to her old primary school when she left too.

8. Bring Me the Funny!

Last week Scholastic revealed their new book award: The Lollies, or The Laugh Out Loud Awards to celebrate the best in funny books for children. Clever move. Funny books are unbelievably powerful: they blow a giant raspberry at the misconception that reading is silent and serious, and aim a well-placed kick up the backside of boring comprehension activities. Check out my list of funny books, or pop into your local bookshop and go for the one with the silliest cover.

9. Celebrate & Saturate

Make the most of book fairs and go to town on book weeks. Really go to town! Get authors and illustrators in, create your own sculpture trail based on favourite books, adapt a book into a film or a drama and invite people to watch, do something with your local library, ask the kids what they want to do! Celebrate reading success and books with parents- make it a part of every week. Saturate your curriculum. Source relevant books, not just for your english lessons but also for science, art, PE, everything. Get them up in the classroom, show them off, change them often. Invest in guided reading. Reading needs to be more than a bolt on, you get out what you put in. One after-school book club is nice, but for the best results you need to create a culture of reading throughout the school.

10. Be Generous

Allow the children to take the books home. All the books. If you haven’t got a library or a librarian, create your own lending system or make a note of loans but the key is to make it easy for the kids to borrow the books. What’s the worst that could happen? The books aren’t returned, right? Look at it this way: if the kids are stealing the books, you must be doing something right.

11. Keep Up To Date!

There has never been a more exciting time to read children’s books! The quality and quantity of amazing authors releasing new material is out of this world. http://booksforkeeps.co.uk/ have been independently writing about children’s books since 1980 and you should add them to your favourites. Also, twitter is a brilliant place to get the latest news and connect with authors. Plus, I’m spending as much time as possible doing this for you, so keep checking out www.booksagogo.co.uk too!

 

 

 


Reading for Pleasure: A Primary School Guide

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On Reading for Pleasure in Schools

Reading fiction is an emotional business. You don’t need to have wept your way through many Morpurgo endings to know that. With emotional response key to encouraging the reading of fiction books for pleasure, how can we get children to relate in a positive way? According to government reports, reading for pleasure increases when children have access to books, if they’re rewarded for (bribed into) reading, or see people around them doing it. True enough, but fairly general and more than a little obvious. It’s up to the schools to understand what’s going wrong- because something is going wrong and we clearly aren’t making enough of the kids in our schools want to independently read fiction. So how can we begin to change that?

What’s Up With Reading for Pleasure?

Silent reading straight after lunch is really popular in primary schools and I think one of the reasons we fail to promote a love of reading to so many of our pupils. We take children at the time of day they most want to talk to us and to each other and instead we make them sit in silence. This is tantamount to using reading as a punishment and needs to stop. Kids have so much going on at lunchtime: they might have had a really good experience that they want to talk about, or maybe they’ve had a fall out and feel awful. They come in exhilarated, emotionally engaged and ready to communicate. We see it every day and yet we suppress it. Why? Honestly, it’s usually used as an exercise to ‘calm the kids down’ before the afternoon’s lessons.

“Oh, I just love reading. It’s so calming.”

Said no-one ever.

It’s a really unnatural change of state and helps nobody except maybe teachers trying to organise afternoon resources or sort out playground issues that should have already been dealt with. Essentially, it’s a holding task. I’ve seldom seen individual reading for pleasure work in primary school and I will continue not to whilst we treat it this way. It feels like the last vestiges of the Victorian Education System hanging on for dear life and has no place in schools, especially not straight after lunch, and we should scrap it. There, I’ve said it.

A Way Out

Instead, spend more time with a class reader. Complete at least three a year and if your knowledge begins and ends with Roald Dahl,  well hey, that’s a good start and beyond that you can ask for a recommendation- I’ve got a few suggestions at the bottom of the page. Many schools like their teachers to choose class readers that fit their particular area of the creative curriculum. That’s a nice idea but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes you just need to read a book because it’s a great book, not because you’re studying the Victorians and it name checks Dr Barnardo.

Another solution is to prepare well thought out guided reading groups. These can be brilliant and much more pertinent and inspiring than silent reading time. Provide the children with books that are exciting, suitable, well-researched and of course pre-read by teachers. Let them take them home if they ask. Make the time after lunch a social time, a circle time, a time for talk! Include in it the opportunity for your class to talk about what they’re reading and what they think of it. With reading, we need to create a buzz, not a zzz.

Some schools will be reticent to kick out silent reading altogether, so I would encourage them instead to look at different approaches. Empowering pupils with the decision of when to read worked well for me last year. I gave my Year Fives the option of taking fifteen minutes out each afternoon to read their books. They could go to the book corner, or somewhere away from the group, and just read. Or not. It was up to them. Many chose to do this regularly, especially if they were reading something they really enjoyed. Some didn’t. There was no pressure because through my class readers and guided reading groups I made sure everyone engaged with fiction every day. It worked perfectly, no-one took advantage of it or used it as a way to avoid lessons. Kids never do when given the opportunity to own their learning do they? It was the how I managed to get individual, independent reading for pleasure to work.

My Recommended Reading for Pleasure Class Readers for Key Stage Two

I strongly advocate at least one reader a year is bought as a whole class set . This way everyone gets to experience the wonder of reading together as a group.

Year Three

The key time for engaging children in fiction. I’d suggest plenty of humour, imagination, linked activities and seizing the opportunity to introduce longer stories.

 

stick man big bum

The Stick Man With a Big Bum. Very funny story of Eric Trum and Johnny Staples. Includes lots of fun activities for children to try out in school and at home.

 

The adventures of Billy Slipper and his delightfully rude cat. A good route into longer stories.

Jumblecat by Archie Kimpton. The adventures of Billy Slipper and his delightfully rude cat. A good route into longer stories.

Year Four

The perfect time for introducing thought-provoking fiction and using reading time to travel beyond the bounds of normality.

An original and mystical tale which will enchant children.

Varjak Paw by SF Said. An original and mystical tale to enchant the whole class.

Touching, thought provoking and hilarious, plus comes to life when read out loud.

The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams. Thought-provoking and hilarious, plus comes to life when read out loud.

Year Five

Showing the power of fiction through different genres, these two books will get everyone engaged and talking.

Possibly the kindest children's book ever.

Wonder by RJ Palacio. Possibly the kindest children’s book ever.

Top hole murder mystery to enjoy puzzling out with your class!

First Class Murder by Robin Stevens. Top hole murder mystery to enjoy solving with your class!

Year Six

Bigger books with big themes, two gems that both deal with identity and diversity, plus the stories are second to none!

Morpurgo at his most brilliant and perfect for Year Six.

Listen to the Moon by Michael Morpurgo. Morpurgo at his most brilliant and perfect for Year Six.

Compulsive reading looking at life from a different point of view.

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd. Compulsive reading, looking at life from a different point of view.

 


Top Children’s Books: Does Age Really Matter?

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Who Doesn’t Love a List Post?

To coincide with International Children’s Books Day (although on here, every day is children’s books day), the BBC produced a list of the top children’s books ever as voted for by a panel of adults. Fair enough, I’m all for adults voting here- they usually write them, so why not judge them? There was some controversy however, as none of the books listed were published after 1968. I read brilliant, newly published children’s books all the time so thought this was a bit of a shame. Until I produced my own list…

My Top Ten Children’s Books Of All Time:

paddington

the hobbit

lion

5

alice

snoopy

marianne

wind

box

enchanted

You’re Old, You Are.

There it is, my list. Each book published some years before I was born, but absolutely and definitely my top ten children’s books ever. Far more traditional than I imagined it would be, and at first I was disappointed about this, but the thing is, for the most part I still own them ( or the parts of them that are bunched together on the bookshelves) and love them dearly. Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach just missed out, as did Dibley resident Alice Tinker’s favourite Jill’s Gymkhana- a sadly underrated book of horsey glory.

So why no titles at least as new as I am? I know the answer here and there are lots of reasons: some were hand-me-downs that arrived with the bookcase, or older relative’s favourites that were passed down hopefully. Telly adaptations led me to a couple. One was a mobile library find I renewed time and time again until months later I handed it back reluctantly; another read to me at school by a very lovely teacher when I was eight and a not so lovely teacher again when I was eleven. I know how each and every book reached me and exactly who was involved. These aren’t interesting stories to anyone else, but to me they mean everything. All of these books however, on discovery, were new in my world and I can say with increased assurity the older I get, that age doesn’t matter.

Nice List, Wrong Title.

I could easily continue this post now with a list of my top ten books for children reading today and the list would be equally wonderful, mostly different to mine and mostly new releases. If I repeated that exercise in six months time, it would have changed. Another year, another list, more children’s books enjoyed as an adult- marvellous stuff! My list though, my personal list, wont have changed. I know this just as I know there will always be a place on my top ten albums list for Blondie’s Parallel Lines and Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. They just belong, they are me. They are moments in time, more than the sum of their parts, not the best books of all time, but my best childhood books.

So I can only assume that the BBC judges were judging as children, not adults; looking back at their own early reading. Not finding the ‘best books ever’, but their own precious favourites. If they’re honest, it’s really the own way to do it, as long as it’s kept personal and never done by committee.

Oh, hang on…