I’ve known Renita for a while now. Originally from America, Renita now lives in Wigtown, which the book town in Scotland, with the most stunning views across the estuary. When I’ve performed at the festival, the children have all been whipped up to a frenzy by Renita, who welcomes them in and “settles them down” [...]
“If we are uncritical, we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.”
I’m indebted to yesterday’s Times’ leader article for giving me the quote above and introducing me to Karl Popper, who I think I might investigate a bit more.
I was watching a Teacher’s TV video by Michael Rosen yesterday, in which he expounds the reading of whole books for pleasure to raise reading skills. Well, Duh! it’s a no brainer.
Some of the comments below the video are quite vicious, this is because Michael swiftly and surely demolishes the whole synthetic phonics movement with a quiet, thoughtful, almost saintly, air that is calculated to upset the “other side”.
I think some children probably do respond brilliantly to phonics – but some children do not. It is inconvenient for the phonics promoters to remember that the Clackmannanshire Study, that we base English children’s literacy lessons on, ran alongside a huge family support programme which must have had some benefit too. Children who do not do well with phonics need something else or they will be left behind – as we are seeing in current falling literacy levels.
Storytelling is the one consistent habit of humans, from the stone age to the present. The learning of the art of reading needs context. Yes, we need to be able to read electricity meters and letters from the council, but who wants to spend their whole day doing that when they can learn to read Harry Potter instead?
If reading is all about decoding, then what is the point?
A brilliant story, well written or told, captures the imagination like nothing else. Politicians know this, religions know this, advertisers know this – education seems to have forgotten this.
Phonics is great – but it is only one building block in the reading foundations.
Fantastic fiction is another building block. Fiction and Phonics are not mutually exclusive. Each needs the other.
THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT WAY TO TEACH CHILDREN TO LEARN TO READ. (Excuse me for shouting!) And anyone who tells you their system is the one and only is either a fraud or trying to sell you a new reading scheme.
The nuts and bolts of literacy must have a context, and story is the best engine to create a desire to learn more and improve reading skills. In fact the act of reading great stories provides a virtuous circle in which the learned grammar is shown to be of beneficial use. When it comes to writing skills, what better way to learn than to read and see how other people do it? Not from sample texts taken out of context, but from a whole story where the reader can see how the writing fits into the whole.
Sometimes I think we are scared of letting children read a whole book – as if it might exhaust them – drain them away. Maybe reading has become a health and safety issue? We don’t want them to use their eyes in case they wear them out and sue us. Perhaps they might enjoy themselves – and what place is their for enjoyment in the serious business of target attainment?
The teaching of literacy has reached the point where I now go into classrooms and find that there are no books on display! Plenty of computers though, which have the best sites – the ones that children want to go to, that might encourage reading – blocked!
The curriculum leaves no time for stories – the one sure-fire system that humanity has devised for the passing on of knowledge.
I’m constantly told that children have a short attention span – it’s not true. Sit them down and tell them a story and they are quite happy for an hour.
Phonics is not the answer on it’s own. The need to read must have a context otherwise it is a boring, useless subject – something you have to do at school. Great books are the reason to want to read – telling stories is the way to sell the need to read.
If we believe it is important for children to learn to read, then we are fools if we rely on one system for all.
Marlene Johnson, The Managing Director, gave us a pep talk and urged us to blog and tweet and twitter. Many asked me if I blogged and when I said yes wondered what on Earth I find to blog about. Well, that, of course is the problem. There are times when I wonder why I bother, but something inside me nags away to just post that idea.
Partly it’s a diary of ideas and thoughts that I find quite interesting to go back over. Partly it’s my only way of shouting at the world and telling it how it should be done. Partly it’s PR. Partly self-indulgent self-egrandisement, but mostly it’s because I can and something makes me keep on doing it.
There was a lot of talk about digital. Thos of us who have been crying in the wilderness all these years, who have done have done the work and actually understand the business of online are saying don’t touch it with a bargepole. Those who are being seduced by the possibility that the world of online publishing of downloads is nearly here are getting all excited – not realising that they are about to be consigned to the scrap heap unless they can learn a whole new bag of trix.
With the advent of Adobe Flash CS5 exporting straight to iPhone app, 2010 could turn out to be a very interesting year in the world of publishing.
On the way home I came across a little bit of flooding at Piccadilly Circus and took the picture above. The underground was closed at Paddington which meant walking in a downpour from Edgeware Rd was not a happy bunny, but I did manage to buy one of the last remaining rolls of kitchen towel at Sainsbury’s and dry myself off.
I’d had a terrible nights sleep with a cold and cough and woke very early. As I wandered down Oxford Street Christmas shopping, I marveled at all the new eating opportunities. Food from all over the world was available yet, hungry as I was, nothing tempted me. I wandered up to the British Museum to see the Staffordshire Hoard, and was finally seduced into an Itailian eaterie in Museum Stree, by a board outside that promised egg, bacon, sausage, chips and beans or tomato with toast and tea or coffee for £4.95. Sometime only a plate of filth hits the spot – hooray for great English cuisine!
I was explaining just how famous Rudyard Kipling was in his day, to a group of primary children. I likened him to JK Rowling and how famous she is today.
But she isn’t really famous to primary school children any more. Well, not like she was. To the new generation she is as famous as Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl still are. For my daughter, who grew up with Harry Potter at the perfect time, JK Rowling was a force of nature, a tsunami wave that she rode (and read) for several years – waiting t’il midnight to get her new copies, reading all weekend to finish the latest instalment.
This means nothing to current primary school children. They are hungry for something to fill that Harry Potter slot for their generation. Will anything come along? Can anyone come up with something so new and fabulous that will catch their imagination.
Harry Potter was a craze more that anything. The next craze could well be a robo yoyo. It could well be another twenty years or so before another literary phenomenon comes along like Kipling, Blyton, Dahl or Rowling.
We shall see..
I became an author in a haphazard way. I was an illustrator first, but was encouraged to write by my editors. It was a hit or miss process. I never wanted to question it incase I broke whatever it was that I’d got working.
Then came the National Literacy Strategy and people started to ask me awkward questions. “What does your story plan look like?” was the hardest one. I asked other authors what theirs looked like. They smiled and stared back at me with blank expressions. None of us knew what a story plan was or what it was supposed to look like!
Of course we all planned in our own ways. I don’t suppose any of us had been given formal story planning training, so we had developed our own systems. Mine was to keep writing and rewriting until the finished thing looked a bit like my original idea. Initially I poo-poohed the whole idea of planning, but as time went on, I discovered I was being asked to address myself to the issue, particularly for dyslexics and boys who were struggling with their writing.
It began to dawn on me that this group might be like me, more visually-minded, more right-brained. I started to looked into it a bit deeper. It was Anne Marley, the wonderful Head of Hampshire’s Children’s, Youth and Schools Library Service, who put me onto a book about mind-mapping by Tony Buzan. It quite blew me away. I realised I’d been doing something similar anyway, so I adapted Tony Buzans’ ideas for my needs. Then I became a bit right-brainist for a while!
Then, with more reading about discoveries in neuroscience, I realised the secret is to use both sides of the brain. The right is great for seeking patterns and creating plots. The left is best at sequencing the plots and turning it into language.
My story plans now come in two distinct phases, right-brain, radial thinking plans and left-brain, sequenced, linear plans with a beginning, middle and end. My sketchbooks are full of these plans.
Last week I was showing all my plans and plots and character sketches to the year five children at Whitchurch School. I’m currently working on a project with them.
Afterwards, Mrs Stevens, their teacher, said to me, “We do plans, and do you know what we do with them when they are finished?” I waited for the answer. “We put them in the bin!” Loud intake of breath from me! What does this say? It says that plans and plots are rubbish – so why bother in the first place.
This was a real eye-opening moment for both of us. We’ve got some lovely sketchbooks for the children to do their projects in now. I’ll be getting them started tomorrow. It will be fascinating to see how we get on now that all their planning, research and early drafts will all be in one book, a handy reference for the finished pieces of work we will be aiming towards. Oh yes? Did I mention, I’m not expecting them to write masterpieces in forty five minutes?
Please vote for the Pink Car Rally coach to win the bling my coach competition by voting for them here
The Pink Car Rally is in aid of a fledgling children’s charity, called the Little Princess Trust, which provides children who have lost their hair (primarily through cancer treatments) with ‘real hair’ wigs. If we win this competition, we can take 49 pink passengers on the coach and if each one raised an average of £50 Sponsorship, we could raise in the region of £2500 for the charity!! How fantastic would that be? It means that the charity could provide wigs for 8 more children!! We NEED to win!! Please help us…..
Please look at the short film, which is introduced by Gail Porter, on the Little Princess Trust’s website (www.littleprincesses.org.uk) It tells the story of how the charity helped Melissa….
On Monday I had the pleasure to visit Ruardean School, up the road from me, here in the Forest of Dean. Perched on the side of a hill, the school looks out a cross to wales – a spectacular view. The weather was taking a turn, though. Autumn setting in and a distinct chill in the air. The church has an amazing, rocket-like spire that soars up into the sky, dominating the village and the countryside around.
I had a lovely day telling stories and showing the children how to draw my characters. You can see some of them at the Ruardean website here.
In the afternoon we tried to devise a story about how the Duck-billed platypus came about. My creative organisation system is meant to cut to the chase and produce something quite quickly. Eventually the magic key turned up and we had ourselves a story, but we had such a wealth of tangential ideas pouring out of years 5 and 6, that I thought we would never get to the end.
I had to keep pointing out that we only had a short time and that we would best off not having a cast of thousands with endless red-herrings in the plot. I think they got the message in the end. When you’ve not got long to write a story, keep the characters to a minimum and follow the story, not the interesting asides.
Its a hard lesson to learn – one I’m still struggling with myself. Do as I say and not as I do!
Oh! Did I mention the lovely cakes in the staff room? They were all eaten up by the time I got my camera out.
I’ve been in Scotland the last few days, at the Wigtown Book Festival in Galloway. Where’s Galloway? That’s what I wondered. It’s in the last remaining corner of Scotland that I’ve never been to before – bottom left, with views across to Ireland from Stranraer, whose Primary School I visited on Monday afternoon.
I arrived on Saturday, flying to Glasgow and driving down in a hire car. I realised that I didn’t have a map and had put my faith entirely in the SatNav. I stopped in Girvan to check I was doing okay and bought an ice cream from Bob Bordone, a third generation italian ice cream maker.
He told me that the great big rock out there in the sea was Ailsa Craig, part inspiration for my Craig M’nure stories! I almost felt at home eating my 99 on the beach staring out at the misty monolith.
Wigtown is quite grand, as it used to be the county town of Wigtownshire. It is now a booktown like Hay-on-Wye. It was a wonderfully friendly set up and I met up with John Fardell and made new friends at a late night supper in the pub.
Monday Morning I visited St Ninian’s Primary and spoke to about 15 children who make up KS1. We spent sometime coming up with an hilarious story about the tooth monsters who torture you with toothbrushes and drills if your teeth fall out with holes in them. This was one story, we decided, that it was not a cop out to have the hero wake up in the morning and find it was bad dream after all.
In the afternoon, I visited Castle Kennedy, where I nearly tripped over a Red Squirrel. It waited while I got my camera and posed for me, then it let me take a profile shot before he skittered off into the woods again. They are totally enchanting creatures. The castle benefits from the warm air of the gulf stream, so the walled garden is an impossibly romantic tangle of herbaceous borders, still flowering away in late September.
Tuesday morning I drove to Carsphairn in the middle of Galloway’s nowhere, and had a lovely time at the school that has only 13 pupils!
I worked out that I just had time to visit Culzean castle on the way back to the airport. What a wonderfully romantic place, perched up on the rocks staring out at Arran.
I seem to have so much to distract me from getting on with things – or am I really looking for things to do rather than get on with the job?
I’ve mentioned before that I’m starting out on a new eight book series. This involves a lot more writing than I’m used to, so its a bit daunting. I dived in and wrote the first two stories, but knew they weren’t right, even before my editor said so. But that was good. It was a start and showed what was wrong and pointed me back to the original intention – the series was bought two years ago – I’m only now writing it, so its taking a while to rekindle the original inspiration.
Thinking time is the hardest thing to justify when you work from home. Staring out of the window or going for a long walk does not look like fruitful labour. But it is necessary. Having spent most of yesterday fiddling about with my son’s car and other seeming useless endeavours, this morning I find my mind has been working on the problem all along and half an hour with my sketchbook has moved things along enough that I feel ready to have a go at a new first draft.
The pressure is starting to build for cover designs. I need to plot out the stories and know the characters fairly well to be able to get on with the covers, which may well be designed and promoted before I finish writing all the texts. The plots are building and I feel confident it will all get done, but there is nothing like having a draft for the first book that everyone likes, so that is what I’m about to get started on… in a minute… when I’ve made a cup of coffee…
The stories involve a bit of boys own stuff which I feel I should research properly, to the point where I might video what I do for the blog. It’s not easy finding something to write about every day, y’know?
I wrote in a recent entry, called Writer’s Block, how I’d taken time to gather myself and work out the ideas for the new series I’ve just started work on. In the end I decided the best thing to do was write a first draft. Which I was very pleased with.
So pleased I went and wrote the first draft of the second story. All the way through I had a niggling feeling it wasn’t right, but still I thought it best to see it through to the end. The stories are about 3000 words – double my usual length for a story.
Yesterday I went to have lunch with my wonderful Editor, Sarah Lilly, who gently told me what I already knew! It’s quite hard to admit that something isn’t right. It’s also quite hard for writers to learn to trust their editors – especially when they are saying something you don’t want to hear!
During commissioning, the editor is the writer’s champion but once the book is commissioned they become the reader’s champion, trying to tease the best out of the author in a way that the reader is going to understand and want to read. There’s no point making a book that no one wants to read. Brilliant stories can be masked by inpenetrable writing or plotting.
The worst thing you can do is put off writing. It doesn’t matter how bad the first draft is, there will be elements there that form the basis of the second attempt. putting it off leads to more putting it off.
As I’m writing a series, I’m thinking about eight stories and how they and the characters fit together. It is so easy, sitting on your own in the attic or in the shed, to obsess about the minor, inconsequential aspects of the story and forget about the hero or the main drive of the plot. But by writing what’s in your head, you get it out of your system – then you can go back and look at the whole more objectively.
Editing doesn’t begin when the story is written. It begins at the moment the idea is first mooted. Great editors keep their writers on an even keel, nudging them back to the middle of the river, keeping them away from side creeks and eddies.
It can’t be easy dealing with authors. Most writers have fairly brittle egos. They don’t like to be criticised. Stories are like babies and no parent likes to be told their little darling is ugly or stupid.
Sometimes I don’t agree with an editor’s suggestion. Sometimes they are just plain wrong, then I take a deep breath and fight my corner, explain why I think I’m right. Often the banter will suggest a middle way which turns out to be much better the the two opposing views. I’ve learned this over time.
I don’t think any author has ever really produced a finished piece all on their own. It always needs someone to make sure any reader can make sense. We all have a “voice”. Once the reader hears that voice the story makes sense. If the voice is difficult to understand, the reader gives up. I have – many times. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a classic – everyone is told to keep going until page fifty. I remember wanting to throw the book at the wall. It was well over page fifty before I decided to finish the book. Seems a weird way of going about editing. I think there was a load of stuff that could have been cut and no one would have been the wiser.
So. I’m not back to square one but probably back to square two. I’ve got the characters forming nicely, a new way to approach the arch of the series and a new way of approaching the stories. All I have to do now is stop faffing about on this blog and get on with it!
What a Terrific Story! Had me riveted from the very first sentence, when I fell in love with Manchee, the talking dog. As Todd, the hero, says, “When dogs learn to talk, you learn that they don’t have a lot to say!”
There were huge themes going on in this book. Boyhood to manhood, imperialism, fundamentalism, love, friendship, blind passion and madness. The story rollicks along at an incredible place and leaves you desperately wanting to know what happens next. I hadn’t realised that it was a trilogy when I started, but suspected it would have to be after a little reading. The paperback is out in October and I can’t wait.
I remember waiting for the next instalments of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. I’ve not been that keen to read a sequel since. Indeed, I felt this was influenced by Pullman in the best of ways. The relationship between Todd and his dog was almost like Lyra and Pantelaimon, her Daemon, in His Dark Materials. There’s a similarly hopeless religious undercurrent too.
I’ve just bought it for a 12th birthday present because I’m sure the young man will really enjoy it. This could become a great coming of age book for boys. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s scary, it’s fast, it’s Fab!