Authors, travelling around schools, see stuff – stuff that inspectors would never see or even bother to look for, because inspectors are looking for what they want to see.
I keep seeing the Green, Amber and Red colours of testing software printouts. This software works out where to put the most resources to achieve the best test results. That sounds like a reasonable proposition, but in truth it confirms that the current education system is structurally designed to promote failure. Test results are all that matter. The education and-life chances of the children in the system come second. The “customer” – the child being educated – has been taken out of the equation.
If your child is in the green area then you are doing the right thing. You are helping them with homework, encouraging them to read and providing them with a full and diverse cultural feed. They will learn to read despite being at school.
If your child is in the amber areas, then it is worthwhile for the school to put effort into raising your child’s reading levels one or two grades. You can do this easily at home by reading to them in bed every night and showing some interest in their homework and schooling. The school can feel confident that if they invest time and resources in this group, they will bring their overall target levels up. The education system has such a distorted view, nothing else matters but the levels.
If your child is in the red area, you probably don’t care, and neither do the school. They know that it will take a huge effort to raise these children up just one grade, that will not have any effect on the school’s overall performance. These are the children that are doomed to illiteracy – they will cost the country a fortune over their lifetimes in social and medical care, prison and welfare. But that does not matter because because meeting reading level targets are more important.
The chances are that red area children have no books at home. The amber area children may have up to ten. The green area children could have over 200!
Before arriving at school, green children can have heard over 30 million more words spoken than a child in the red area, who may never have sung a nursery rhyme at home, had a book read to them at bedtime, used a knife or fork and my well have not learned to use the toilet.
Children’s centres were supposed to help with early years intervention. But children have to leave the centres to go to school and start learning to read. If the stats say it’s not worth schools bothering with children who need too much time spent on them, then it’s not worth spending the time on them.
The recent report of Britain’s failing literacy standards bears all this out. After 14 years of the Literacy Strategy and the National Curriculum someone needs to hang their head in shame and admit they got it all wrong. After 14 years, literacy should be at 99% of all school leavers.
So where has it gone wrong? Literacy has been redefined as the ability to decode text. That is not literacy – that is a boring, wet, grey, Wednesday afternoon lesson. Literacy is the ability to read. How have we forgotten that?
Reading is the one core skill. Without being able to read, forget about writing and “‘rithmetic”. No child should ever be allowed to fall behind in reading skills. That should be the core statement of education. If children can’t read, don’t progress them onto subjects they don’t have a cat in hell’s chance of understanding.
And how do we promote reading? The cryingly, simple, obvious solution is to read books! Hundred’s of them and if children don’t hear books read to them at home, they need to hear them read in school. Thanks to targets, there is no time for telling stories in school anymore. The key to reading is not phonetics or any other fashionable system, the key is story.
Human beings are hard-wired to listen to an learn from stories. Politicians know this – they tell enough of them. Advertisers know this – story is their trade. Religions know this – Faith is just the believing of a great story. So why has education forgotten and ignored the very keystone on which it is built?
It is story that draws the child closer and closer to the text, they marvel that those squiggly marks make up words that mean something, words that tell fantastic tales and explain fantastic concepts. Once the connection is made, nothing will stop a child wanting to learn to read so they can do that amazing, magic trick themselves.
Teacher education is such that a whole new generation has been taught nothing about children’s books or how to read them to their children. How are we going to convert them back to story-time?
Learning to read is the hardest job anyone will ever do in their entire lives. To condemn a child to the red area is to write them off, to mark them out as the detritus of society.
How many times have I heard teachers say, “But what can I do? Targets have to be met.” Forget about striking over pensions – we’re all in the same boat there, so teacher’s won’t get any sympathy from the public over that, but how about striking for the right to teach?
And how about hauling parents in and reminding them that they have responsibilities too? School is not a child-minding service, it’s a partnership of Family, Child and School – giving the child the best opportunities in life and preparing them to make the most of their talents so they can contribute to society. When did we ever stop wanting better for our children? What happened that all responsibility has been outsourced to over-stretched schools?
The real test of education is the number of happy, fulfilled adults that have benefitted from their time at school. The target should be adults that behave, that understand the difference between right and wrong, that have the confidence to rely on their own resources, that contribute to life and society, adults who cherish the next generation and help them on their way in the hope that they will help in return when we get older.
The education system that does not work for its “customer’s” best interests is broken and those in charge of setting the targets are as guilty as the red area children will be, when they grow up and appear before the magistrates in the dock.
I’m thrilled to have just signed a contract with Firefly Press, a brand new Welsh publisher. No, I’m not writing a book in Welsh but a book in English with a strong Welsh theme. You could be writing writing one for them too, as they have a competition to find a new writer. They are looking for:
A novel must be aimed at 7-9 year olds, written in English, 15-20,000 words long and set at least in part in contemporary Wales. We will accept stories with a realistic setting or stories with a fantasy/timeslip element, but not stories set exclusively in a fictional fantasy world that has no connection to Wales or historical stories with no contemporary content.
If you don’t know much about Wales, this probably isn’t the competition for you, but if you know a lot about Wales, then maybe this is your chance to finally get yourself into print!
I recently wrote a post about the Carnegie Medal that caused a bit of a stir in the tiny world of children’s authors. I learned many things from the reactions to that post; mainly that I should only make one point at a time, as readers are liable to choose a sentence or two that suits their prejudices and assume the whole article is about something other that what was intended.
I was amazed at the reaction to this paragraph:
Why are we no longer surprised when kids join gangs and shoot each other on the streets? They’re conditioned to it by playing killing games on their consoles and watching endless serial killer stuff on TV. So why not put it in children’s books too? How else are publishers going to compete and make a buck other than by joining in the slow moral decline? We are conditioning ourselves to accept that it’s okay for kids to kill each other.
What I meant, in the context of the article, was that as children’s publishers find it harder to sell books, they are having to chuck in the towel and join the rest of the media, giving into violence, to be able to compete. Violence sells.
So does sex, but… stick to my point! I had a lot of vociferous reaction claiming that there is no connection between books, video games, movies or comics with violence. That I’m an old reactionary wanting to spoil teenager’s fun. (I thought was writing about books for children – not teenagers – never mind.)
I had to think about that point for a while and here is my reply.
Five million jews, gypsies and unfortunates were cremated during the second world war. How did that happen? A man called Hitler wrote a book called Mein Kampf. Don’t tell me that book had no effect on violence. Where did Hitler get his ideas from? Wagner’s fairy tales, and the eugenic writings of revered writers of the likes of My Fair Lady’s George Bernard Shaw and The War of the World’s H G Wells. Each generation makes the unthinkable acceptable and then practicable.
Many more millions were murdered in the USSR thanks to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. And how many more millions died thanks to Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book? Please don’t tell me books don’t have an effect on violence.
How many millions have died because of or in the cause of the Bible or the Koran?
Human beings are hard wired to receive stories. That is how we learn. Religions, encouraging distrust in the unfaithful, know this. Advertisers, telling us that the latest gadget will make us look cool and sexy, know this. Politicians, spinning their yarns, know this. They also know that the statistics can be massaged to tell whatever story they like – as in, “…there is no correlation between books and violence.”
Violence sells… but only for so long. We come to accept a certain level of violence then we need more – we are only human. So the level is turned up until we come to accept that too.
Take the TV show Silent Witness which, when it started, was all about the righting of wrongs and moral dilemmas. In the morgue, we would see close-ups of the doctor’s eyes and sweating brow as they went about their grizzly work. It was fascinating, instructive and the story lines were intriguing. We might have seen a toe with a cadaver’s identifying label, but generally the body was covered in a sheet.
Then the special effects department came up with realistic rubber bodies and they let us see the whole grizzly autopsy, with everything hanging out and bits dangling on the floor. That wasn’t enough, CSI began with gory CGI effects and Gore Wars ensued. The original Silent Witness stories began with a body – as does the work of the pathologist. Now the grizzly death scene had to be included – in minute detail.
That wasn’t enough, the un-witting pathologists became the victims as the serial killer genre swung into action, leading to the ultimate in the ramping up of CSI violence – or is it moral decline? – the TV series, Dexter. Dexter works for a CSI department as a blood-spatter analyst, he is also a serial-killer himself, but he’s okay, he only murders other serial killers – what fun! You’d be amazed how often I’ve heard primary school children say they want to be CSIs when they grow up! Why are they watching this stuff? Why aren’t they in bed?
The violence levels are slowly ratcheted up as we accept new levels of violence and come to see them as entertainment. This has all been echoed in the book world with Patrica Cornwell leading the field that was very soon filled with new writers eager to get on the bandwagon.
How incredible that ITN proudly splatters the word “Exclusive” all over pictures of bloody-handed Michael Adebolajo, minutes after he had killed Private Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich. ITN know the power of a good story in a crowded news market. But just a very few years ago, they would never have considered showing those pictures. We have not only got used to seeing pictures like that and accepting the violence, we want more, preferably on the six-o”clock news! (They didn’t even wait until after the 9.00pm watershed.)
Just this week, video of the Santiago De Compostela train crash was shown in slow-motion on the BBC News. They did warn that it was upsetting, but they still showed it. They had the footage, it was already on YouTube so they had to show it. Five years ago, if they had that footage, they would not have shown it. Next week we will want more… bored with train crashes.
Oh – let’s stray off the point and get back to sex – Fifty Shades of Grey – to be precise. A book promoting both violence in sex has it’s own merchandise in Greetings cards shops! Cute, furry handcuffs on a greetings card for valentines day? what kind of violence has that inspired and made acceptable in bedrooms round the world. It’s a best-seller so sadistic, violent sex must be okay – isn’t it?
It’s not the books, video games, movies or comics that are to blame. They are inert. It’s the stories and their messages that are dangerous, they always have been and always will be.
Please don’t tell me that there is no correlation between books, and the stories they contain, and violence. Those committing the violence maybe well be illiterate but they understand stories they are told and can perfectly understand the message that they are fed. Those teaching them, leading them and putting ideas in their heads are clever and highly literate, and there is your direct correlation.
I was childishly pleased when I came up with the series title, Little Horrors. They’re horror stories for small children, whom we often call little horrors themselves. Actually there’s no horror in them at all, just the suggestion. They are meant to be funny with moments of doubt… Shiver with fear.. shake with laughter, as the series slogan goes!
I love reading these stories to Key Stage 1 children. Some hug each other, some pose and pretend they aren’t scared, some burst into tears, but most laugh and join in with the noises and actions. Sadly the publishers, Orchard Books decided not to reprint. But that gave me the opportunity to bring the stories back to life again.
Online, print-on-demand publishing is an amazing thing. The first book in the series, The Swamp Man in now available in old fashioned print and as an ebook for the iPad. When I discovered the Open Dyslexic Font, I made it available as a Dyslexic font edition on the ipad too. The type is weighted so the letters behave themselves and sit on the line and the page colour is cream.
If you would like a signed copy of the Swamp Man, then click here
The Swamp Man – Little Horrors book.
What a strange word is Author. When I go to a meeting of the Society of Authors, I always expect to find people like me. But I don’t. Every one of them is different. Having found myself caught up in a conversation with someone who writes about bees and pollination, a chic lit writer,or an academic who writes sadistic thrillers in Old Norse, I think, “I am nothing like these people at all!” So I huddle in the corner with my pals, the children’s authors.
But we have very little in common too. We use words and maybe pictures to express ourselves. When ever there is a discussion about children’s books, it’s hopeless. We all imagine that the thing we do defines the world of children’s books. But it doesn’t. If we are lucky, we find a tiny niche and stay there as long as possible before others notice and pile in.
Then I think, at least I’m the same as those in my niche – but I am not. Even within our little niche or genre, we have different ideas about what it is and how it should be done.
I remember being part of a group of writers brought together to write stories for a new reading scheme. You could see every one itching to get in first and claim the best books for themselves. I was amazed! No one wanted to do the beginner books – the ones with ten words or so – such a challenge! They others looked at me blankly. Why would I want to do that when I could write the older books? It would never occur to me to want to write them. It’s just not what I do.
And that’s the trouble with the little controversy I started a couple of days ago.
I see there is a prize for Children’s books. I know exactly what a children’s book is and do not understand why Young Adult books keep winning – the Carnegie WorkingParty have now explained to me that it’s all because of the The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and as the shadowing process takes place mainly in secondary schools the whole process is skewed to Young Adult books. I’d say the rights of the child would mean that primary schools should get an equal look in. But that’s me. My readers are children. They go to primary (elementary) school. That’s how I define children’s books.
I think if you have a prize that is really a prize for writers of books for older children, you should say so. Children have a right to know what is being promoted in their name.
However. Let me crystallise what I thought I said yesterday and add a bit from the Twitter discussion last night.
1. What is a child for the sake of book marketing and prize giving? Ask any primary school teacher and they will tell you something strange happens to their children midway through year six – that’s between eleven and twelve. They sprout! Quite literally, they sprout in all directions, their moods change, and they start itching to get to secondary school and begin their new, Young Adult life. They close ranks with their age group and become obsessed with hair and fashion. That’s when they start being ready for Young Adult books that lead them into the adult world.
So, I would say a child is probably eleven or under.
YA books used not to exist. Children used to go from children’s books to adult books. Now those years are carefully managed by the marketing department, such is progress. YA is a marketing strategy that has worked very well. As adults have become more and more infantilised, they read YA books – often with an adult cover and a hike in price, because these are the books that adults crave. They have a beginning, a middle and an end – and they deal with exciting and meaty themes, unlike literary fiction that gets all the attention but does not satisfy the general reader. This kind of book used to be published by adult publishers. This is why Hollywood loves YA books. And because Hollywood loves YA, YA Authors love writing them.
Young Adult books need their own big prize to inspire authors to write their amazing books. but…
The Carnegie is for Writers of Books for Children.
2. What is a children’s book? I’d say it was a book a parent would be happy to share with a child at bedtime. I remember reading and sharing the Hobbit, Roald Dahl, and Alice in Wonderland quite happily. These have been quoted to me as being full of violence. Yes, but it’s a kind of violence that is easy to answer questions about when children ask. It’s play violence in a make-believe world – that’s what children do, remember? Children play – it’s how they learn, although as adults we seem to have forgotten that. It’s training violence. Yes, the world is cruel, but you don’t need to leap straight into the dark brutality of the current trend in YA novels.
You don’t start children off with a book on particle physics. You start give them a book about the wonders of the Universe.
We all instinctively know what a children’s book is.
The trouble with the Carnegie prize being given to YA books is that it sends a message out that children’s books don’t matter anymore. I know many, well-respected children’s book writers who have given up and gone into YA writing because that’s where it at. No one wants to write for children any more. Any glamour in the business has been stolen by the YA marketing machine.
Ask any children’s publisher, they’ll tell you they can’t get proper children’s books anymore. Nobody writes them because they get no recognition.
Would it be so difficult to set up an award for YA novels? All those bankers with bulging pockets could start easing their consciences by setting up a prize for YA and then, maybe we can get back to the business of writing books for children.
3. Violence. What I hoped to say was that the more violence we let children be exposed to, the more we come to accept that violence and so expose them to even more. This is the basic rule of marketing and social control. When the dads themselves are still playing violent video games, shooting, killing, maiming and having fun on the living room screen, then what signal does that give to the children? What are we to do? We write books that are increasingly dark and violent, of course. If you can’t beat them, join them. And so our threshold of acceptance lowers. The Carnegie prize says dark, brutal, violence is good for children. We shrug our shoulders and say, “well, they must know what’s best for kids – they are librarians after all.” And so it goes. Drip, drip, drip.
Oh, and please don’t tell me video game violence has not been proved to cause real world violence. Any data you have was paid for either by the NRA or the video games industry. Constant exposure to violence and the sadistic role-playing of video games lowers one’s tolerance to violence and will make that jump into real-world violence easier.
You will no doubt want to tell me all the violent adult books you read at the age of six and how you are now a University Professor at the age of 16 and how violent books never harmed you. You are unusual. You are unusual in that you read books in the first place.
Caring parents will look after their children and give them what is good for them. But not all are caring – many are really quite careless. At least let some fun, fantasy and entertainment lighten the lives of those children when, and if, they get to read a proper children’s book.
The Carnegie Prize needs to be given back to children’s book writers to encourage the Writing of Books for Children
There – and no more on the subject – there’s drawing to be done!
I recently came across the Open Dyslexic Font, which was created by by Abelardo Gonzalez. The font is weighted at the bottom so the gravity allows the letters to stay put on the line.
When I found it, I’d just finished making my first Little Horrors book, The Swamp Man, available as an iBook on the iPad. I realised it wouldn’t take me long to make a dyslexic font version, so I did. I made the pages cream too, which involved reworking the artwork, but I soon got photoshop to automate that part of the job. So, it will be interesting to know what people think.
My book Craig M’nure, was written for Barrington Stoke, so I’ve learned a little about books for Dyslexics. I know that the text hasn’t been written with dyslexics in mind, but the sentences are short and I think the text is pretty uncomplicated. Besides. The one thing that I took away from my Barrington Stoke experience is that Dyslexics find it much easier to read when they “hear the author’s voice”. Then the difficult word constructions seem to be blown away with the extra voice working in their head.
Dyslexia is such a muddly word. I’ve come to realise that no one is “normal” and that dyslexia comes if many forms and degrees of complexity. I read perfectly well, I do when the letters stop moving! It’s writing that is the hard part. I know that writers deal in words. I’ve watched them do it, they could write with their eyes closed. They think and “see” in words.
Last week I had the opportunity of watching other children’s authors do their thing at Peter’s Books in Birmingham, where The Reading Agency had set up a Chatterbooks Day. The Author Fleur Hitchcock was telling us how sensitive she is to smell and how dyslexic she is an how hard writing is for her. Fleur’s Daughter has the gift too, she can sort her school friends clothes out by smell and return them to the right people!
Fleaur was asking for a description, a word to express smells or emotions. One child suggested a connective. A shadow passed over Fleur’s face, then she admitted that she had no idea what a connective is. (I’m not sure – I think and is a connective?” I recognised that look. Proper writers know what a connective is. Their world is made up of such things. I’m a storyteller. I use words and pictures to tell stories. Fleur uses words and smells! Others use dance or maths or colour or shape or taste to tell their stories. Sadly, the education system, which is run for and by word people, is pretty much unaware of the perceptions of a large percentage of those they hope to educate.
My world is made up of ideas and stories, and they tumble around in my head faster than I can write them down. Since I’ve talked openly about this, I’ve found many others are the same, and have often seen a smile of relief on a child’s face when they realise that my problem is their problem too and that they are not alone in the world.
I think that is what happens when I read. I get caught up in the idea, begin second guessing, in my conversation with the author’s voice, and tumble ahead of the words to see what happens next. the words on the page try to catch up and, in their haste, jumble up on the page. Maybe if they are weighted, they will find it harder to fall over and get mixed up with each other!
You can get a sample copy of the book by clicking here or on the picture to the right.
I would love to know what you think and would really appreciate some feedback. It’s only available for the iPad at the moment. I am thinking of doing a PDF version to read on other systems and would also love to know if this would be useful for you too.
Also, if you’ve read this far, let me know why you would like a free copy and, if I think it’s a good reason, I’ll let you have a code to get a free copy from the iTunes store! I’ve five to give away.
As English children prepare for their new spelling and punctuation tests, It makes me wonder about the outcome of all this testing.
The testing of children is one-sided and far too academic. Where are the art exams for eleven year olds? The music exams? The interpersonal skills exams, the cooking, the athletic, the talking and the reading for pleasure exams? These are all real skills in life that are ignored by those academics and politicians who run education and wish everyone to be like them and damn them if they aren’t.
Those who excel in real life skills are taught by the education system that they are failures, that spelling and punctuation is all that matters, followed closely by maths and the cold analysis of text. Fail in those and you are a failure.
If those who excel in tests – those who go on to become politicians, set the tests and run education – were made to sit tests in art, drawing, gymnastics, football, astronomy, fashion, music and any number of relevant subjects, they would also know what it is like to be deemed a failure at the age of eleven.
I am all for good spelling and punctuation, but this comes with culture. If correct spelling and punctuation are expected and rewarded, then the achievement levels will rise. If it is made the subject of do or die testing – for the school as much as for the pupil – then for every happy smiling face on results day, there will be a crying, shame-faced failure, stigmatised for the rest of their lives.
“I’m no good at spelling,” they’ll say in their defence. “Look I’ve got a certificate to prove it!” And so the path of their lives is set for them by those to claim to have their best interests at heart.
Neuroscience is showing us daily how different we all are, how some just see the world in a different way to others. The internet is changing the way everything is done. New, previously unheard of skills are demanded daily, and yet academics are obsessed with preserving tests relevant to the age of coal and steam.
Let us have a level playing field. If you are not wired up for perfect spelling or number-crunching, let it be possible to show how amazingly you are wired up for the things in which you excel – the very skills that the world needs now.
My legacy is that I learned to draw feet a little better than before. While researching for my Olympia books, I looked at a lot of drawings on ancient Greek pots. The drawings were a revelation. I’d never really looked at them closely before. The style and often the drawings themselves were drawn again and again and passed down from father to son or master to apprentice. All the time the style was refined so that graceful athletes could be portrayed in a very few stokes of the pen or inscribed with a stylus.
I find I often go to the Old Greek Masters for inspiration and understanding of how to draw simply as well as how to understand the world in general. The old philosophers had it pretty well sorted!
If you were thinking of getting one or two, It really helps support this website and my drawing videos if you use the Amazon Links below. Thanks.