A little while ago, I was contacted by Dan Morrow, who asked me to look over a picture book idea he and his brother, Derek had been working on. He said I should be honest. I felt the story needed a bit of editing and tightening up and made some suggestions. I never heard back from him!
Just as I was starting to think, maybe I’d suggested too much and had maybe upset Dan, I received another email from him. He’d revised the story, and now they were going to make an animated movie – Would I possibly record the narration, voice-over soundtrack? How could I say no to such a determined young man?
I think it’s rather fabulous. If you know anything about animation, you will appreciate how much work has gone into the making of this little movie. Please go and have a look, click the like button, subscribe to Dan’s channel and leave a message too. I think you may be witnessing the beginning of a very successful animation career from a very determined partnership – and you will be able to say say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been following them from the start!”
Reading is the the most difficult skill most of us will ever set out to master.
I used to worry about repeating myself but, when writing stories for very young readers, I love repeating words and phrases, twisting them gently to create new, surprising meanings with the same jumble of words and letters. It helps increase word recognition and the decoding of meaning.
Repetition is the essence of learning, making strong connections and pathways that form the foundations on which new connections are built. Repetition in physical activity is a given – press-ups, shooting at goal, exercises at the barre.
Reading is the the most difficult skill most of us will ever set out to master. But somehow, we have come to underestimate the difficulty and assume that it’s the job of schools to sort it out. But schools can’t cope with all they are asked to do, especially the way the curriculum continues to be fiddled about with.
Every time there is a crisis, the same voices wail in the media, “Schools should be teaching this!” And so more gets dumped on schools and they are expected to cope.
Schoolchildren now work at conceptual levels that are so much higher than they were in my childhood. Don’t believe the dumbing down stories. Children these days have to learn a breadth of information and life skills that hardly existed for my generation.
Once, Literacy meant the ability to read and write. Now it seems to have been redefined as the ability to write and decode text. And yet, for all the expense and effort, reading and writing levels fail to improve – arguably they have decreased.
I’ll repeat myself:
Reading is the the most difficult skill most of us will ever set out to master.
Phonics are great as a help when children are learning to read, but that is not the end of it. They need books, and most importantly they need stories. Stories with a beginning and a middle and a satisfying end, not an extract full of adverbs.
Children need to read bucket loads of books, and to get them to read books they need great stories. Children are hard-wired to listen to and learn from stories. Once they know that between the covers of a book lie multiple, parallel universes in which they can reside and become the heroes and heroines, they become addicted and want more. But they need to know those stories are there in the first place.
If there is no time for reading at school, how will they find it at home, where they are barraged by the cheap, unsatisfying pulp of the TV, internet, games and texting? If reading is not promoted or cherished at school or at home why should they bother? If they are never read to, how do they know what lies between the covers and why should they care? Why should they be bothered to read the books when they can wait and watch it on DVD?
If you want to improve your children’s writing skills it’s easy… let them read books – lot and lots of them. How are they ever supposed to learn the skill if they never practice? Want to be a great footballer? Watch Beckham or Ronaldo. Want to make great movies? Go watch a lot of movies. Want to be a Blue Peter presenter? Try watching Blue Peter!
How can children possibly hope to learn to write and improve their writing skills if they rarely see it being done and have no idea what it is they are trying to achieve?
Want to be able to write, understand particle physics or just do well in SATS? Then learn to read. All human knowledge is wrapped up in books. To be able to access that knowledge you need to be a fluent reader, and to become a fluent reader you need to do the work and read a lot of books.
Repetition, reading the words again and again, in new combinations until you can read anything with out thinking, allows the brain to get on with the business of learning what it is that the words have to say.
We all know how repetition is boring – doing the same press-ups every day, we soon give up and go flabby.
But the wonder of stories is that the repetition is wrapped up and served differently every time. Each new story somehow leads to another. Stories make the hard work of learning to read a pleasure. Stories should be at the core of education, cherished and repeated. Every school day should end with story-time, yes – even in secondary school. Stories – read aloud, just for the joy of it.
Not everything in life needs to have a measurable outcome. But reading stories, just for the joy of it, reading lots of stories, again and again, has the most immeasurable outcome of all: Literacy – the ability to read and find out independently, to understand, add to and pass on the learned knowledge.
This all comes from the core skill – reading. I hope you won’t mind if I repeat myself again.
Reading is the the most difficult skill most of us will ever set out to master. If you want to improve your children’s writing skills it’s easy… let them read books – lot and lots of them.
Yes, that’s me – posing at the starting line of the sacred running track of Ancient Olympia, home of the original Olympic Games that started some 2500 years ago. We went there on holiday three years ago and that’s where the stories for my Olympia series began to take shape.
As I stood in the tunnel that leads out to the stadium at Olympia, I knew I was standing where the great olympians of old once stood. I could feel their energy, strength, purpose and hopes recorded in the stone of the walls
I could hear the cheers of the crowd, thronging the grassy banks and smell the smoke from hundreds of burning sacrifices. I knew what it was like to be an olympian, ready to take the stage and show the world that at, that moment, I was the best, the fastest, the strongest, the leanest and the fittest.
I suppose I have a very strong imagination! That’s why I do what I do. I’m not sporty, nor do I watch much sport from the sidelines, but once every four years I’m gripped by the endeavours of the world’s greatest, as they push themselves to the very limits of human physicality and mental strength.
It’s the psychology of sport that really interests me. What is it that keeps the best going? What pushes them through the pain barrier again and again, just to win some stupid race?
Walking around the ruins of Ancient Olympia I realised that the Ancient Olympics were about more than just sport. They were a religious festival. The athletes weren’t only running for glory, they were running to please the gods. They put up with the pain because they knew the gods were with them and for a moment, they were their mortal representatives.
Religious fervour was their motive. Realising this gave me the key to writing the series. Olly is inspired by the stories of the gods that are told by Simonedes, his history teacher. It is the pact Olly makes with the gods that support him, that give him the mental strength to beat his arch enemy, Spiro.
This format allowed me to explore the ancient myths as well as to tell of Olly’s mental and physical efforts to be the best. As I wrote each story, I ran and wrestled, swam, threw and jumped every step of the way with Olly. After each writing session I would be quite exhausted, for I had, in my mind, been Olly and had done all the training and competing myself.
And that’s where art and sport and psychology meet. Great athletes know how to visualise their races. They go through upcoming competitions in their minds, again and again and again, imagining and rehearsing every move they should make until they know how to run the race to perfection.
No Olympic gold medal is ever one without having been won a thousand times before in the imagination of the winner.
It the exact same process I go through when writing my Olympia books. When I’m writing such a series, I go to sleep dreaming of high-jumping and wrestling and throwing discus and javelins. I wake up and carry on imagining, rehearsing and re-running the race, day after day, until it is perfect and I know that Olly is fit and ready to win. Then I sit down and write – and write and write. I write like the clappers, breathless with anticipation – can Olly really do it? Can he really win against all odds?
The first draught is often garbled and full of typos, but that’s what editing is for. I have the memory of that epic race to bask in while I polish up the text until it resembles the emotion and excitement I felt while writing as much as possible.
And that’s how those of us, who don’t get up at five in the morning to train, day in day out, win our secret olympic medals in the fantasy world of sport.
That’s also why sporty children should read and read, immersing themselves in action and fantasy books.
Any unthinking idiot can create the perfect body. Your genes bring the luck of the right physique for the competition. But it is only with imagination and visualisation that great athletes put all the physical attributes together to convince themselves that this is their time – the time to be Champion of the World, to raise that gold medal high into the air and receive the rapturous applause of the adoring crowds – the crowds who only watch and dream.