Squeezed-out serendipity

It’s hard to think of anyone who loves libraries disagreeing with Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s sentiments here:

One of the great things about the library is The Unexpected. We are beginning to realise that while the internet seems to offer all human knowledge, what it most often tempts us to do is build little echo chambers. We’re like bower birds, building little narcissistic shelters out of things we already know. Browsing actual books on a shelf, or talking to real people create the opportunity to be challenged and surprised. It is from the accidental and the unexpected that the greatest discoveries flow.

He’s absolutely right, of course. But the vital ingredient for all this to happen is time. Time to get to know the children. Time to build up their trust and confidence. Time to read a lot of good quality children’s literature yourself so that you know what is around and what might suit them. Time to look beyond the obvious.

I now have to divide my time between three school libraries. Shortcuts are always very tempting, and sometimes quite seductive. Many of them look great; are, in fact, great if you don’t rely too heavily on them.

For example, I’ve been given the enjoyable but daunting task of running two weekly book groups. I know my children like the Tom Gates books. So for our first meeting – bingo – I went online and downloaded some lovely Tom Gates resources, which would have taken me hours to make and would have been impossible to replicate anyway without breaching copyright. The meeting went brilliantly; they doodled away and much creativity was released.

Next week can we do the Wimpy Kid Books, Miss?

If you’re already rushed off your feet, how tempting to say yes. You know it’s all out there, available and legal at the click of a mouse. Many major players in children’s lit are waking up to the potential of book groups, so why not a Jacqueline Wilson quiz one week, a Beast Quest word search the next and then a specially designed pack to support the new Lego/Batman movie release (The last is offered by Chatterbooks). You know the kids will like them, think they’re cool and get their friends to come along.

Job done. Except, have you left the space for any serendipity? Any browsing? Anything that isn’t steering them in exactly the direction they’re already going in, the books they see in Tesco all the time?

My book group barely lasts 30 minutes. Allow for latecomers, settling down, tidying up, etc and that doesn’t leave much time for browsing. And this is a school that has supported the library in every possible way.

Of course, any book-related activity is an improvement on none. However, a very important part of my job is to get the child fixated on a particular series to try something new, not to dish up more of the same stuff. I’ve a lot of admiration for Miss Cleveland Is Reading. It’s a wonderful blog about how a busy TA walks the talk by having a shelf of books she’s read and loved available in her classroom at all times – as well as running the school library. It shows how vital, and rewarding, it is to make time for that one-to-one interaction that makes all the difference to building a confident and adventurous reader.

This isn’t meant as a complaint about Chatterbooks, by the way. I think that, done right, the Chatterbooks formula is immensely powerful – have a theme, have a selection of great, enticing books about it on the table, play a few games, build the odd pirate ship, and let the children choose from the pile and talk about it the following week. Also, the packaged shortcuts they offer from publishers can be a great help, particularly as they are free. I do realise, however, that to really release the power of the Chatterbooks concept will require a lot of time and money – both on my personal part, and on the school’s. It involves buying around half-a-dozen new titles on a regular, maybe weekly, basis, and reading them, and giving the kids time to really engage with them and communicate that enthusiasm.

I work in one school where they asked me for resources on the Ancient Romans last week. I came up with Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries and pointed out that reading the first chapter of The Thieves of Ostia would teach the children more about daily life in Rome than I learned in a whole day of tramping around Pompeii. Wonderful, the class teacher said, never heard of them, if only we could spare ten minutes a day to read them aloud. But the longing unattainability of that ideal was written on her face.

It’s hard for kids to get into reading these days. They’re too busy doing literacy.




6 thoughts on “Squeezed-out serendipity

  1. Thanks for the shout out, I’m truly humbled. If we want to instill a passion for reading and a love of books, we have to show our passion and love to the children. It’s the part of my job I love most, yet the part I have least time for.

      1. I’m a full time HLTA, with no allocated library time. I do it before I start officially in the mornings, at lunchtimes (when not book clubbing) and whenever I can steal some time. As for PPA, don’t get that either! I’d love more time, but with class responsibilities and interventions, there just isn’t any. I’m not moaning, that’s just the reality of the job. There will never be enough time to do it all!

  2. Do you have an active School Library Service in your area? Or a local Book Awards? My lunchtime book groups tend to be judging panels where we judge a set of books. I pair readers up so they can talk about a book together, and share their thoughts with the rest of the group. We always have an awards party when the official results are announced to see if we agree with that result. It means children read books from different genres, introduces them to new authors, and helps them break away from their normal choices. They love it, or they wouldn’t give up their lunchtimes (or pay for after school).

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