Life in the kid-lit bubble

Every now and then someone will bemoan the difficulty of getting published if you happen not to be a celebrity. This week The Guardian have pointed out their proliferation in the field of children’s books, and lamented the way it restricts opportunities for talented mere mortals to get a look-in.

There is certainly some justification for this complaint, although I doubt very much whether the 1950s or 1960s were a golden age completely devoid of this kind of thing. Children have always loved long, crushingly formulaic series of books and seem to need such repetition to build up reading stamina. We may not have called Enid Blyton or The Chalet School brands, but undoubtedly that’s what they were.

There’s also the point that some celebrity writers are genuinely talented people; if you are already a famous stand-up comedian you’re likely to be extravert, good with words, and in tune with children’s sense of humour. So good luck to David Walliams. Some people are just good at more than one thing. Annoying if you’re plugging away at the day job, but undoubtedly true. I draw the line at George Galloway, however.

In fact, the marketing of children’s books is becoming ever more inventive (some would say desperate). This week I received 100 sample chapters of a new book for KS2, and the offer of a possible free copy if I agreed to post pictures of “happy children receiving the books” on social media. Chatterbooks is colonised by publishers offering creative craft kits for school and library book groups, and if you don’t tweet your pictures and appreciation you will probably be overlooked next time around. Whether we like such strategies or find them exploitative and creepy, there is undoubtedly a thriving and growing market in children’s books and a vast selection of beautiful ones around.

So all is well. Not quite. If all you ever do is follow the feeds of leading lights in children’s literature, you may get that impression. Anyone can be sucked into an online bubble and such bubbles soon inflate with indignation at the thought of their denizens’ ideals not being universally accepted. Some people would call such communities elites. Elites are not necessarily defined by vast wealth and sojourns at Davos. They can be driven by idealism, creativity and education. That doesn’t make them bad. But it does make them risky.

So I welcomed it when bookseller Leilah Skelton weighed into the kid-lit celebrity debate, pointing out the reality of book availability, selection and purchase opportunities for the majority of children in Britain today and their parents. “Can you imagine the only access to physical books being a Tesco chart?” she tweeted. “That’s a reality in more places than you’d think.” No wonder parents fall back on the known quantity of celebrity. Children devour books fast if they like them, and for many people £6.99 is not a trivial amount of money.

If we care at all about children’s reading opportunities we already know about the decline of libraries, book reviews in the press and trained librarians even where libraries for children exist. Leilah is absolutely right to identify these as the cultural changes feeding into the celebrity fixation. In fact, she doesn’t go far enough. Even in school libraries, there’s little money for anything other than donations and of course this only entrenches social inequality. Even if, as happened with one of my schools, you manage to stock a library with high quality titles, it will be a long time before Star Wars and Disney stop dominating your children’s book choices. Because that’s what entertainment means to them. They recognise what they see on screens.

Is the solution to ban the cheap and cheerful stuff? That’s likely to leave many of your children unmoored and overwhelmed with choice. The older they get, the more likely they are to walk out of the library completely rather than try to navigate it. That’s not because they are stupid, it’s because it’s not a place they are used to being in. If you put me in a shop filled with fishing tackle or motorcycle accessories I’d feel the same way. Over time, if you get the chance to work with them in small groups and resist the continual drip-drip encroachment of musical instrument storage, intervention groups, Y3 forgetting to tell you they’re out doing the Romans this week and losing Y5 and Y6 to SATS cramming for half the year, you will build up the trust to the point where they might try something unfamiliar. Opening the library is a great start. Eternal vigilance and a thick skin is useful if you want it to survive for long enough to make a meaningful impact on reading culture in the school.

There will probably always be wonderful children’s books around for those lucky enough to have access to them. But they are the tip of a huge iceberg of deprivation. In our little ivory towers we mustn’t lose sight of that. And we mustn’t despair either.


The importance of analytical reading

We all know how important it is to read to kids, and to start young. But the way we read is important, and more subtle than we might think, argues Bill Murphy in this excellent article. They are not just passive containers for stories. They need to engage in dialogue with adults about them, and that is how they learn.

If pushed, I think most of us would agree that such close shared reading builds empathy. Kids need to be able to imagine a situation from another person’s point of view, to walk in the skin of someone unlike themselves. Incidentally, we don’t grow out of this and it’s tempting not to move out of our comfort zones, as I recently discovered when I went to see Moonlight. Realising how unmoored I felt by an all-black cast gave me new insight into the importance of diversity in children’s books – how does a four-year old black girl feel when she’s confronted with the overwhelmingly white world of Princess Poppy?

Empathy has to be good, right? Well, yes and no. How many of the people who were moved by the photograph of little Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on shore went on to vote for politicians who denied asylum to unaccompanied Syrian child refugees? Emotional intelligence is rather different. It includes analytical skills, looking at the whole picture, at evidence, possible strategies, problems and outcomes. It means asking not just, “Do you think the duck feels sad?” but also, “The fox seems nice. Do you think the duck should believe him? Why not?”

In my work in school libraries, I involve children in these conversations all the time and their perceptiveness frequently surprises me. A good story is full of fork-in-the-road moments, all of which have consequences. And picture books abound in clues that, if decoded, yield vital background information. When we read to a child, we are inviting them to decode that information and theorise about where it could be taking us. Yes, empathy is involved; we can all feel sorry for the little ladybird that doesn’t fit in because she has no spots, or the little girl desperate for a kitten who ends up taking home a gorilla from the zoo. But why doesn’t it work out to keep the gorilla as a pet? Seeing the way he trashes a suburban kitchen, and why the gorilla isn’t happy, carries highly significant life lessons.

It seems that at the moment we are confronted daily with the awful consequences of people determined to maintain a coherent ideological position in face of all reasonable evidence. Too much reliance on feelings can lead into dark places, and the idea that you only have to believe something badly enough and find others who feel likewise to construct your own perfectly valid reality. I wonder if the large numbers of young children who don’t get exposed regularly to language and conceptual development through reading are contributing to the problem.

There is far too much passive consumption of entertainment. Cinema and TV can be wonderful but the emotional beats are frequently heightened and signposted in letters a hundred feet high. Ambiguity is rare, and far too many children are watching without any accompanying person to help them interpret what they are seeing through loving, open-ended discussion. The school day is crammed and even schools with libraries struggle to fit in every class for even one story time a week. After years of austerity, the effect of neglected maintenance is becoming all to apparent in the decline of roads and the built environment around us. The neglect of our children’s inner world and analytical faculties may not show up right away, but we ignore it at our own risk.

These books are made for walking

When I became a school librarian I had lovely visions of introducing children to wonderful, life-enhancing books (I still do, as it happens). Later I modified this somewhat – to getting kids reading anything, almost, that they were prepared to read, including Minecraft manuals, comics and anthologies of the world’s 1,000 grossest fart jokes.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer, gruelling amount of time I would spend trying to get overdue books back.

Almost every school library, I am sure, starts off with a strict zero-tolerance policy on overdue books. That four year old crying in the corner because every other child in the class brought back their picture book and he didn’t? Tough, he doesn’t get another one. Of course, such intentions get the corners chipped off them after the first few weeks. To do otherwise would probably be inhuman. There is always the very real risk that the child you are denying further library books to is the one in greatest need of them. So I am fairly confident that most good librarians quietly write off a proportion of their stock as unrecoverable.

Teaching staff, being busy and distracted people, are often the very ones to undermine the policies they advocate. This week I had to reschedule several classes as a colleague was unavailable to take them. In each case, despite emails and visits to remind them, either the teachers or the parents seemed baffled by the change and slightly put out that they’d been expected to return their books on a different day. So we had classes of 30 where only four children were technically allowed to have a book over half term. It begs the question of why they are coming into the library in the first place. So I caved, and allowed them a second book.

Eventually, unless you have superhuman patience, you will make it clear that you are really rather cross with a persistent non-returner. At this point one of two things might happen. If the child is smallish, and the library in an open area, they will start nervously and surreptitiously replacing books on shelves when you aren’t around. The presence of a large, expensive box marked BOOK RETURNS will do nothing to alleviate this problem. There will be an escalation of reminders over the next few weeks, culminating in tears, indignant protests from parents, and quite possibly the child’s permanent reluctance to come anywhere near the library in future.

But the alternative is perhaps even more depressing and time-consuming. It tends to happen with older kids who don’t actually like reading very much. The appeal of the library for them lies in its potential as the arena for a power struggle. The time you once imagined spending introducing Philip Pullman or Frank Cotterell Boyce to their next fans will probably go instead on repeating, ad nauseam, that you know perfectly well the book you have just been presented with by said child, claiming, “Look, Miss, it’s me book, I’m bringing it back, now can I have another one?” is the one you saw them pick up off the table two minutes ago. An outburst of indignation will follow, as it always does. Eventually they will escalate the situation by returning library books stolen from other borrowers. They will relish the thought of blameless Perfect Peters suffering from your cruel and heartless overdue notices, as just revenge for your unreasonable insistence that they return their own. Such characters are more interested in wearing you down that learning about the basics of database management.

In an ideal world, every school would have a full-time librarian and there would be time to do all the fun bits of the job as well as the administration. Or you could even have different people to do each bit. There are some people who excel at the nit-picking, plastic covering and label-sticking. They’re doing a great job. I should know, I used to be one of them myself. Sometimes I think nostalgically of those days.

Then some completely unexpected, lovely thing will happen and it will all seem worth the effort again.


Pressure mounting for 5 year olds

Yesterday I wrote about the pressures I was experiencing at work. This depressing blog post from a parent (not at my school) helps set it in context, I think.

My son is 5 and a half and in Year One. In my opinion, his early experiences of education should be a good mix of social interaction, play and learning. As after all, the purpose of schooling is to…

Source: Pressure mounting for 5 year olds

When it all gets too much

This was the week when it very nearly all became too much. When I felt like giving up, even though I knew what a huge mistake it would be to do that. It’s not the answer. The answer is to make the job I have both productive and manageable, and to accept what a challenge that is.

On Tuesday evening, just before I went to bed, my husband took a look at the mole on my back, which had been bothering me for a while. He confirmed what I’d begun to suspect and we decided it needed checking out.

Tuesday had been an utterly awful day. I’d woken at 5.30 and, unable to get back to sleep, dragged myself to the gym before work. I’d then gone in, taken two classes, dealt with an IT upgrade, grabbed 10 minutes for a sandwich while children were knocking at the door arriving early for a lunchtime library club. The club turned out (a) to be for twice as many children as I’d been expecting and (b) minus a work colleague who couldn’t make it because she was covering for sickness elsewhere.

I am still struggling to find my feet with this KS2 group and although they seemed to enjoy themselves, I felt the session was muddled and chaotic. I also realised that all my fond hopes of following the Chatterbox guidelines were undermined by the fact that none of them were reading the books they had borrowed. The session lasted half an hour and I hadn’t managed to get them out of the room, let alone tidy up, when a Y1 class were waiting to come in. I hadn’t cleared up after them when the next class arrived, then two more – over 100 children in two hours. And then a KS1 group after school.

I went home, collapsed and foolishly opened my work email, which I hadn’t had time to look at. One message was a polite but nevertheless ill-timed complaint from a parent at another school that the library hadn’t been staffed when she’d arrived at 16.20 the day before to change her child’s book.

I’m responsible for three schools and I don’t think many people realise that I’ve had no professional training whatsoever. Officially I work 16.5 hours a week, in reality it’s 35 at least, plus planning and prep at home. So technically for at least half the week, I’m one of those increasingly sought-after people, the multi-site volunteer. Much of my stress is self-inflicted. Nobody asks me to do as much as I do, nobody quite realises how much it is. And, knowing I’m surrounded by equally pressurised people, I don’t like to mention it when I feel I’m going under. Yet I know I am.

By 3.00 next morning I was lying awake again, convincing myself that dying of skin cancer would at least save me experiencing the nuclear Armageddon that Trump was about to unleash. And worrying that I couldn’t sleep. By 8.00 I was back in work, meeting with a literacy co-ordinator who was so busy we could only meet in her classroom while she carried on sticking work in exercise books. I think it’s fair to say that neither of us really felt we could admit how much were were secretly dreading World Book Day.

I eventually made an appointment to have the mole checked out, but in my exhaustion I muddled up the time and when I got to the Medical Centre nobody would see me because I was 10 minutes late. Mea culpa.

Yes, it’s my fault I screwed up. My fault I’m stressed out. But it’s hard to see what alternative I have. I like my job. I’m surrounded by really great, supportive people. I find it incredibly hard to say no, because I know I make a difference. But I’m 57, and I’m beginning to feel that this is a young person’s game.

I subscribe to about 200 Twitter feeds, divided between current affairs (go to a demo, the world is ending, Be VERY AFRAID) and children’s lit/librarianship (Read this amazing book NOW, look at our wonderful reading wall, check out this school library that we made over to look like Hogwarts). I need to go cold turkey on both types for a while, and probably stop listening to the news as well. Then at least I’ll be able to see the funny side when a child says, “Miss, this book’s got a swear word in it,” and it turns out to be a Dick King Smith, and the word he thinks he’s so clever to have spotted is actually Dick.

Meanwhile, my daughter is applying for a PGCE course. Good luck to her. She’ll need it.


Alternative Facts

As a general rule I avoid political comment here. There is enough of it elsewhere. However, education and any job involved with teaching people how to evaluate information is becoming increasingly politicised. The time may come when people with jobs like mine no longer have the option of inhabiting a bubble conveniently labelled “neutrality”.

There’s a point at which we should draw the line, and in this context at least I define it as the point where governments actively interfere with the dissemination of truth.

Most obviously, right now, this is happening in the USA. Already the National Parks Service has set itself on a collision course with the new administration by defying a gag on publishing the truth about climate change. Let’s focus on that for a minute. They haven’t been expressing opinions here. They’ve been publishing verifiable statistics. And they’ve been told to cease and desist.

But we should avoid complacency; such things are happening closer to home. Check out this FT item about what is happening in Poland right now:

Polish schools pare back science in push for the “New Pole”

Trump says he loves uneducated people. People who haven’t been taught what an unreliable narrator is. People who haven’t been taught what a trusted source of information is. People who resist reading, and who have been educated in schools where the time and resources are lacking to change their minds. People who have watched so much “reality TV” that they don’t know what reality is any more.

I resist conspiracy theories, but I can’t help reflecting that the austerity excuse for underfunding schools, closing public libraries and entrenching inequality might be about more than the money. An uneducated populace is a convenient tool for the wrong kind of politician.

So what do we do? I’m faced with a dilemma. Reading too much of the news right now directly impacts on my state of mind and my ability to do my job. I oscillate between paralysing despair and manic overactivity as I resolve to push back. I feel I have to be well informed but sometimes I need a walk, a workout or a spell of gardening even more.

And much as I love the Twitter feeds dedicated to the phenomenal stuff going on in schools now, the examples of best practice, the flood of beautiful information books, the author visits and the jaw-droppingly beautiful learning walls, we are where we are. We have the kids we have, we have the situation we are in and we may only have 20 minutes one crowded lunch time to run a book club.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

With the kids, we start where they are and we listen to them. I have to resist the temptation of spending whole evenings preparing for a session and showing up so in love with my materials and my vision that I don’t actually listen to the children. I have no way of knowing what exchange, what apparently off-the-cuff remark or question will bear fruit in years to come.

For example, one Head Teacher I work with asked me to do a weekly book review. Nobody seemed to be coming in and asking for the books I recommended, so I was starting to wonder if the exercise had any point. Then she told me that since I started them, the number of people coming in to hear kids read had soared.

Things do bear fruit, but we don’t own them. We have to keep listening, and we have to be faithful. It may be something as trivial as printing off a whole sheet of barcodes that you’d already laminated so that one child can have a named library card they’ve lost replaced.

We can get so caught up in the sheer, jaw-dropping awfulness of what is happening today that we freeze like a deer in the headlights. I think we are heading towards an abyss that will suck us in even if we feel we are isolated from it right now, and each one of us will have to figure out how to make a stand. But don’t overlook the little things. It might seem sad but unimportant if a library class or a nursery session goes. It’s not. Replicate that all over the country, and a few years down the line we have people who don’t think critically, who misuse their votes and who unwittingly turn their back on democracy itself.


Here’s to the ones who dream

Every musical has a manifesto number. It’s usually a solo, and it packs a huge emotional punch. After all the razzamatazz, the stage filled with people, noise and colour, the stage darkens and the spotlight literally falls on one person, singing their heart out to someone that really matters. In Funny Girl, it’s People. In The Sound of Music, it’s Something Good. The power of such songs lies in the intimacy, the directness, the peeling away of layers.

And La La Land has a stunner. An audition piece, because in LA that’s the ultimate make-or-break, sing-for-your-supper situation.

Mia has had six years of humiliation, knockbacks and broken dreams. In true musical fashion, this is her last throw of the dice and she puts everything into it. She cares too much to pay games any more. She’s also learned the cost of chasing your dreams and this beautiful song comes from a rare place of self-awareness.

This isn’t a movie blog, it’s a blog about libraries and what they mean to children. Setting up three school libraries was my big thing, my impossible dream that would take everything I had to give. Okay, that sounds cheesy, but sometimes cheesy hides the truth. And as it happens, a library remembered from childhood plays a significant part in the plot of La La Land, which gives this song an even bigger emotional punch for me.

I want this on my library wall:

Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make

Librarians tend to fetishise order; they are natural introverts, happiest a in calm and controlled environment. I have spent weeks setting up school libraries, listening to the children safely behind my closed door and feeling apprehensive about the day I finally have to let them in and allow them to make a mess. As it happens, I’ve a library opening coming up tomorrow. But creativity is messy, filled with mistakes and compromises. There’s another fantastic couple of lines earlier in the song, as Mia recalls someone who inspired her:

She captured a feeling
Sky with no ceiling
Sunset inside a frame

Art begins with that feeling that something is so amazing, so beautiful, so filled with possibility, that it can’t be captured. And yet if the artist doesn’t try to put a frame around it, to give it form, it can never be shared. The only perfect work of art is the one that stays locked in someone’s head. The thing I loved most about La La Land was that it’s absolutely honest about the cost of having dreams, yet if nobody ever did that the world would be a grim and colourless place.

All children begin with the capacity to dream. Libraries are the laboratories where those dreams can be shaped and forged, where children can find the confidence to bring them alive, to expose themselves to the risk and pain and effort that will involve. Libraries are filled with the products of other people taking that risk. They are a safe place to contemplate its cost. They are a refuge when being different becomes too much to handle, a source of comfort, strength and – at their best – a kind but firm process of propelling people back out into the world to try again.

Now go and listen to the song. It won’t spoil you for the end and it’s amazing.