The Curse of Peppa Pig – why kids crave brands, not books

It’s almost as if children need these characters to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of a library and reassure them that they are safe there.




There’s been quite an outcry against the celebrity-author dominated list of giveaway titles for next year’s World Book Day. It’s a big deal, because for many people bookshops are unknown territory (they may only see books on sale occasionally in supermarkets in their neigbourhood). This is the only book their kids will own all year and if you think that isn’t a big deal come and watch the scrummage when they’re handed out on the day.

So does the celebrity issue really matter or are a few luvvie writers just crying foul?

I’ve always been able to see both sides of this argument but the tectonic plates of my attitude are starting to shift. On the plus side, some celebrities really are good at connecting with children and writing excellent books. Others can certainly turn in a competent job as part of their personal brand, with or without editorial assistance (a hornets’ nest I’d rather not dig into here).

So I’m not declaring war on all children’s books by people who started off being famous for something else. And anyone who grew up reading Enid Blyton or The Hardy Boys will know that the endless, formulaic series has been a staple of the sector for a long time. But the intellectual property of huge corporations is so deeply interwoven into children’s cultural landscape these days that I think some questioning of this trend is legitimate.

Robert McFarlane, writing this week in the Guardian, points out that a recent survey showed that many children are far more confident naming fictional Pokèmon than native wildlife. What bothers me even more in my own work is seeing how magnetic the effect of a well-exposed franchise is on children. Sit them down for a story and they cannot concentrate – their eyes are drawn hypnotically to the Star Wars book behind you, so much so that I actually put such titles out of sight. And don’t get me started on Peppa Pig.

It’s almost as if children need these characters to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of a library and reassure them that they are safe there. For some, I suspect that sitting unsupervised watching Peppa on a screen has taken the place of the comfort of sharing a story with a loved grown-up. There are all sorts of reasons for this, some political, some economic, and just blaming parents isn’t fair when libraries are closing , work is more scrappy and casualised than it’s ever been and books are unaffordable for many. Nor should we overlook the reality that for children whose first language is not English an international franchise can be a useful bridge.

The problem is that professional children’s library provision is in such terminal decline that in many cases the gateway drug has become a substitute for the whole experience of reading for pleasure. To persuade a child to try something new takes time. I am responsible for 18 classes a week in the three school libraries I manage. Sometimes all 30 kids come in together without adult support. With the best will in the world, if kids are clamouring to know where the Star Wars books are I will end up, at least sometimes, shoving one into their hands and moving on. I have had class teachers clamouring to know why the entire class isn’t back in the classroom after less than 10 minutes.

This is the climate in which we need to understand the prevalence of branding, which is now ubiquitous in the numerous literacy initiatives that exist. Running a book club on top of your duties as a class teacher and literacy co-ordinator? Thank God, you can download some colouring in sheets from the latest heavily promoted bestseller. You may long to start a discussion group for literature in translation, using the wonderful Pushkin Press list, but it simply isn’t going to happen.

I’ve seen it in book shops too. I’ve wanted to scream, “Don’t you know those books are written by an anonymous syndicate, that your child just likes the glittery cover or the superhero franchise, that they will be consuming the McNuggets of literature – £4.99 gobbled up in five minutes – when over here there’s real nourishment?” But you’d need someone sitting there all day to really make a difference.

Hence my conflicted relationship with any book or series that is described as a “phenomenon.” I’m certainly not going to stand between kids and their desire to read Marvel origin stories or Tom Gates. It’s not my place to undermine their genuine reading preferences and force classics on them against their will. But I wish there was time for more children to enjoy having that conversation. Letting big corporations have the last word on something as important as a child’s literacy is never ideal.



School Libraries- do we need a network for the volunteers?

What is the difference between a room full of books and a school library? The answer is, of course, a librarian. I’ve been working through that answer for almost twenty years.

I am not a qualified librarian. For the majority of primary schools, in the state system at least, that simply isn’t an option. For almost ten years I wasn’t even paid and even now my salary hardly reflects the hours I put in or the responsibilities I shoulder. Which presents a dilemma that is becoming more familiar throughout the sector. Put crudely, are volunteers robbing professional librarians of their jobs?

There are really no straightforward answers to that. In the case of public libraries, some unions have protested against the increasing substitution of well-meaning volunteers for trained staff. They are not simply covering their members’ backs; they have a valid point. Volunteers, no matter how well-intentioned or dedicated, may well lack the skills and training to carry out this vital role.

Volunteers also struggle with other constraints. They see what needs doing but do not have access to the networks, the official back-up and the resources to get it done. Faced with the yawning and widening gulf between the necessary and the possible, they are at risk of burnout and despair. This is no secret to others who might be willing to take their place, were they not so painfully aware that they might not be able to control the job’s tendency to take over their lives and sour their relationships.

Managing volunteers, something I’ve occasionally found myself doing, is an underrated skill demanding sensitivity and empathy as well as a clear vision and the ability to communicate it. I have worked in schools where people gave enormous amounts of time and dedication to their library roles, only to be treated atrociously by managers who came in and undermined all their hard work and commitment without even listening to their point of view. In fact, much of my time last year was devoted to rescuing a library where that had happened, and a very important part of the job was regaining the trust of those volunteer helpers.

Nevertheless, the reality is that in many schools, the only staff libraries can expect are either completely unpaid volunteers or teaching assistants who already have a full workload and are somehow expected, in their very limited spare time, to turn the chaotic and tattered few boxes of books parked at the end of a dusty corridor into a library.

At SLA conferences I have come across quite a few such people. Often they are determined but daunted, and I am sure that for every one I come across there are a dozen out there who either are unaware that the SLA exists or, even if they have heard of it, would feel guilty expecting what little money a school can spare for library books (often the proceeds of PTA fundraising) being spent on sending them to a conference. Sometimes we get talking, I keep in touch and try to help them avoid making a few of the mistakes I have made.

But I am beginning to think we need something more. The SLA, as its name suggests, is a professional body. Whilst they are, I am sure, in sympathy with the aims of volunteers, their first responsibility is to their chartered and qualified members. I would add, by the way, that they are a superb source of knowledge, inspiration and contacts to school libraries anywhere. But it is unrealistic and probably undesirable to expect them to change their particular focus. They are quite right to maintain that there is no substitute for a qualified library professional, and that is what every child in every school deserves.

So I am beginning to wonder if it is worth setting up a network to advise and assist voluntary library workers, or whatever we should call them. And if anybody out there thinks this is worth exploring, or supporting in any way, or they are just thinking they would like to be involved, please let me know your thoughts. Maybe follow me, and we shall see what we can come up with together.

UPDATE: The SLA have been in touch since I shared this to emphasise that they see the support of voluntary librarians in schools as very much part of their role. It’s great to be starting a dialogue with them on this and I’m sure good things will come of it. Thank you SLA!

Starting Sentences with “And”, and other unforgivable sins



Imagine, for a moment, that you are six years old and your family has just moved to a country where you barely speak a word of the native language. You are sent to school, itself a challenging experience as you struggle to interact with your new teachers and peers, who have never used any language other than their own.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, you are told that you have to take some very important exams in a few weeks’ time. Your parents, anxious to do everything in their power to maximise your chance of succeeding in your new home, have already bought the crammers and text books, although they don’t really understand what they are about and your teachers seem a bit hazy on them as well. You aren’t even quite sure what an examination is, but every couple of days your teacher takes a few of you out of the classroom – thickies like you who can’t write fluent, grammatical sentences – and makes you work through twenty questions in about half an hour. She tries to be nice but you can’t understand why she helps you the first time and then the second time she makes you do them all on your own, even though you don’t understand and there are lots of things you need to ask someone about.

You know the teacher is trying really hard not to be cross with you but you still get the feeling that she’s worried about you doing badly, and you’re really frightened that one day she will be cross, really cross, because you are so stupid for being six and not able to speak this language and understand what modal verbs and conjunctions are.

On top of all this, she’s taking the class in the school reception area. It’s really noisy and full of interesting things happening and you are trying hard not to turn round and look because then you get told off for not listening.

That’s what our political masters are asking Key Stage One children and their teachers to do. I’m learning Italian at the moment and it’s really hard. Even if I was in a quiet, very dull room, I would struggle to take an exam in Italian grammar. And I am a motivated, fairly bright grown-up.

Should primary school children be learning grammar at all? I can see two sides of this question. As a child of the 60s, and a school librarian, my emotions come down in favour of kids learning to enjoy the English language and feel confident using it in creative ways before we worry too much about the nuts and bolts of sentence-building. However, I’m also aware that my daughter, who is a gifted linguist, really struggled to take her German beyond GCSE level because she hadn’t really been taught English grammar, let alone German grammar, in a structured way. She pulled through and has recently finished six very rewarding months at the University of Vienna. But that experience gave me some sympathy with my Italian friends who are rather horrified by the lack of grammatical grounding in English schools.

Beginning a foreign language myself in middle age has been a real eye-opener. I’ve realised that you can reach a level of basic competency within a few months, mainly on the basis of rote learning and guided repetition in a very limited selection of scenarios. That will get you through the holiday basics, if anyone abroad has the time and patience to listen to your struggles rather than switch to English. If you are really determined, you may be able to reach this stage of competence on the Internet alone.

But to go deeper, to reach the point when you can really engage with a language and culture, does require some knowledge of grammar. In some languages word order is everything; in others you need to make sure that noun (male/female, singular/plural), adjective and personal pronoun all agree – and learn all the exceptions that have crept in because they sound so much better (yes, Italian, I’m looking at you). This sounds incredibly dull, and few of us could claim that grammar drills are our favourite way of spending a spare hour, but it leads to windows opening on a completely different view of the world.

There is also a more abstract pleasure in discovering how different nations have tackled the challenge of forming words into a logical structure that enables people to navigate reality with clarity. So I came rather late to the belief that grammar is important, and can be interesting and even enjoyable to study. Grammar is right at the interface of the controversy over whether we allow language to evolve, or try to impose order upon it. I’ve realised that Italians codified and organised their language in a very precise way into what is, basically, a simplified and evolved form of Latin. English, by contrast, has been far more promiscuous in its borrowings and bodged solutions. That is probably what makes it such a difficult language to learn.

What worries me about the testing regime being imposed on children in schools by our present government is precisely what bothers me about the proposals to turn every school into an academy. I say this as someone who now works for an academy trust and has so far found it to be a liberating experience. It’s not a bad idea in principle. But it’s not right for everyone.

It seems to me that by insisting that young children master English grammar at such a sophisticated level, we are pandering to people who want to cling to a fantasy that the whole concept of Englishness is an easily defined and codified matter. We are telling them that there is only one way to tell a story, think a thought and construct their own view of reality. It’s particularly ironic and sad that in these times of multi-culturalism, we’re being so incredibly prescriptive about how six year olds should express themselves, and putting teachers under so much pressure to make them conform.

What would I like to see happening in primary schools? I’d like teachers to be trusted to know what works best for their pupils, and if they were paid a bit better and respected more, that wouldn’t hurt. I’d like them to have more time, so that if a child comes out with a sentence like, “I goodly hided it,” they can explain that although it follows some grammatical rules, and sounds rather charming, it’s not what English people usually say, and that such a disconnect is not another reason to groan and put your head in your hands, but the kind of interesting, human oddity that makes language learning so intriguing. I’d like children to realise that if they make a mistake people will correct them, but it’s not an examination, and if they keep on trying they will get it right. Anyone who’s learned a language will know how easy it is to be rendered mute by fear of making a mistake, even after hours of practice, when faced with a real live foreigner, and yet we’re asking children to overcome this fear of sounding silly in an artificially high-pressure and high-stakes environment.

If children must be drilled in examination conditions, I would like schools buildings to be less crowded and chaotic. You can’t concentrate if you are learning in a reception area, or the end of a corridor. It’s like giving people German lessons in the middle of Waterloo station and shouting at them for being distracted by the loudspeaker announcements. I’d like every school to have a fully staffed library and for children to have time to browse the stock and talk to the librarian about what they might enjoy. That means far more relaxed timetables. You will not get a seven-year-old Star Wars fan to try something else in five minutes a week.

And yes, I would like to see children taught grammar – there’s no harm in telling them what a noun and a verb are, but let’s get the basics in place first, so that when they do find themselves needing to know about subordinate clauses they are already writing complex enough sentences for the device to make sense. We learn by doing things, not by cramming theoretical questions under pressure. I hated every minute I spent learning French at secondary school. Now, over thirty years later, I’m revelling in discovering another European language. Education isn’t all fun, of course – our kids need to learn self-discipline and realise that. But there is a time and a place for everything and the best people to judge when that is are not politicians, but teachers.

And I can still remember having to write numerous times in an exercise book, at the age of seven, “I must never start a sentence with ‘and’.” And you know what? I just did. And the sky did’t fall in. If it was good enough for William Blake to do it when he wrote “Jerusalem,” it is hardly going to lead to the downfall of England’s green and pleasant land.



The 100 books “every child should read”

Here is a list, recently published by the TES, of the 100 fiction books that every child should read before leaving primary school:–

The first interesting thing about this list is that it’s in an educational journal rather than a parenting magazine. That in itself speaks volumes about what we expect of teachers today. When I was a child, if a child never read a decent book it wasn’t automatically considered to be a failure on the part of the teaching profession. But let’s pass over the causal link between impoverished reading choices and the wholesale closure of local authority libraries for the moment. That’s a whole separate post.

I’ve been running a primary school library for over 15 years. It’s an affluent area, the school is continually oversubscribed and the local population statistically one of the most highly educated in the country. So we are not talking about cultural deserts here.

Nevertheless, I read this list with slack-jawed astonishment. I have dealt with many very able kids who read voraciously, but never encountered one who willingly made their way through the entirety of Black Beauty or Treasure Island. I didn’t even get around to Treasure Island myself until my late 40s.

Culturally, the list is contradictory enough to give you vertigo. Treasure Island and Kipling sit cheek by jowl with a token contribution from Benjamin Zephaniah. Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, set in a 1940s independent girls’ boarding school, rubs shoulders with the admirable gender-neutrality of Tyke Tyler. Unbelievably, there isn’t a single mention of Harry Potter, yet the entire Skulduggery Pleasant and Artemis Fowl series are in there.

I’ve had parents complain that Skulduggery Pleasant really isn’t suitable for primary school age children (It’s about a dead detective, by the way. A skeleton, since you ask). I’ve also had teachers politely turn down Mr Men anthologies (the entire Roger Hargreaves canon makes the cut), on the grounds that they are stereotypical and reductive. Now all these decisions are to some extent controversial. Nevertheless, the fact that the list bristles with books that could be deemed offensive for all kinds of reasons, by different people, illustrates the difficulty of ever producing a definitive list of this kind.

Does it really matter? After all, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And that’s all this list is – the opinion of the unspecified teachers consulted. We aren’t told anything about the way that the question was phrased – were exhausted teachers at the end of another long day put on the spot and asked to remember a book they adored as children? Were they working in the independent or the state sector, were they retired, were they gay, straight, Muslim, evangelical Christian, etc? Before we take pronouncements like this seriously, we should bear that in mind.

So I repeat, does it matter? Yes, I would argue. It matters because anxious parents and educational professionals will take it seriously. Some will use it as yet another stick to beat teachers over the head with, demanding to know why children haven’t yet encountered the complete range of unmissable classics (or protesting strongly about the casual racism and cultural appropriation of some of its most cherished inclusions). There are a lot of worried parents out there, and they share their worries very readily with teachers, a profession where morale is already pretty much at rock bottom.

And meanwhile, the kids most in need of a varied, accessible range of books, and quality reading time with carers, will muddle through as best they can, increasingly under-resourced because the public libraries and Sure Start centres that provided such a valuable starting point for a love of learning are closing left, right and centre.

I’m not even sure that teachers are the best people to ask about the books children ought to be reading. Shouldn’t that be librarians? I know some brilliant teachers but they value my role because they freely admit that they haven’t time to keep up with children’s literature. They’re too busy ticking boxes.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 15-plus years as a librarian, it’s that there is no point whatsoever in trying to force Kidnapped down the neck of a kid who’d rather be reading Beast Quest, or The Railway Children on a seven-year-old devoted to Tom Gates. How many adults would read widely and happily if they were continually being berated for not tackling War and Peace?




Time’s Arrow – The Doctor and Robin Hood.


Not this shit again
Not this shit again


I nearly didn’t bother watching Robot of Sherwood, having found Mark Gatiss’s DW writing very uneven in the past. But that would have been a pity, because it was a delight. I don’t think I’ve been so consistently entertained by a light-hearted episode since The Shakespeare Code, which it resembled, probably intentionally. I loved the arrow moment (whatever the Doctor uses to heal the TARDIS, I wish I could get hold of some for pruning my fruit trees), revelled in the scatter-shot anachronisms and punched the air like a vindicated academic at Jenna Colman’s “You can take the girl out of Blackpool…” since I was raised on the Fylde Coast and my husband, a Londoner, has baited me with those very words for years.

I think I may look back on the reigns of Tennant, Smith and Capaldi as a Gallifreyan version of the Three Bears – Tennant was too full on, Matt left me with little to hang any emotional response on (though many disagree). Capaldi is just right. It’s as if the events of Day of The Doctor has allowed the Doctor to assert his identity as a Time Lord, instead of pretending to be human or capering around it. I am going to quietly ignore the ridiculous notion that he hung around on Trenzalore for over a thousand years; for me, this series has followed on directly from the last scene of the Special, as the Doctor comes home not only to Gallifrey, but also to himself. To use a Celtic term, he has come home to his house of belonging.

I can totally buy the Doctor as technological Luddite, using blackboard and chalk and real books to occupy his mind. Interestingly, only a few days ago I read an interview with David Mitchell, the Booker-nominated novelist, pointing out that humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels extends to the curation and transmission of culture, which is increasingly digitised and therefore reliant on electricity, and very poorly future-proofed. The Doctor has seen so many civilisations come and go, and what seems like the white-hot technological frontier to us is just another ripple on the sine wave to him.

The things I like best of all about Capaldi’s Doctor are his intelligence and his lack of manufactured charm. I love it that he can be petulant, irascible and fresh out of ideas. After a long walk around a very big block, we seem to be back to the grandfather/grandchild relationship. He’s a private person, modest about trumpeting his virtues and stating his needs, but not pathologically so. The penultimate scene, when he is able to hear Clara call him the Time Lord of Gallifrey without flinching, and the tacit acknowledgement that he was wrong about Robin Hood, with its unspoken subtext that the universe is no doubt full of people being similarly wrong about him, his postulated existence and his reputation, was a breath of fresh air after some of the fevered posturing of previous incarnations.

One of my favourite Matt Smith moments (yes, there were a few) couldn’t help but come to mind as Clara told the Doctor that he, too was the subject of myth. At his best, Eleven had a gentle, quiet and even humble acceptance of the power of stories, and his own place in them:

We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best: a daft old man, who stole a magic box and ran away….

(The Big Bang)

Or, to put it another way, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be in Edinburgh and have brunch at The Elephant House. Not only is it a great coffee shop with a view of Edinburgh Castle to die for, it has become a shrine to Harry Potter because it’s where JK Rowling worked on the first book of the series. If you ever need confirmation of the power of stories to shape lives, go for a pee at the Elephant House. It’s the only graffiti-covered toilet where I’d want to linger; every surface is covered with wonderful, heartfelt tributes to the creator of Harry Potter. Stories matter. They shape our reality. They give us confidence, and hope. They make us the people that we are, and help us to become the ones that we want to be.



The Sacking of Amanda Craig – so what?

Having recently given theatre critic and broadcaster Libby Purves the push, The Times has now done likewise to the distinguished children’s book critic Amanda Craig. Does it matter? Well, enough for the Society of Authors to write a letter of protest and for over 114 well-known writers, including Philip Pullman and Frank Cottrell Bryce, to add their voices to the campaign.

But they’re writers, aren’t they? You would expect them to look after one of their own. What about ordinary people? As one such person, I’d like to speak up and say I think it matters a lot, and I think that over the last 12 years of work as librarian of a primary school, I’ve earned the right to have a view on the subject.

The school where I work is nice, middle class and generally privileged. Nevertheless, many parents and even some teachers feel they haven’t really got the time to encourage children to read as widely as they would like. The days of browsing public libraries as I did as a child in the 1960s, picking up half-a-dozen books a week, are becoming a thing of the past. Partly that is due to library cuts, and also because parents find it difficult to make time for such unpressured Saturday morning activities. In these days of wraparound childcare, that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

There are, of course, an awful lot of children’s books getting published. Are they any good? Some of them are brilliant. But authors are at the mercy of publishers, who are, in turn, at the mercy of the market. Branding has always been a force in children’s fiction (look at those interminable Blyton series) but never more so than now. These days, syndicates of talented writers find themselves subsumed into the identity of a Daisy Meadows or an Adam Blade (Beast Quest), churning out formulaic fiction with a gender bias that would have horrified progressive parents in my childhood. A child can read a Rainbow Magic book every week for two years and never venture onto anything new. For slightly older kids, in this web-driven age where concentration spans last seconds, the next step is likely to be something dominated by cartoons and five wacky fonts on each page.

That’s not necessarily bad. I happen to think Diary of a Wimpy Kid is pretty good, and Cressida Cowell’s wonderful How to Train Your Dragon series takes the formula to inspired heights of boy-friendly lunacy. But anything that becomes a formula is in danger of discouraging experimentation, and the only way most kids are going to get the chance to do that is through a library. Even reasonably well-off parents are understandably reluctant to spend £5.99 three times a week on books their kids will either race through in one night or discard completely.

And that is why we need knowledgable, experienced reviewers like Amanda Craig. Yes, there’s the Internet, and literary festivals. But it’s not cheap taking your kids to a literary event, even if you manage to resist their pleas to buy the books. Unbiased literary criticism is vanishing from the general press, in favour of lack of innovation in a market-driven culture. Only a few weeks ago, in a wonderful speech, Neil Gaiman was pleading more eloquently than I ever could for children’s fiction to be taken seriously as an absolutely vital part of an innovative and imaginative culture. The sacking of Amanda Craig is another nail in the coffin of such hopes.

Why I Love Moominmama


“Quite, quite,’ she thought with a little sigh. ‘It’s always like this in their adventures. To save and be saved. I wish somebody would write a story sometime about the people who warm up the heroes afterward.” 

(Moominpapa at Sea)

Why does Finn Family Moomintroll mean so much to me? Because it captures the elements of the ideal childhood – endless, carefree mucking about in the natural world, adventures, friendship and, underpinning it all, the absolute security of the unflappably loving Moominmamma.

Moominmamma was the antithesis of my own conflicted mother, for whom the phrase “lost inside her own head” could have been invented. She is security personified, even in the most desperate situations. And in happier times, she’s so laid-back it’s beautiful. Anyone can show up at Moominhouse, stay as long as they like, and all she’ll ask is how many pillows they like. Her comfort and hospitality know no boundaries.

It’s only as you get older that you recognise the shadows Moominmama keeps away. When you read about the little creatures running away from Armageddon in Comet in Moominland you recognise the refugees in the Second World War. The comet becomes an atom bomb. And in happier times, you appreciate all the hard work that goes into looking after this crazy extended family, headed up by the tempramental and unpredictable Moominpapa who somehow expects everything to revolve around him while he sits in his study writing his memoirs, or emerges from time to time to turn family life upside down with his latest project. Moominmama has her opinions and occasionally expresses them (one of her farvourite asides is on my quotes page here) but she endures all gracefully and remains true to herself and her values.

Only one thing ever upsets her – the loss of her precious handbag. In my house the cry “Moominmama alert!” goes up whenever I mislay keys, iPhone or credit cards. I’ve tried to emulate Moominmama in keeping my own Moominhouse open to all who need warmth, security and pancakes. My children seem to think I’ve succeeded. I can think of no finer compliment.