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.


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.


To class teachers and TAs – simple strategies so library lessons work for you.

Yesterday I had less than 10 minutes to deal with a class of 7 year old children. Some of them hadn’t got into the library for a while (because I work over multiple schools I’m not there every day) and were confused about whether they had returned their books. To compound the problem, the library is in an open reception area where, despite the presence of an expensive piece of furniture marked BOOK RETURNS, they sneak their overdue books back on to shelves rather than face the imagined wrath of the librarian – unwittingly doing precisely what infuriates me.

So it was that we had a keen reader visibly upset because he was “accused” of not bringing back a book. In fact he had, but it took me 15 minutes to figure that out and by then he was back in class, miserable, disappointed and probably not really very focussed on the work he’d been rushed away to get on with. It happens a lot, and the underlying reason is the constant pressure teachers feel under, and their lack of control over the curriculum and the structure of the day. So my issue is with the system, not the teachers who are like me, struggling to do a challenging job with limited resources.

But I don’t think teachers always realise how anxious children can feel in a library. How sensitive and vulnerable they can feel in case they appear “thick” or “babyish” in front of their peers. The perception that libraries are only for really clever people, ie, not them. I often get children wanting to change their book multiple times within one session, as they grab a 400 page Jacqueline Wilson, then read the first two pages and panic. Teachers, thinking they will make my life easier and probably also mindful of the time-consuming task of chasing overdue books (which many children either deny borrowing, don’t remember borrowing, or lie about having returned), often impose rather draconian rules. Only one book at a time, zero tolerance of overdue loans, threats to send a letter home and demand payment (do they stop and think about how this might affect a child with a chaotic home life or even a violent parent?) Probably not, because most teachers don’t have nearly enough time to stop and think these days; even the best of them become systems-driven under stress.

Finding a book that is appropriate to a child’s age and reading ability is one of the most challenging jobs for a librarian, and we sometimes go into it with scant information about the child involved. Children put up numerous defensive strategies when they feel anxious. They lie, they bluff, they pretend they don’t care by saying books are babyish and boring, when in fact they simply feel out of control in an unfamiliar environment. And many of these problems intensify as they move through primary school if they aren’t nipped in the bud by a librarian or a teacher who knows them well.

So my plea to teachers is, please try to give your children time. I know how hard this can be. Consider sending them to the library in smaller groups, rather than worrying about tying up a TA because thirty of them are coming in at the same time. Work with your librarian, if you are fortunate enough to have them, on systems to make the process of returning overdue loans clear and straightforward. It is amazing how much difference it makes to how a library session goes if you don’t have to spend the first ten minutes of it sorting out who has brought books back and arguing about it. Collect the children’s returned books in a clearly labelled box on the morning of library day, and get it to the librarian in advance. Then library time will be an enjoyable and confidence-building experience for the children, rather than a frustrating exercise in either queuing up or running riot while the librarian works through a series of “did-I-bring-my-book-back-Miss?” exchanges.

Ultimately we’re on the same side, so let’s help one another. And if you’re in Y5 and you want to borrow a picture book, good on you. You don’t even have to tell me it’s for your little brother.

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.