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.



The Branding of Nadiya Hussain


Nadiya Hussain’s first novel has just been published – is there no end to this lady’s talents? She has already proved her worth on the Great British Bake Off, released a lovely kids’ cook book and proved to be a charming and natural TV travel show host. And of course, she is justly valued as an icon of everything that inclusive, multicultural Britain should be.

She’s a delightful person and a worthy Bake Off winner. I wish her all the best; so, I am sure, does Jenny Colgan. But I do share Colgan’s reservations about Nadia’s overexposure. It’s not just Nadiya of course; it’s almost a rite of passage for people who became famous on TV for some completely different reason to produce a work of fiction – at the very least, a children’s picture book. A lot of comedians do it and in the case of the popular David Walliams, to give one example, they turn out to be pretty good. This is hardly surprising since humour is a much-loved attribute of many children’s books.

In fairness to Nadia, she’s probably in the hands of an agent by now and has only limited choice over what opportunities she doesn’t take up. And she acknowledges that she didn’t write her novel on her own. I don’t think Jenny Colgan’s showing any jealousy or sour grapes here. But she’s identifying a somewhat depressing feature of modern cultural life, one that I see daily in my work with children’s books.

Children’s fiction has always featured long, much-loved and formulaic series. But at least Enid Blyton wrote her own books. She wasn’t part of a syndicate dreamed up by marketing moguls, subsumed into a generic Daisy Meadows or Adam Blade. The marketing of Nadiya shows that branding is everything in publishing these days. The best way to get a book published is not necessarily (some would say never) to be a good writer, but to be famous for something else already. What does that actually say to children about how much we value good writing? That it’s something you get to do after you’ve done the important stuff, the stuff like being in the Big Brother house or on The Apprentice? That once you’ve been famous for fifteen minutes you have a right to be heard and to be taken seriously? Where does that leave Jenny Colgan’s child, “in a chilly corner of your library, if you are still lucky enough to have one….by themselves, bespectacled probably; not wearing the trendiest clothes. And they are reading and reading and filling their head with nothing else but books and words and new worlds.”

Of course, publishers would argue that they have to make money and that’s what people want. But people tend to want what they have been told that they want, by multinational corporations with agendas of their own. And any corporation has a tendency to rub the messy edges off those creative people that come into its clutches. I think books have become so brand-saturated because as a society we have stopped valuing the gatekeepers, the teachers and librarians, the arbiters of taste. In a spirit of misplaced anti-elitism we have convinced ourselves that such people have no right to impose their cultural standards on us. Voters have consistently supported governments that have presided over the running down of libraries and the stifling of creativity in schools. The result is that many people are deeply uncomfortable around books, so much so that they need the presence of a comforting character to make the experience palatable to them.

I see this in the school library all the time. At one time I was dismayed by the number of shoddily written, cheap Disney picture books that some children craved. I also confess to a deep aesthetic aversion to Peppa Pig. But my prejudices have mellowed somewhat as I’ve interacted more with children who have not grown up with a lot of books around them. For a small child, a book works best in close proximity to an adult, someone offering them undivided attention and a feeling of security and acceptance. For many children – and not necessarily poor ones – that role is now filled by the iPad or the TV. No wonder that the presence of a Disney character reassures them. And if they are lucky enough to have people in their lives who will build on that by buying them books, those adults are increasingly tempted to play safe by buying the 90th title in an interminably formulaic series that they know the recipient will like.

When I was a regular churchgoer, I became familiar with the pronouncement that God loves us enough to take us as we are, but not to leave us as we are. It does us good to be gently, persistently and lovingly pushed out of our comfort zone. Or would our political masters prefer us to stay there, marooned in our bunkers and transfixed by our screens? The best way to do that is to run down libraries, until you end up with people who won’t contemplate reading anything that doesn’t have a person from the telly on the front of it. So far, it seems to be working.

Nadiya’s lovely and genuinely talented. Perhaps a little brand-stretching is a price worth paying for her value as a positive role model in this increasingly divided society. But to misquote Arthur Miller, I congratulate her with a sense of alarm.


The diplomatic guide to book donations


If you announce you are going to set up a school library, before long someone will say, “Why don’t  you ask people to donate books?” If you build it, they will come. And if you announce it, they will donate. Oh boy, will they donate.

I have to tread carefully here, because I am truly grateful to many people for their generosity in providing wonderful, high quality books for the school libraries I’ve been associated with. Having said that, let’s look at the nostalgia element a little bit.

I’ve worked primarily with middle class, 30-60 year old donors. Many have fond memories of books they loved in childhood. They want today’s children to have similar experiences. Unfortunately, though, today’s children live in a very different world. I work with a good few high-ability readers but in 15 years I have yet to hear of one making it all the way through the original edition of Winnie the Pooh, let alone Peter Pan or Anne of Green Gables. There are simply too many words, too great a density of text to image, and too great a remove from cultural reality, for most modern children to engage with, especially when a Disney DVD is only a click away.

Please, think carefully before donating classics. It’s sad to say this because I’ve had donations of beautiful, highly-produced books that must have cost a lot of money. But I have one library with four copies of The Wind in the Willows on the shelf. And I suspect that is where they will stay.

Social attitudes have changed beyond recognition since these books were published. Children have a natural suspension of disbelief and I’m sure many of them can enjoy Paddington completely untroubled by the Brown family living in Bloomsbury with a full- time housekeeper. But a book that unquestioningly accepts imperialism, that is condescending towards ethnic minorities, patronises the working classes, or perpetuates unhelpful gender stereotypes may not belong in the modern school library. (Okay, we do have a few Enid Blytons, but the Malory Towers ones have all been rewritten, you may be surprised to hear). You may feel that this amounts to political correctness gone mad, but modern schools have to work within certain ethical and cultural constraints, and the person to argue with about that is not the volunteer who has taken on stocking the library.

I have to confess that occasionally the reluctance of some children to engage with what I consider to be good literature has shocked me – much less so than a few years ago, but I still baulked at being asked to stock World Wrestling Foundation annuals and collections of the world’s 1,000 grossest fart jokes. People like to think their donations will steer children to the heights of edifying reading. Maybe not Kipling, but definitely Michael Morpurgo.

Morpurgo is awesome. He is, however, the kind of writer that people think children should like, rather than the sort they naturally want to read. He doesn’t go in for wacky fonts, fart jokes and comic book illustrations on every page, for one thing. He can be just a little worthy and didactic, and is often best introduced as part of a topic on the Second World War or similar – once discovered in this context, there are some children who will adore and devour his books. But they do tend to be the ones who love reading anyway.

It all boils down to what a school library is actually there to achieve. Is it to provide children who already read with more and better books (a worthy aim, of course) or to break down the resistance to reading that many kids, particularly older boys, instinctively feel? If you can subscribe to the first aim but flinch from the second, then you may feel uneasy at the thought of giving libraries money to spend on those rubbishy Tom Gates or Wimpy Kid books that Theo or Lily would have whizzed through in 45 minutes. Let alone a wrestling annual. I sympathise. I have been there myself. But it might be the latter that sets a reluctant reader, desperate not to look un-cool in front of his mates, on a life-changing reading journey.

Does that mean people shouldn’t donate? Not necessarily. Support is always welcome. And it’s nice to find a home for the books your children have outgrown. But if there’s someone in charge of the library, do ask what’s needed first and try not to take it the wrong way if you find your offering in a local charity shop. If you are leaving carrier bags full of books in the school reception area (or the book return box), thanks but add your name at least because it’s nice to say thank you. And maybe if you are thinking of spending money, how about donating some to pay for the plastic covers that will prolong the life of all those lovely books? Or if you have time, offer to come in and read to the children instead? If you really want them to know the joy of good old fashioned classics, that’s the way to make it happen.

The Benefits of Breakfast

Robin Lustig writes in today’s Guardian about the truly shocking amount of sugar in many breakfast cereals routinely consumed by children. This includes apparently healthy products: Raisin Bran, for example, contains raisins dipped into sugar solution because, apparently, the originals aren’t sweet enough to tempt little palates.

The physical outcomes of over-consumption of sugar are depressingly well known. Teachers will also be familiar with the effect fast-release carbs have on children’s concentration and behaviour. Just when the hard work of Literacy Hour kicks in, they’re heading for a sugar crash that leaves them grumpy and unfocussed.

Middle class parents will resolve to do better, only to cave in to pester power as the punishing routine of early starts and frayed tempers that characterises the working week begins to bite. Some schools will send home letters reminding parents that unhealthy additions to lunch boxes will be removed and perpetrators named and shamed. I sometimes wonder if the awarders of the Healthy Schools Initiative’s coveted certificates that deck reception areas are aware of the amount of chocolate and cake being guzzled out of sight in the staff room. It is surprising how many people pass through a busy primary school on visits, exchange schemes and placements, and feel the need to show their appreciation when they leave by donating sugary treats.

Worse still, many kids are coming to school on an empty stomach; sometimes yesterday’s school dinner was the last meal they had. Stories abound of teachers providing food out of their own pockets; I’m sure the main motive is altruism but it’s also true that one undernourished child can disrupt an entire class, dragging down those all-important SATS results.

Poverty, chaotic lifestyles, homelessness leading to the lack of a place to even prepare breakfast, can all have a disastrous impact on kids’ nutrition. And the remedy is simple – schools should be properly funded to provide a nutritious breakfast for every child. It won’t happen; the modest proposal to extend free school meals to all infant school children was controversial enough. Governments fear the wrath of the tabloid press too much to risk anybody apparently being offered something by the state that they don’t “deserve” or could in theory provide for their children themselves. But the demand is clearly there, and growing. Magic Breakfast are overwhelmed by requests for help. Universal breakfast provision would remove the stigma that still puts off many needy parents from requesting help, it would give children the chance to start the day in a structured and secure environment and allow schools to have control over the quality of the food the kids were eating.

Meanwhile, we have reached such a nadir in our social provision for the health of young children that those consuming several teaspoons of sugar at the breakfast table can be regarded as the lucky ones.

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!

Planet Earth II – The Movietisation of Wildlife


Anyone involved with getting children to read soon learns to keep up with what’s on TV. This year I’ve noticed an unusual addition to the pantheon of Disney princesses and super heroes – Sir David Attenborough.

I was reading David Walliams’ picture book The Bear Who Went Boo! when instinctively I put on a breathy, slightly preachy Attenborough voice for the TV wildlife presenter character who gives the titular character a telling-off, and the kids fell about. Meanwhile, requests for animal books have been taking off. It turns out that the driver of this enthusiasm, which refreshingly seems to transcend gender boundaries (fluffy kittens vs cool scary sharks) was Planet Earth II.

One thing we librarians find ourselves doing frequently is explaining the difference between non-fiction and fiction. I tend to feel uneasy about the proliferation of guides to fictional universes that mimic encyclopaedias and dictionaries – kids are already pretty muddled about what is and isn’t “real.” The strength of Planet Earth II is that it’s taken the pulling power and authority of a national treasure to head up the most cinematic natural history series ever seen on British telly. They’ve even got Hans Zimmer to write the score, and the editing and photography intentionally mimics the qualities that make movie blockbusters so enthralling.

Most important of all of these is narrative. We all love stories. We watch sequences like the breathtaking iguana vs snake smackdown on the edge of our seats. We sympathise with the ravenous lioness but still feel sorry for the giraffe she stalks. And I defy anyone not to chuckle when the brazen monkey in an Indian city market makes off with someone’s bottle of Sprite.

Not everyone relishes this approach to natural history. Martin Hughes-Games, producer of the more factual BBC wildlife programme Springwatch, complains that Planet Earth doesn’t take the reality of wildlife extinctions sufficiently seriously. “These programmes are still made as if this worldwide mass extinction is simply not happening,” he says, “The producers continue to go to the rapidly shrinking parks and reserves to make their films – creating a beautiful, beguiling, fantasy world, a utopia where tigers still roam free and untroubled, where the natural world exists as if man had never been.”

That does make me wonder if he actually saw the final episode about the interaction between humans and wildlife in cities, but I recognise his point. Of course (and there may be a little envy at work here) he’s right to say that Attenborough has turned natural history into a big theme park spectacular. When people with good intentions fall out in public there is often an element of wanting the same outcomes but disputing the road map to them.

The reality is that humanity has always relished stories. It’s how we learn, not only facts but empathy. Try talking to a six year old about whether we should kill a starving leopard that attacks someone on the way home. Ask a Hulk-fixated eight year old boy if he thought the snakes were cool when they throttled the iguana, or a sensitive child hooked on Magic Kitten stories if it would be right to intervene to help the disorientated baby turtle about to die in a storm drain.  They’ll have an opinion. Take it seriously, and they may just become the wildlife advocates of tomorrow. Or at the very least, they’ll take the first steps to appreciating the complexity of human relationships, both with each other and with the other species on this planet.