library

A Tiny, Bookish Island of My Own

YAshot
As part of YAshot bloggers tour, Sally Nicholls, author of Ways To Live Forever, Close Your Pretty Eyes, and most recently An Island Of Our Own, guest posts on MinervaReads. Sally is a Waterstones Children’s Book Prize winner and a Carnegie Medal nominee, and I am delighted and proud to host her writing today.

Ways to Live ForeverClose Your Pretty EyesAn Island Of Our Own

A TINY, BOOKISH ISLAND OF MY OWN

You could say the idea for An Island of Our Own begins in a library.

It is 1996. I am twelve years old, and a student at a small, failing, private school in North Yorkshire. There are ten other children in my class. There are probably lots of educational advantages to being in a class of eleven children, but as far as twelve-year-old me is concerned, they are all outweighed by a more pressing disadvantage; namely, that there are five other girls in my class, none of them are very similar to me, and they all have a best friend already.

Our class are supposed to hang out in our form room at lunchtime, but if there’s one thing worse than not having any friends, it’s not having any friends publicly, so I don’t. I go and hang out in the library instead.

As an author, I visit a lot of school libraries. They are, generally, large, bright, well-stocked places, full of computers and new books and children. The library at the school I go to at 14, when my small, failing private school finally fails, and I am moved to the local comp, is like that; cheerful, well-run and extremely well-used.

This library is not.

This library is two small rooms, full of books, most of which are look at least thirty years old, some much older. There is no full-time librarian, just a notebook, in which you write your name, when you took a book out, and when you return it. There are very few children’s books, in my memory at least, although in my school’s defence this is partly because each English classroom also has one of those bookcases on wheels full of more recent purchases. The library is not where the Anne Fines and Beverley Naidoos and Robert Westells live. It is where the old books retire to gently moulder. And it is, almost always, completely empty, except for me.

I don’t get most of my books from this library. At twelve, I am obsessed with science fiction and fantasy, Terry Pratchett and Isaac Asimov and Anne McCaffery, whose books include a lot of children, as though she’s half aware that a lot of her readers, like me, aren’t quite ready for the world of adult fiction yet. I get most of my books from the local library, who have been ordering in complete series for me free of charge since the day I discovered Enid Blyton. I lug enormous hardback Tad Williams books around in my schoolbag, and occasionally attempt to read them under the table in Biology, with mixed results. But I do borrow some books from this library. It’s here that I first read 1984 and Animal Farm. It’s here that I discover that the woman who wrote The Secret Garden wrote another book about a little princess in a garret, one of the few children’s books in the place. And it’s here that I hit a goldmine; a whole shelf of hardback Nevil Shutes.

I had discovered Nevil Shute some years earlier, when my mother mistakenly allowed us to watch the TV adaptation of Pied Piper, believing it to be a children’s story about rats in Hamelin, discovered her mistake when we were far enough in to be interested in the children in the story, regretted it when we were treated to a shot of a roadside littered with corpses, and decided – knowing the book – that the best thing to do was keep going until we got to the happy ending. My mother lets me read anything I want, but is quite strict in what I am allowed to watch, so this – quite mild – brush with Nazi interrogators and dead bodies stays in my memory. And when I find the book while staying with one of her friends, I read and enjoy it.

So I trust this shelf of Nevil Shutes, and I read them, despite the lack of elves and robots. Some rather bore me. I am a lot less interested in aeroplanes than Shute is. His rather melancholy portrayal of mid- and post-war Britain depresses me – it is a melancholy I am not yet old enough to understand.

But what I love is the ordinariness of his heroes, especially when he dumps them in hair-raising life-or-death dramas. The shy, ugly, socially inept aeronautical engineer who finds himself, mid-Atlantic, on a plane whose tail is about to fall off, and can’t persuade anyone else to believe him. The typist from Perivale who not only saves a collection of female POWs from the Japanese, but goes on to turn an Australian outback village into a town like Alice, pretty much solely because she wants somewhere nice to live. And the elderly fisherman in Pied Piper who rescues twelve children from occupied France, more-or-less by accident.

And Keith in Trustee From the Toolroom.

I love Keith. Keith is exactly the sort of hero you want when you are twelve, and shy, and keep failing at basic tasks like Wearing The Right Sort of Shoes. Keith has a nice life designing model engines in a nice little two-up-two-down with his nice wife. He is middle-aged and balding and completely unequipped for the plot Nevil Shute forces on him; rescuing some illegal diamonds from a desert island in Polynesia. But he gives it his best shot, because he’s nice, and because it’s important. And, rather wonderfully, he succeeds, not by derring-do and bravado, but because people all over the world remember small acts of kindnesses that he’s done for them (he’s much better at replying to fan mail than I am), and want to repay him.

Trustee From the Toolroom is a book about the kindness of strangers. Like all of Shute’s heroes, Keith succeeds because he’s kind, and conscientious, and a bit dorky, not despite it.

An Island of Our Own is my homage to that book. It’s a homage to heroes who are ordinary (several bloggers said shy, geeky Jonathan was their favourite character, and I love that), and who achieve their (slightly fantastical) goals because of their ordinariness, not despite it. It’s about using technology and the internet to solve problems, partly because I live on the internet, and I think it gets a bad rap, and partly because Shute would have loved it even more. And it’s a love letter to the kindness of strangers, something that, when the internet gets right, it is glorious at.

Kindness. Libraries. Ordinary people. That’s three of my favourite things right there.

Sally Nicholls

For more information on YAshot please click here. With special thanks to author Alexia Casale, who put me in touch with Sally Nicholls. To purchase any of Sally’s books, please click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.

School Libraries: the best bang for your education buck

Next week marks the end of Malorie Blackman’s tenure as Children’s Laureate. I will be sad about this, not only because Malorie has been a terrific laureate, but because she strongly advocated for school libraries. She has asked on numerous occasions why it is mandatory in this country for every prison to have a library, but not every school.

In fact this month also marks a year passing since the publication of the report, The Beating Heart of the School, by the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group about improving educational attainment through school libraries and librarians.

But in the past year I’ve seen more and more school librarians being made redundant, and visited more schools in which the library space is simply a bookshelf in the middle of a corridor, or schools in which the sole person looking after the library is a mealtime supervisor who merely ‘tidies shelves’.  There are obviously budget and space constraints, but it would be good to stop using these as excuses and start trying to re-prioritise.

I’ve banged on before about how reading improves a child’s chances in life. Studies in the US point to the fact that students in schools with effective library programs learn more, get better grades and score higher on standardised tests than their peers in schools without (American Library Association). Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education (Institute of Education, 2013). Students who have access to and use school libraries are more likely to hold positive opinions on reading – they are twice as likely as non-users of libraries to say they enjoy reading. Also non-users were three times as likely to say that reading was boring.

Researchers have also found that spending £100 per primary school pupil on books has a greater impact on average test scores across English, maths and science than the same amount spent on ICT or staffing (Open University/Liverpool John Moores/Liverpool Hope University). According to statistics from Booktrust, 61 per cent of primary schools spent less than £10 per pupil per academic year on library books. In fact Britain spends less money on books in secondary schools than any other developed country.

Statistics from last year show that 1 in 4 children cannot read well by the time they leave primary school, and it’s increasingly evident in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. For these children in particular, school libraries are their only access to books.

There is still no data available on the number of school libraries, particularly in primary schools, nor of numbers of librarians or expert staff (although scant data has emerged that between 2012-2014 280 school librarians were cut from the system); meanwhile the number of school library services (council run bodies who provide expertise and resources to schools on children’s books) continues to dwindle. A 2007 Booktrust survey showed that two thirds of primary schools who did have libraries did not staff them with a librarian, library assistant nor a teacher. It’s important not just to have a stack of books, but to have a trained expert who can disseminate information gathering to the children, who can recommend the right sorts of books, and can demonstrate how important reading and love for reading is.

There’s a great deal more to being a school librarian than tidying shelves. Turnover of stock, preparing welcoming library displays, book competitions, involvement in the wider book community, author visits, recommendations, repairing broken books, replacing lost books, advising the school on books for use in the classroom and topic work, explaining how research is done – how information can be sifted and gathered, providing a safe haven in the school – a quiet contemplative place to study, showing love for reading by example, knowing the children’s book market and the range of titles available, reading with the children, leading book discussions….

Back in 2011 there was a campaign from the National Literacy Trust to promote school libraries and a plea to stop school libraries services from closing, as without a qualified librarian or expert in children’s books, the SLS was some schools only option. Despite this, it is still not a requirement of OFSTED to consider libraries in their reports. School librarian Caroline Roche said that on Ofsted inspections librarians need to “jump up and down saying: Look at me.”

If the government wanted to eradicate illiteracy, or even just promote reading for pleasure, all our schools should be centres of excellence for reading; it should be as important for a child to have a school librarian as a school teacher. And it would also take some of the burden from those teachers – who wouldn’t have to compensate by also attempting to be experts in children’s literature and information services, but have, on hand, an expert of their own.

Yet it doesn’t seem as if progress has been made. I can’t find data on which schools have staffed libraries. Anecdotal stories tell me that librarians are a dying breed. And we cannot rely on volunteers. Well-meaning grandparents can’t fill the gap of an expert. Charity book donations may stock a school library full with Enid Blytons or Roald Dahl books, but it’s time we taught our children there’s a book out there to suit everyone, and a welcoming person on hand to help them find it and love it. Maybe if we gave more of our school children access to and advice on books, we wouldn’t need to be building all those prisons, complete with their own libraries.

 

 

Ten Picture Books Published in 2014

I wasn’t writing my blog in 2014 (well not until the very end), so in order to catch up with the new brilliance emerging in picture books, here are some of my favourites from last year. The good news is that now it’s 2015 they should all be appearing in paperback sometime soon if not already. Note that many of these are not just for 4-6 years, many 8 year olds have enjoyed these equally, if not more, and teachers will love the rhyming language, clever plot devices and nuances of some of them. Others can be studied for style alone.

Oi Frog

Oi Frog by Kes Gray and Jim Field
Top billing for this book in which a disdainful cat explains to a frog where he ought to sit. This book is totally hilarious – worth reading over and over again, particularly if you can get the tone of voice right for the cat. It’s a rhyming book, inspiring children to shout out the punchlines before you get to them. The beauty of the book is the extreme simplicity of the concept –which animal sits on which object? The cartoon-like illustrations of the animals will have everyone in fits of laughter from the beginning endpapers of the frog to the lambs sitting on jams, the bees sitting on keys, the pumas sitting on ….. – no, I shan’t give it away. Buy the book!

you are not small

You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant
This is a picture book where the pictures are everything (and no wonder as the illustrator is none other than the New Yorker illustrator Christopher Weyant). You Are (Not) Small attempts to explain relativity to children. Not a detailed theory of Einstein, but simply that everything is relative depending on your standpoint. Two hairy nondescript creatures argue over whether one is small or one is big until a bigger creature comes along, and some much smaller ones too – and suddenly big is not big but smaller, and small is not small but bigger. Confused? Without pictures it’s easy to be, but with pictures it’s not only clear but also hilarious. Two astute punchlines at the end make this a giggle for the children, as well as an interesting lesson.

little elliot

Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato
Another picture book on the topic of size, and with amazing illustrations – but this is quite different from You Are (Not) Small. Little Elliot is an overwhelmingly cute elephant, but small of size. He lives in a big city – Mike Curato has drawn almost Edward Hopper-like New York cityscapes – old fashioned with towering city blocks and a bustling subway packed with people in hats. Elliot can’t manage in the big city, even struggling to reach the counter to buy a prized cupcake in a pink cake box. Then he bumps into someone smaller than him (a mouse), and by doing this mouse a good deed, feels as if he is the tallest elephant in the world. The landscape changes abruptly to reflect his mood. This is a highly stylized depiction of size, with a huge emotional impact, especially when we discover that Elliot has not only gained confidence, but gained a friend.

on sudden hill

On Sudden Hill by Linda Sarah, illustrated by Benji Davies
Far, far from the city, this picture book also packs a punch emotionally, but the setting couldn’t be more different. On Sudden Hill is set in a deliberately unrecognisable everyman’s countryside, where rabbits and chickens frolic in the long grass. Birt and Etho are two boys who climb up Sudden Hill to play their imaginary games with each other. Then one day a third boy arrives, but his arrival has difficult consequences for Birt, who seems to have lost his “two-by-two rhythm”. He shows his frustration in anger, and then withdraws, and it takes a while before the boys can find their new “three-by-three rhythm.” The illustrations are almost whimsical in the way they hark to a childhood time of freedom, of swinging in trees, larking with discarded materials, and seemingly having all day to play under the sunshine. As in Little Elliot, the drawings are of an American landscape and the story delivers a fine message.

sam and dave

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
A definite two-by-two rhythm here as Sam and Dave are two small boys working towards a goal together. There’s a camaraderie between the two that one imagines is shared between author and illustrator, as the text and images play off each other to make the jokes. The images are in muted colours in the same way as the boys’ conversation is sparse and unembellished. As On Sudden Hill it relates to a childhood where all day could be spend digging a hole just for the sake of doing it. The reader is let in on certain jokes from the illustrator while the boys dig deeper and deeper. The whole text, images and pages from the very beginning to the very end need exploring for the reader to fully understand the whole context, the in-jokes and where Sam and Dave get to with their hole. Nothing to be given away here – you’ll have to buy it.

the something

The Something by Rebecca Cobb
Another hole, but this one is a complete mystery. Rebecca Cobb’s protagonist (described as a boy on the publisher’s website although to me the cleverness is that the child could be a boy or a girl) loses his ball down a hole in the garden, and spends the rest of the book imagining (with the help of friends and family) what could be down the hole. The book comes alive with the small deft touches at which Rebecca Cobb is so brilliant, the cowardice of the father figure, the imaginary mouse house beyond the hole, the diverse group of friends, the animals whose actions mimic those of the grandparents. This is a surprising and wonderful picture book, which, like On Sudden Hill, captures the power of imagination, and the beautiful landscape of the outside.

shh we have a plan

Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton
The power of colour screams from this blue book. This deserves a slow read – the text is almost a by-product, as all the action, characterisation and plot occurs through pictures alone. It’s a clever device, and if savoured, will result in your children clutching themselves in laughter. It did mine. Four hunters attempt to capture a bird, and fail every time. It’s a classic convention, yet executed in a stunning format. Each page is tones of blue – both hunters and landscape – the only extra colour being the hunted bird. Chris Haughton has a very distinctive style and he uses it to aplomb here.

teacher monster

My Teacher is a Monster (No I am Not) by Peter Brown
Again, an interesting use of colour for Peter Brown’s book, which as in Shh! We Have a Plan shows plot development through picture rather than text. The colours throughout are shades of brown and green – slowly turning to some turquoise and blue, and like Chris Haughton, Peter Brown’s style is truly distinctive. Initially Ms Kirby, the teacher, is portrayed as quite a monster. She roars in class, and stomps about with threatening behaviour. But then Bobby, from class, bumps into his teacher in the park at the weekend, and gradually they get to know each other. Bobby rescues Ms Kirby’s hat when it’s whipped away in the wind – and Ms Kirby suggests they fly paper aeroplanes – the same deed for which she had scolded her class earlier in the week. Then before his and our eyes, gradually her monster features are softened, and then disappear altogether through Peter Brown’s clever drawings, until in the end we see that she’s an ordinary lady. Peter Brown is showing us how we fear the unfamiliar, but if we overcome the otherness, then no fear remains.

ralfy rabbit

Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar by Emily MacKenzie
Reminiscent of many other books that demonstrate a character’s intense love for books (see Bears Don’t Read by Emma Chichester Clark, and The Snatchabook by Helen Docherty), Ralfy Rabbit is another addition to the book lover’s library. However, Ralfy Rabbit stands apart for the massive attention to detail in the pictures and text. His lists of books will have adults chortling (The Rabbit with the Dandelion Tattoo), just as much as the children will be oohing after the cute rabbit pictures. Ralfy Rabbit loves books so much that he starts stealing them. Arthur is a little boy who discovers who is stealing all the books, but no one will believe him. His teacher’s attitude is astute and funny: “I want you to go away and have a long, hard think about what you are saying”, as is the bunny line-up when Ralfy Rabbit is eventually caught. The punchline – that a place exists from which you can borrow books – the library – is truly apt for our times. Let’s hope Ralfy Rabbit and public libraries have the longevity they deserve.

sloth slept

Sloth Slept On by Frann Preston-Gannon
Another picture book that explores the value of books is Sloth Slept On. When two children discover a sloth in their garden, they attempt to find out where it comes from – of course it doesn’t tell them – it’s always asleep. After coming up with a myriad of possibilities using their wild imaginations, they discover the answer by looking in a book and on a globe. Then the children need to work out how to get the sloth home – with interesting consequences, and a particularly funny punchline, which is alluded to throughout if you pay attention. The illustrations are adorable – from the sloth’s upturned mouth while it sleeps to the two playful and curious children. A winner for younger children.

 

 

Libraries: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

My local council is proposing to close my public library. I’m not alone – this is happening all over the country. My blog isn’t political though, so I’m not going to explore our campaign, although if you’re interested please go to the links at the end.

According to the National Literacy Trust a child who visits a library is twice as likely to be a fluent reader as one who does not. There is a flush of excitement on the faces of the children who come into my library for library club. They are keen to read, to push open the doorway to their imaginations, to discover mindblowing facts and to share them with me. We learn new words, read incredible stories, laugh at jokes, and gasp at information. This week in the library we discussed the word ‘shone’, we giggled that mice park their boats at the hickory dickory dock, we discovered that you can have a trip to the moon, a pet monster, pirates and a genie’s lamp all in one story (Monstar Marks a Wish by Steve Cole, illustrated by Pete Williamson), and we learned that the study of clocks is called horology.

The author SF Said says that libraries are cathedrals of books, temples of information. My library constantly surprises me. It’s a treasure trove of inspiration and creativity.

My favourite books celebrating libraries are as follows:

Homer the library cat

Homer, the Library Cat by Reeve Lindbergh, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf
A delightful rhyming book that explores the sense of peace that can be obtained in a public library space. Homer the cat is spooked by a loud bang from the bins and rushes off to find his owner, ‘the quiet lady’. He finds noise everywhere throughout the town, until he reaches a beautiful building, within which he can hear his ‘quiet lady’ and some children. The library in this book clearly has no budget shortage – a large building with marble floors, and a dedicated librarian for storytime. Homer soon discovers the joy of the library – the comfort of the storyteller’s chair, the colourful books, the playful children, the quiet of storytime and snacks:
“The boys and girls loved Homer.
Homer loved them back.
He slept right through the stories
but woke up for the snack.”

Otto the Book Bear

Otto the Book Bear by Katie Cleminson
Otto is a bear, but like Homer the cat, also on the prowl for a place of refuge, acceptance and books. Otto the Bear lives within a storybook, and is happiest when the children are reading his book, but he also comes to life when they’re asleep. Sadly, one day the children move away and Otto is left behind. The story follows his adventures as he struggles to find a safe, welcoming sanctuary. He finally discovers a “place that looked full of light and hope.” Of course, it’s a library, and Otto discovers books, other book creatures like himself, and of course many many readers. Simply told and illustrated, this is a heartwarming story to introduce the youngest audience to a love of books.

library lion

Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
This exquisite, slightly longer picture book, pitched at an older age group, features a library’s set of rules: no running, quiet at all times etc. One day a lion appears in the library, but he doesn’t break the rules and he appears to want to help the librarian, and so he becomes a regular fixture, helping small children to reach books, providing a back rest during storytime.

library lion inside3library lion inside2

Until, the day when he does break the rules of the library, and not able to overcome his own shame, he leaves. The librarian and the people in the library are distraught – he broke the rules for good reason, and so in the end he is sought, found and welcomed back. The soft images are suffused with light, warmth and pathos – this is a stellar example of library envy – you almost feel you want to jump into the book. There is also a distinct cleverness in this book – for although a picture book – the portrayal of the librarian is so strong, that you really feel you know Miss Merriweather’s character by the end of the book.

the librarian of basra

The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter
Another lady librarian, this is a careful depiction of the true story of Alia Muhammad Baker, a remarkable woman who did all she could to save the wonderful books in her library from destruction as bombs rained around her in Basra, Iraq. In fact she saved 70 per cent of the books in her library, at considerable danger to herself. This is a great story for children aged 6 and over to explore the impact of war, to discover that one should stand up for one’s beliefs, and have courage in the face of danger. Ultimately, it speaks to everyone about the power and importance of books, and preserving culture and history. It tells the story incredibly simply, leaving out lots of details, but the scarcity of words adds to the atmosphere and lends itself to being read by children – the true circumstances of the war would be too cumbersome at this age. Illustrated with bright bold acrylics, it also gives children a sense of a culture from a different part of the world. There is an author’s note at the end to give background information.

photo posted on post-gazette.com

It’s a shame that so many booklovers and librarians nationwide have to now battle with their councils to keep public libraries open. I’ll leave Neil Gaiman to have the last word on libraries:

“If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”

2014 Seighart Report on Public Libraries

Save Barnet Libraries information

Save Barnet Libraries petition