reading aloud

A School Author Visit

I don’t remember meeting any authors when I was a child. My school had a well-stocked library with a librarian, and I do remember checking out books from there and the public library, and discovering a host of intriguing and exciting fiction and non-fiction on the bookshelves, but I don’t remember having a Book Week or author visits. We certainly didn’t dress up for World Book Day. That only started 18 years ago, and I left school before then. In fact, one of my favourite authors was Noel Streatfield – I didn’t know until after I left school whether Noel was a man or a woman – it didn’t matter. The author was largely anonymous, a system only for finding a book on the shelf, or reading more of the same.

For the next generation though, authors of books are REAL, alive (most of the time) and KNOWN. They may go to a school that encourages author visits, or attend book signings at a local bookshop or library, or attend literature festivals, such as the Southbank Imagine Children’s Literature Festival and meet authors in person. Suddenly these authors become celebrities (Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz), or in some cases, celebrities become authors (David Walliams, David Baddeil, Helen Skelton).

Authors have always been fundamental for writing, but now they have become fundamental to the reading process. On a cynical basis, I would attribute this to both increased marketing strategies and our celebrity culture. Authors are expected to provide a profile, whether it be on social media or in public life, as well as carrying out a fair bit of their own selling. For authors of children’s books, this often means visiting schools (which also serves a dual purpose as it creates an extra revenue stream as most authors make very little money from the sale of their books).

Pity the author who doesn’t have a SPARKLING personality or isn’t good at public speaking – by association they may tarnish their books. For those who can tell a good joke or strum a guitar they may gain a whole new audience for their stories. And after all, didn’t our storytelling all come from an oral tradition anyway? The notion of a writer scratching away with quill and ink in an impoverished attic was always rather Victorian.

What do children gain from seeing an author of a book? Not every author is as famous as David Walliams or Jacqueline Wilson, so what do the children think when it’s an author whom they’ve not heard of, with books they’ve never read, and are only prepped by their school the week or two before the visit?
Of course there are certain benefits that are readily talked about – it creates an excitement around reading, and books of all kinds not just by that author – it can inspire children, as passion for reading is something that is caught, not necessarily taught – and it can provoke children to write creatively themselves, believing it to be a ‘job’ they could do. These are all hugely important. This is something that the Patron of Reading scheme delivers in particular – you can read about them here.

I quizzed some school children recently about author visits. Why does it have to be an author of a published book? Surely a librarian – someone with knowledge of books, a good reading-aloud voice, a passion for literature and knowledge of the book market could equally well do a school visit, read books and inspire children. They admitted it wasn’t the same. For children, and I would argue adults too, there is something hugely special about seeing the author’s name in print on the front of the book – and if they are standing in front of you holding their product, then that’s something particularly special. It’s even better than Sir Tim Dyson vacuuming in front of you. But there was something else that came up that was surprising and special. Although any teacher, librarian or visitor could deconstruct a book – guess what came next, ask questions about the narrative, speculate on different endings and meanings – only the author had the ‘absolute’ truth in his head.

Having the author there to question on the story is like being able to get a glimpse inside someone else’s brain – in their dreams and imagination, in their feelings and reveries. The author is the only person who won’t reinterpret the book but has the ultimate interpretation of it – can discuss its origins and machinations, its complexities and issues, the versions it went through before its finalisation, with total authority. And then, and this is the bit that finally made me giggle – the children felt they could properly critique it.

I’ve yet to come across a school that didn’t heartily embrace the author who had come to visit – children who didn’t come away with a renewed vigour and warmth for reading, and a special place in its school library for those coveted signed books. If you’re an author, do a school visit, and if you’re a school, invite an author in. It’s mutually beneficial.

 

Bridging the Gap

I’m really excited today to have a blog post about four fantastic series of books for newly independent readers. They bridge the gap between picture books and first fiction brilliantly, all with a stunning combination of text and pictures that work so well together they could be described as picture books – and yet they reach new heights by appealing to young readers longing to explore text on their own, and feel as if they are reading ‘grown-up’ chapter books. I must caveat this though, by saying that newly independent readers haven’t grown out of picture books. As I said previously here, one is never too old for a picture book – some picture books work for children all the way through school and into adulthood.

However, first chapter books can be jolly good fun. Some publishers release certain titles as both picture books and chapter books – eg. Winnie the Witch and Mrs Pepperpot.

Claude in the City

One of the most popular series in my school library is Claude by Alex T Smith. These never stay on the library shelves for long – with good reason. This is a series of books about a dog, who is in no way ordinary! Claude in the City exemplifies all that is good and appealing about this series. The stories are exquisite – Claude always notices what’s interesting and different about things – as a child would. The accompanying drawings are terrific– all the humans always look at Claude with a slightly disdainful look, as if a dog shouldn’t be doing the human things that he does. Claude looks perfectly at home in his beret and jacket in whichever place he chooses to go, be it looking at sculpture in an art gallery or sipping his hot chocolate at the table in the café. He is marvellously eccentric and endearing. He has a sock as a pet, whom he takes to hospital in part 2 of Claude in the City, in his own home-made ambulance. The scenes in the hospital are hilarious, from Claude taking temperatures with a banana to the diagnosis of his sock. It’s a fantastic read with both witty and silly humour and a child’s sense of wonder and fun. The titles are printed with one tone colour red, which make them bright and appealing. The text is split into easy bite-sized chunks, but the stories are meaty and fulfilling and often have a separation of parts, which gives the reader a boost of confidence for managing a bigger book. Titles include Claude on Holiday, Claude on the Slopes, Claude in the Spotlight, Claude at the Circus, and Claude in the Country. In fact, Alex T Smith is bringing out a picture book version of Claude in June of this year. The six young fiction titles were enjoyed equally by the children I tested them with – from aged five to aged 10 years. You can buy the Claude books from Waterstones here

squishy mcfluff

Another excellent series, currently with three books out, is Squishy McFluff, The Invisible Cat. This is a rhyming series by Pip Jones and illustrated by Ella Okstad, which is equally enjoyable and endearing, but I won’t say too much more as I’ve already reviewed it here.

wigglesbottom primary

A new series, which I’m really excited about is Wigglesbottom Primary by Pamela Butchart and illustrated by Becka Moor. The first title in the series is The Toilet Ghost, although this book has three stories contained within. Also one-tone colour, this time green, Wigglesbottom Primary relates the happenings of one class at the school from a first person perspective, in a chatty tone as if this child were telling you the story verbatim: “One time Gavin Ross asked to go to the toilet, and when he came back he was completely SOAKED.” The text makes good use of capital letters and much dialogue. I can report that much dialogue in CAPITAL LETTERS does indeed happen in school! The three stories are well-contained, well told and simply plotted, and each one is great fun. The camaraderie of the pupils in the classroom comes across well, as does the joyfulness of school days. Becka Moor’s illustrations highlight the different personalities of the pupils and seamlessly merge with the text. Really hoping for many more in this series…this pairing of author and illustrator really knows how to make children laugh. Another one that stretches across the age band from five to 10 years old. Click to buy

woozy the wizard

Lastly, but by no means least is Woozy the Wizard by Elli Woollard and illustrated by Al Murphy. This is one of those books that screams to be read aloud, in fact when it dropped through the postbox I had to stop myself running into the street and grabbing someone to read it to. Woozy the Wizard: A Broom to Go Zoom is the latest in the series. It’s told in rhyming verse and describes the travails of a wizard called Woozy in a village called Snottington Sneeze. Although aimed at four years and over, I think that much older children will delight in this piece of poetry, which has a combination of excellent vocabulary and made up words. Rhyming is great for newly independent readers who find it helpful as the words just drop into place:
‘Woozy!’ Titch cackled.
‘You nincompoop nit.
Your hoover’s not made yet –
it comes as a kit!
You need globules of glue,
You need screws, you need pliers,
And hammers and spanners and
wrenches and wires.’
Woozy’s clearly as good at flatpack as I am. It appeals to the child in the adult, as well as the child, and full colour pictures make this a pleasure from start to finish. Again, more please! Click to buy.

Reading Aloud: the key to nurturing passionate readers

Do you read aloud to your children? The recent Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report, Jan 2015, suggests that reading aloud to your children all the way through primary school, well beyond when they become an independent reader, has a link to their general love of reading. For 41% of children who are ‘frequent readers’, the critical factor is that their parents kept reading aloud to them after the age of six.

What do I mean by frequent readers? I mean those who read for fun five to seven days a week, infrequent readers only read for fun less than one day a week. Frequent reading makes a real difference. “Enjoyment of reading has a greater impact on a child’s educational achievement than their parents’ socio-economic status” OECD Reading For Change, 2002, 2009. “Children who read for pleasure make more progress in maths, vocabulary and spelling between the ages of 10-16 than those who rarely read.” Institute of Education, 2013.

In fact parental involvement in reading is one of the biggest factors in determining if your child will be a lifelong reader. If you read aloud to them frequently before they started school, they are 60 per cent more likely to be frequent readers, and this will continue if you have books at home, make frequent trips to the library, discuss books they are reading, and are seen to be reading yourself.

What may surprise you is that generally we’re not reading aloud to them. The Scholastic report tells us that 52 per cent of children aged 0-2 yrs are read aloud to 5-7 days a week, and 55 per cent aged 3-5 yrs, but only 34 per cent aged 6-8 yrs and 17 per cent aged 9-11 yrs. And yet across all age groups, 83 per cent of kids say they loved or “liked a lot” those times when parents read to them aloud at home.

But they love reading independently

Reading independently is terrific, but the data implies that reading aloud encourages reading independently. It is also a simple way to push your child ahead. Parents invest in tutors, music lessons, day trips – spending time reading to them likely has an equal or bigger impact. Not only will they get something out of it, but so will you. It’s a phenomenal bonding time – children aged 6-11 yrs pointed to this being a huge factor in why they enjoyed being read to. In an age of disconnect, with fewer shared family meals, and more time spent alone on electronic devices, reading to your child is a great way of communicating. Of course, it takes time to read regularly with your children but the rewards are worth it, so it’s all about prioritising.

For those children who are excellent independent readers already, it’s a perfect opportunity to introduce texts that they might not reach for themselves – fiction for avid independent non-fiction readers, or more complex texts where you can explain the nuances of the plot and define the stretching vocabulary, especially for those stuck on ‘series’ books. You can discover the new books published for children that you couldn’t read when you were a child, or rediscover the classics you did read as a child.

Here are a few great texts to read aloud to the different age groups.

Nora Nora inside Nora inside cake

Nora, the girl who ate and ate and ate by Andrew Weale, illustrated by Ben Cort, is a treat to read-aloud. A book that rhymes screams to be read aloud, and children adore guessing following words once they pick up on the rhythm and rhyme. There are some special words that ‘Boom’ out the page, and of course, it makes children laugh – a key strategy in encouraging children to love books. I can never make it through to the end without children giving me the two punchlines in the book, one…
“They all went down in one huge SLURP!
Then Nora did a great big…”
If my three year old guessed what came next – I’m sure you can…I won’t give away the final punchline, but suffice to say, it’s a winner too. The energy just bounces off the pages – resonated by the author and illustrator, whom I had the pleasure to meet at the Southbank Children’s Book Festival a couple of years ago.

wheres my teddymister magnolia

Two other beautifully funny and clever rhyming books for very young children are the much loved Where’s My Teddy by Jez Alborough – which manages to conjure the dark and frightening while still being loved by small children everywhere – and Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake, serving up the most delicious rhymes and images. We still can’t talk about boots without invoking Mr Magnolia.

momo and snap

There are other stories that were written to be vocalised. Momo and Snap are NOT friends by Airlie Anderson has no words. Simple sounds and grunts illustrate the story of a crocodile and a monkey making friends.

the book with no pictures

Of course the most recent addition to the canon of ‘must be read loud books’ is The Book With No Pictures by B. J. Novak. It does exactly what it says on the cover – there are no pictures in this book, and the joy only comes by reading aloud. The fun that can be had by doing different voices and playing with words and language in the simplest form is exemplified by the author’s video of him reading his book to a class of kids. Here’s the video.

Enormous CrocodileEnormous Crocodile inside

My favourite Roald Dahl book to read aloud for the 5+ yrs audience is The Enormous Crocodile. (I would encourage you to buy or borrow the colour illustrated version). I think even the shyest reader can manage to inject some menace into the Enormous Crocodile’s dialogue, and there’s a special delight to be had from reading the tremendous vocabulary out loud:
“’Oh you horrid hoggish croc!” cried Muggle-Wump. “You slimy creature! I hope the buttons and buckles all stick in your throat and choke you to death!”’

Once children start reading independently most will visit Enid Blyton. I wouldn’t personally read aloud all her books (!), but it’s nice to read the first in a series, then you can explain words such as ‘sanitorium’, which today’s children may not understand.

Inkheart

The great stories and tremendous subtleties in some older children’s literature can be enjoyed equally by parents and children (eg. Harry Potter, Narnia stories). Inkheart by Cornelia Funke manages to convey beautifully the ‘wise adult’ narrator, and the ability of the author to empathise with childhood feelings within one phrase:
“Sometimes, when you’re so sad you don’t know what to do, it helps to be angry.”

Revisiting the classics with your child at this age is truly rewarding. Many of the titles are fairly inaccessible to a young independent reader due to the old fashioned vocabulary and references, but together they can be digested more easily, examples include Black Beauty, Heidi, The Railway Children. You can read my blog on classics here. Be wary though, some read alouds can result in adults’ tears; I found it very hard to stumble to the end of Charlotte’s Web as I was crying too much!

Goodnight Mr Tom

A more difficult book is Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian. I wholly recommend this as a read aloud text. Whilst many children from age ten should be able to cope well with this book, the issues thrown up deserve some time and discussion. Issues of grief, parental responsibility, displacement and suchlike, need exploring, and it can be hard for children to give voice to the emotions raised by the book. Reading aloud enables the parent to see the child’s reaction at each stage and probe for feelings as you go along. Of course, not every book can be read aloud, but there are arguments for fluent readers to be read to with more difficult texts as they start reading on their own, so that they can see books can be discussed and issues that come up can be raised with their parents. Even some young adult titles deserve reading aloud so that the concepts within can be fully raked over. Examples for me would include Nothing by Janne Teller, Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess, and The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks.

Nothing

 

For reference:

Scholastic report
New York Times Article