The Dragon in the Library by Louie Stowell, illustrated by Davide Ortu

dragon in the libraryJames Daunt might be straddling the Atlantic by now being both Managing Director of Waterstones bookshop chain and newly appointed CEO of Barnes & Noble bookshop chain, but for those with an interest in books this side of the Atlantic, we seem to be getting something wrong.

The book market is going from strength to strength, but in these lean times of government cuts, the UK is pulling investment from libraries – those most important bastions of a civilised society.

In 2018, about 130 public libraries closed outright, whilst many others (as yet unnumbered) fell into voluntary hands with limited opening hours and services. Most recently children’s authors stepped in to protest against Essex County’s proposed closure of up to 44 libraries.

So it’s incredibly timely to read Louie Stowell’s excellent younger fiction novel, The Dragon in the Library, set in a library that is threatened with closure by a Simpsons’ Mr Burns-type villain, who wishes to turn the space into a shopping centre. He represents those who believe that economics rules over creativity and knowledge, and those for whom moneyed connections are deemed to be more important than empathy and curiosity. Who needs libraries, he says, when there is the Internet?

Our unlikely protagonist is Kit, a reluctant reader, who prefers climbing trees and getting messy outside to time spent inside, particularly in a library. But her two friends are desperate for the latest book in a series of books they are into, and they drag her along to the library. Once there, they stumble on a secret – the librarian is a wizard. What’s more, Kit herself seems to have magical powers, and the library is the most magical place of all.

Stowell goes to town on her magical tropes – there are librarian wizards, hidden creatures in secret stacks, portals from one magic place to another. Nowhere could be quite as exciting as the library, and she excels at extolling the absolute magic of reading and story – books literally take the reader into a different world. She also weaves a wonderful intertextuality in the book – for those who know their children’s literature there are nods to it all over the place from Ursula Le Guin to Baba Yaga to fairy tales and Harry Potter of course. There’s even a nod to the old trope of children drinking lemonade and eating something gingery (memories of Enid Blyton picnics come to the surface). Although the world-building of this magical structure of wizards and libraries seems a little confusing at first, it soon becomes apparent what’s at stake and why.

And it is the characterisation of the three children that makes the novel. Each child has his or her own attributes, goals and motivations, worries and anxieties. Kit and friends Alita and Josh feel very real, and support each  other in a wonderful triumvirate of camaraderie. Although Kit is the only wizard of the three, she’s the least ‘into’ books, and so it takes the help of her friends for her to be able to pursue her wizard path.

Faith Braithwaite is a wonderful role model of a wizard librarian and teacher/mentor to Kit. She is sassy and warm, modern and authoritative, understanding and knowledgeable, in essence, everything a librarian should be. Plus, in the times we live in, brave too.

So Stowell nods to our current preoccupations, not only in the fight for survival of the library, but also with dripped-in truisms about our modern obsessions with risk awareness, knowing what’s real and what isn’t, gender bias and diversity.

And cleverly, above all that, lies the essence of the novel, which is the celebration of the story behind the book. It is rare in a children’s book, particularly one set in a library, to have the protagonist as a reluctant reader, but here, although Kit hates reading aloud, and doesn’t particularly want to sit and read a book quietly either, Faith Braithwaite shows her the magic behind the book – the power of the story – the magic that’s contained within, especially when the reading is pleasurable and not graded or schooled in some way. How a story can teach and explore, delight and entertain, stimulate and encourage.

This is an exciting, pacey book for the 7-9 years (and beyond) readership, with superb neon packaging and a plethora of black and white illustrations throughout, which feel cartoonish and vivacious.

Oh, and there be dragons.

You can buy your copy here. Thanks to Nosy Crow for the review proof.

Reading Begins at Home

reading at homeYou can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink…

A couple of weeks ago a school librarian posted on Twitter about her disheartenment with the lack of engagement in reading shown by some pupils. This is despite the fact that they actually have a school library, and, even rarer, a school librarian. And this one is enthusiastic, knowledgeable and professional. What she sited was missing in this pupil cohort was reading engagement at home.

The data backs this up. Earlier this month, Egmont revealed (in Nielsen’s Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer survey 2018) that only 32% of children surveyed were read to daily by an adult for pleasure. This falls to 19% when looking at just 8-10 year olds. And the percentage of children who read for pleasure themselves has declined by 6 per cent since 2015 – down to only 52.5%.

And I have to admit, that no matter how many wonderful books you have stocked in the school library, and no matter the amount of time you spend talking about the books, reading the books, inviting authors and illustrators, or simply promoting your in-school book culture, if there isn’t any reading at home, it’s going to be a very hard fight to teach that child that reading is pleasurable, and not just some schoolwork chore to be chucked as soon as possible.

The phrase I use in INSET days (teacher training) is that reading is caught not taught. Reading for pleasure, that is. If the child doesn’t see their parent choose reading as a viable leisure option, and really concentrating on it, not looking at the phone every two minutes, then why would that child? You wouldn’t expect them to eat vegetables if you never ate vegetables yourself.

It’s the same at school. The school can provide a nutritious lunch – broccoli included – but if they’ve never seen broccoli at home, they might have it at lunch if they’re forced to, but when they leave school, it’s unlikely they’d choose to buy and eat broccoli. It’s just a ‘school’ food. And reading can be seen as just part of schooling.

Children who are read to at home are happy to engage in books, take time from their break to read – some actively prefer being in the school library to being in the school playground. Others need much more work, time and attention. In fact, even reading to these children in school can be difficult – they’re unsure what to do, how to listen, they start to fidget or look out the window. They are disengaged. And no matter how many voices you do, or how you pick texts that zing in the right rhythm, it’s harder to pull them into the lure of storytelling. It’s a strange activity for them.

That’s not to say school librarians should give up. Never, in fact. Just like Harry Potter, we persevere through battle after battle, attempting to hook children into the good magic. Giving talks to parents about the benefits of reading for pleasure and reading aloud, making sure that the library is stocked with a broad range of exciting, accessible books, including graphic novels, comics, funny books, early readers, specialist titles for dyslexics, even an audio listening device for audio books, and various periodicals. A librarian I know even hand-delivered books to children in the school holidays, hoping that they will continue to read. Some schools provide time for the parents to come in and read with their children in school.

And yet. And yet. There will still be those children (and their parents) who view reading as a chore, as part of schoolwork, children whose library book stays in the schoolbag for months, or gets chewed by the dog; the child who sadly puts Matilda back on the shelf, telling me that their carer is far too busy to read it to them.

Is it necessary to read to children? Why bother when the children have mastered how to read themselves? The answer is that reading for pleasure has a huge impact on children’s lives, from lowering stress levels and reducing mental health problems, to helping them do well at school and achieve success in later life. And the best ways to encourage your children to read for pleasure and instill in them a love for reading are a) to read to them and keep doing so for as long as possible, and b) read for pleasure yourself.

So I keep saying it to parents: reading starts at home. It’s just as important as eating well. A book is food for the mind.

Influences and Goblins

gribblebobsAcquired in open submission by Pushkin Press, this is a rather extraordinary little story. Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins by David Ashby is a quirky tale with short chapters and a plethora of weird and wonderful characters.

On an ordinary Wednesday, siblings Nils and Anna come across a goblin called Gribblebob. He is walking an invisible dog (who becomes visible upon being fed), and chasing after a book. As the book’s text magically transfers to Nils’ hand (rather like a Kindle on the skin), Gribblebob explains to the children that he comes from the other side of the veil, where magical creatures prevail, including goblins, fairies and more. But other characters have also broken the veil, and the children must race against time to clear Nils’ hand and save some books from an evil witch.

At first the adventure feels rather as if Enid Blyton had come back to life and penned another tale in her Magic Faraway Tree stories. The characters bear the same irritabilities and undergo strange unbelievable happenings. In fact, the goblin Gribblebob is hugely Blyton-esque, and enjoyable, mixing up his words and inventing new ones, or slightly mishearing old ones. My favourite is his description of humans as ‘thumbjammers’, jabbing at their phones constantly, or ‘pre-slicely’ for ‘precisely’.

But before long it becomes apparent that there is more than one influence to this story. It goes rather dark at times, despite the easy to read text, and the dangerous and scary ‘ripriders’ feel like Harry Potter dementors – screeching spirits that are overcome only by love. More allusions to folk and children’s literature abound, including a librarian who isn’t as she seems, binding names in a book, and the veil – the conceit of two different worlds that meet in an ordinary place (a playground here), but which can’t be seen by the naked eye.

But for many readers, and writers, the trope of having books as the essential magical element gives a whole other layer of meaning to the reading experience, and with the book-decorated cover, the action in the library, language and attributing names being so important, and the magic of books inside, this is a lovely little paean to children’s literature.

However, there’s more to it, as David Ashby explains – it certainly isn’t just English literature heritage that oozes throughout the story:

Somewhat surprisingly, I find myself living in Sweden these days.  I’ve been here since 2002, and I suppose I should be used to it, but some mornings I wake up, turn on the radio and wonder why people are talking in that strange language before I remember, “Oh yeah, I live here now.”

In lots of ways Sweden and the UK are very similar, just very subtle differences.  In Brighton I would cross my fingers for luck, here in Stockholm I have to hold my thumbs.  So the luck remains in the hands, but just different areas.  Back in the UK I would have let a sleeping dog lie, but here in Sweden it’s the bear that I don’t wake up.  So, very similar.

It’s the same with the fairy tales and legends and myths.  A lot of them are the same, but some have their own special Nordic twist, and some of them were new to me.  In Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins the big villain is the Queen of Nightmares, Mara, The Rider.  Now, I had never heard of her, but it’s fascinating that the English word “nightmare” relates so strongly to her.  She comes along and rides your chest while you dream, and makes sure that the dreams are less than pleasant.  The “mare” in “nightmare” is obviously linked to the Swedish “mara”, and the Swedish word for “nightmare” is “mardröm”, literally a “mara dream”.  I love all these little links and connections!  It really makes you realise how much we all have in common, and how we share a heritage of tales and myths.

Another one of my favourite Nordic fairy tale characters is “Kykogrim” which translates as “Church Grim”, a guardian spirit that keeps watch over a church.  I’d love to write something around that sometime.

There’s a fantastic set of books by Johan Egerkrans where he has collected and illustrated loads of Scandinavian monsters, spirits, gods and so on.  Well worth a look!

It seems that influences lie everywhere. To buy yourself a copy of Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins by David Ashby, click here.

On Being Asked My Opinion

my opinionTwo things struck me last weekend reading the newspapers. Firstly, an article by Matthew Parris in The Times on Saturday December 29th, in which he spoke about parliamentarians being ‘representatives’ rather than direct conduits of what the people want. This was, of course, in relation to Brexit. Secondly, I read an article by Decca Aitkenhead in The Sunday Times Magazine (December 30th) about Charlie Brooker’s latest Black Mirror episode, which admittedly I haven’t, and can’t watch as I don’t have Netflix. But it is an interactive TV experience – every so often the viewer has to answer a question as to how the plot spins next. Exactly like, and based on, the Choose Your Own Adventure stories that were published when I was a child – turn to page 42 if you want to walk through the deep dark forest, turn to page 38 if you want to stay sitting on the sofa in front of Netflix…

In everyday life, I’m often asked my opinion. Every time I buy something, or even have my haircut, I seem to receive an email asking how my experience was.

The funny thing is, I’m a critic. I review children’s books and love giving my opinion (advice/recommendations). That’s what I do, and in happy times I’m paid for this ‘expert’ opinion.

But, and here’s the rub. I don’t want to be constantly asked my opinion – I’d like other experts to decide things for me (most of the time), and especially in fiction.

choose your own adventureThe problem with the Black Mirror interactive TV drama, as mentioned by Decca Aitkenhead, is that it’s hard to suspend disbelief – to buy into the authenticity of the character and plot of a fiction – if you’re making the decisions, if you’re imagining the ‘what ifs’. I’m happy to do this when I write my own fiction, but I like other people to decide the endings of the fiction I read. I might not like their chosen ending, but that’s part of the joy of reading – being a discerning reader. The opinion of the fiction you consume will be vastly different if you’ve chosen the ending yourself.

Reading children’s fiction (and any fiction) holds its own wondrous delight. The stories are escapist, or reflect a mirror back unto yourself; the authors shining a light on a thought, an issue, a type of character, and the reader understanding that and allowing themselves to be led through the story. The more unobtrusive the leading, the better the fiction.

So there are massive future implications of choosing your own adventure. Charlie Brooker must have sussed this out himself – if the consumer of the fiction is making all the key decisions on the plot strands, why have an author at all? Once lots of possibilities have been written into the algorithm, it’s just a case of rejigging them enough times to create new stories. The author, as Barthes said, will be well and truly dead.

In some cases, the author has already died. And the reader can see the downside to this. Although I’m all for a brief stint for children on the Rainbow Fairies stories by fake author Daisy Meadows or the Beast Quest series, by fake author Adam Blade, (spoiler – these are collaborative works of fiction by an editorial team), they fail to spark the same joyfulness in depth of plot, character and theme that books by real authors do. By their very nature the series are supposed to be formulaic, designed to contain familiar tropes because young readers like the repetitiveness of them. They promote confidence in reading and instill habit reading, an important stop on the pathway to creating readers for life, but it’s just a stopgap – readers then feel confident enough to progress to fiction with multi-layers and nuanced thought.

If there’s too much ‘collective’ fiction, then plot and characters become distilled and limited. There might be a new confidence in reading, but not a surge in imagination, or empathy.

Indeed, what’s most frightening about Charlie Brooker’s interactive Black Mirror is that the idea for the interactivity didn’t come from him, but from Netflix execs. I’d almost trust it more if it came from the author himself. But, it seems that they wanted him to execute their idea to see if it worked.

In my dystopian future, carrying this concept through to the end, does this mean that it’s not the death of the author so much as the complete obliteration of him? An author isn’t needed if publishers or TV execs can just regurgitate from their bank of story vignettes. Mixing and matching. Pick’n’mix adventures. A murder mystery could turn into a vampire zombie romp simply because you, as the viewer or reader, decided to take a certain pathway, choosing a) vampire rather than b) Sherlock Holmes.

However, limiting our choices as readers and consumers is just as bad. As Haruki Murakami said, ‘if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’ In this time of division, perhaps people want more homogeneity in terms of the way we think. I would argue the opposite – we need more diverse opinions, together with an understanding and tolerance of them.

So it’s particularly depressing to see the bestseller charts for the books sold in 2018. In terms of children’s books Walliams appears 11 times in the top 100, dominating the scene by a long way. Before the celebrities pounce upon me, I’d argue that even if it was Hilary McKay or Katherine Rundell appearing 11 times to the exclusion of many others, that would be stifling and a pity. In terms of interest, eight children’s authors who aren’t celebrities are on this top 100 list, but I’m including Jeff Kinney, JK Rowling and Julia Donaldson as non-celebs. Two of the others are due to film tie-ins (Paddington and Wonder).

We’re not doing a great job as a society when we limit children’s accessibility to different books by closing 130 public libraries in 2018. I’ll say it again, if the only place children have access to books is their local supermarket or WHSmith we’re severely limiting their choice. Of the 18 children’s books at Tesco online, eight are Walliams and six are JK Rowling.

Perhaps we need greater choice on what we read, but not in choosing how the story ends.

I dread the day when I have to make the decisions on everything. It’s bad enough being asked ‘what’s for dinner’ everyday – if I have to choose what the characters in the book I’m reading want to eat too, I’ll have to give up reading fiction (and giving my opinion on it).

The Lost Magician by Piers Torday

the lost magicianWhen I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a child I had no conception of the word ‘allegory’, and certainly hadn’t grasped the idea that I was reading a story that CS Lewis described as ‘supposal’: “Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there.

Piers Torday has taken Narnia to heart in his latest novel, The Lost Magician, writing it he says as an homage to Narnia. And although there is no Christian allegory, there is definitely much ‘supposing’, and a supposition of a world that mirrors our own in presenting conflict and argument and much darkness, except that, in Torday’s Folio (his version of Narnia), there are talking bears and a self-doubting unicorn.

It is 1945 and Simon, Patricia, Evie and Larry have survived the Blitz, despite the scars it has left on their memories. They arrive at Barfield Hall, a country house, where lives a female professor involved in experimentation revolved around imagination. Through a portal in a strange library in the attic they stumble across a world called Folio – an enchanted kingdom of bears and knights and other creatures found in stories, but also of futuristic fluid metallic robots. These two factions are at war, and the children’s learned horrors of their own war teaches them that they must stop this war, the key to which is finding the lost magician – the creator of the library who has been missing for centuries.

On the surface this novel is a good classic adventure story, with a cast of empathetic children who feel far more authentic than the Narnia quartet, with an intrusion of real world scars into their psyche. Simon, the eldest, has his perceived ideas of masculinity on display, wanting to show his prowess to emulate his war-hero father. Evie experienced trauma in the war, whereas for Larry, the youngest, shown still clutching his teddy and bumping him up the stairs (a la Christopher Robin and Pooh), the rubble of the Blitz was merely a grand landscape for exploration. With them all, their witness to the horror of war informs their decision making.

And the world of Folio that Torday has conjured feels as well-drawn as Wonderland. The reader can see the beauty of the green countryside of fairy-tale land – the house of the three bears, the trees, the fields, the wind buffeting the foliage. And yet also, all too clearly, the metallic glint of the oppositional city, with its enduring light glowing like a beacon of future possibility, and the metallic people, strong and upright.

So on one level this is, as Narnia, a simple trip into a new world through a portal in the old, told in gripping, pacey language with tension and pathos and humour, with Torday’s marvellous descriptive language carrying the reader through with a light touch of his magic pen. And yet, there is so much more when one looks beyond the surface enchantment.

Of course there are literary allusions within the text. Nuggets of Narnia are dripped like gold leaves into the novel, and any novel that uses a library as a portal is bound to make use of the literary canon of children’s literature, and a particular action sequence reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark….

But peel further, and the layers of the novel reveal much much more. Whereas Larry enters Folio through the shelves of ‘Read’ books – representing fiction, Evie enters through the UnReads – the books that represent the facts of the future, the non-fiction. And there is still another shelf in the library through which no-one enters, but which poses the greatest existential threat of all – the Never Reads. These represent ignorance.

When the children enter Folio, they discover that the Reads are at war with the UnReads – a clash of fiction and fact, of fairy tale characters and fact-based sci-fi robots. Larry chooses the Reads, as one would expect from the way he treats his teddy as a live being. Evie ‘betrays’ the other children by choosing the UnReads, wanting to believe in the bright shiny future of hard fact. Here, Torday is clever to draw some ambiguity over the ‘truths’ given by the Queen of the Unreads – a shady figure although physically illuminated in bright numbers, with a body that’s essentially fluid – much like her facts. She is mirrored of course on the White Witch.

By casting his war as story vs fact Torday is speaking to the very heart of what is happening in our society today. The battles in the book are ferocious, the sides pitted heavily against each other; a fractious world of polarised arguments in an angry climate. Here truth is twisted to lies, story is laid as propaganda, news is fake, and trust is misguided.

But this is a novel, and so Torday waves his wand to provide some clarity. The children discover that stories, even of one’s own past, are crucial in providing explanation for our world. That knowledge is valuable and true facts worth remembering, that imagination can provide a crutch when dealing with our own reality.

And yet all this is at risk from the fire and fury of the Never Reads – the ignorant. This last ‘shelf’ of books poses a threat to both the Reads and the UnReads. Whether the threat of the ignorant recalls the Nazi book burning, or Trump’s reported lack of reading will depend upon the reader – and this too is where Torday makes another point. This book is about the power of the reader, and particularly the child as reader – again a paean to those Victorian and Edwardian children’s authors, Carroll, Lear, Barrie, Milne, and CS Lewis who understood the deep influence of the literature people read when they were children, and the power of the child to see wonder in the world.

By the hopeful end (this is a children’s book), the reader understands their own power and also how to use it wisely in reaching across the gulf to understand another’s point of view, recognising that humans have more in common than that which divides them.

There is much more here too – the importance of libraries, a clever nod to the evil of numbers in WW2, building the new without destruction of the old, an understanding that not all children are avid readers – Simon in the novel is dyslexic in a time when dyslexia wasn’t recognised. But above all, there is the beauty of Torday’s writing in telling a good story.

The Lost Magician proves that Torday is on top of his game in spinning the storytelling magic – this magician is anything but lost and any reader who picks up the book will be well and truly found. You can buy it here.

Dumbing Down?

This morning research was published that bemoaned the state of our teenagers’ reading. Apparently secondary school pupils are opting to read ‘easier’ texts. The research comes from Renaissance Learning, who run the Accelerated Learning database in school. This rates books according to their difficulty level and then quizzes children on completion of the books.

Firstly, let’s make a point of stating that if you know you’re going to be quizzed on a book you’ve read, clearly you’d opt for the easier book. I know I’d find it faster and easier to answer a series of questions on the Danielle Steel I’ve just read rather than the Dickens.

Secondly, I’ve just made an assumption here, that the Danielle Steel is an easier read than the Dickens. We have to ask why and how I’ve done this?

Accelerated Reader uses various measures to rate a book’s difficulty – something I’ve written on before, and which the company, quite rightly, then questioned me on. But essentially, they do ‘level’ books according to one criteria at least, which is simplicity of the sentence (vocabulary and syntax). For example, Patrick Ness and David Almond write some ‘easy’ books according to AL, because of their easy-to-read sentence structure. However, any who has read them will know that these are not easy texts. They contain huge themes, promote intertextuality, have complex characters, intense emotions, promote empathy. They are not, to my mind, easy texts.

As the literary agent, Jonny Geller, points out: “It takes a huge amount of experience and self-confidence to write simply.”

But ignoring all that, let’s assume kids are opting to read ‘easy’ texts. After all, David Walliams now commands a huge percentage of the children’s book trade market. He contributed £16m value in 2017 and I would call his books easy texts. The data from Renaissance Learning does show that the popular books for Years 7-9 are by David Walliams and Jeff Kinney. Why are young teens opting for these when there are so many great texts out there with fewer stereotypical characters and more complex plots and themes?

One of the reasons is access. I could point again to the closure of public libraries, which contain a wide range of FREE books, or to the reduction in schools library services at local councils, or the lack of funding to school libraries themselves. Librarians are dying out – more and more redundancies year on year. If we don’t provide access to different books for children, they can’t choose them to read. When Ofsted don’t even count the library as one of the points of inspection, you have to wonder what importance the government put on libraries at all.

Moreover, I could point again to the closure of independent book stores. No wonder children choose to read David Walliams, when the only access to books to buy is the local WHSmith or supermarket, where the book choice is tiny and those bestselling books are heavily discounted. Likewise the algorithms of Amazon, which indicate that if you like reading David Walliams books, then you’ll also like reading more David Walliams books…

Another survey out yesterday from Egmont showed that 48% of parents asked said that they were bamboozled by the choice of children’s books.

Is that because we live in a fast world and want answers immediately? Faced with the bright covers in WHSmith, is it easier to choose the one next to the till, the display of Walliams that are face out, the author you’ve heard of (ie. celebrity)? How do parents find other books?

Yes, there is a golden era in children’s publishing and the choice of books is immense – you only have to look back at my blog for the past couple of years to see the plethora of new amazing books published every month. And yet, parents do find it hard to know what to buy – there is a lack of coverage of children’s books in review sections across all media, there are fewer librarians to ask (see above), fewer teachers having time to read children’s books, fewer good booksellers who know their stuff. (The exceptions to the rule who do exist are awesome, by the way.)

We’re not providing parents with the easy solution of what to choose to buy. According to Egmont, 64 per cent of parents of 14-17 year olds agree that looking at the physical books is better than buying online, but parents find bookshops hard to access, and have little knowledge of where to begin. This leads to purchases of the familiar. Publishers, bloggers, journalists need to make parents more aware of what is out there for their children. It’s what I’m trying to do every day.

But let’s get to the crux of the matter. Some parents will argue with this whole strand of argument. AT LEAST THEY’RE READING A BOOK, they tell me. So what if it’s an easier choice? And I’d tend to agree – for the most part, my aim is to get children reading – to make it a life habit. If a person wants to read Mills and Boon, crime books (apparently we do, just look at the adult bestseller lists), or comics or graphic novels over literary fiction and classics – who are we to judge?

And yet, I would support the nudging of children onto ‘better’, more challenging books, onto those by David Almond, Katherine Rundell, Sarah Crossan – I could go on and on. There are great books out there, and some have simple language despite their huge themes! This should be our aim – in the same way that footballers take time to perfect taking a penalty, not only just kicking it straight at the middle of the goal, but trying different skills and angles, so we should aim to improve our reading too – reading a wide variety of texts and discerning between what we like and dislike, what is hard and what is easy.

What’s stopping children and particularly teenagers reading? Why are only half of all preschool kids read to? The elephant in the room, and the topic that comes up at the end of every article, just like mine, is the evil screen. Our children are opting to watch YouTube rather than read a book.

Are screens vastly more entertaining? They are a more passive form of entertainment for sure, even though you can pick up a narrative and learn new information from watching a decent programme. But I’d argue that we adults are at fault here. Why do we give the screen as an option in our children’s spare time? The second piece of research published(Egmont) explained that parents say that their children prefer to watch the screen – but the question I’d ask is why are we giving them that choice? Why do we let them take their phones into their bedrooms at night instead of a book? Why do we let them fester on the sofa with them? For an easy life?

We don’t ‘let’ them get away with other things. We don’t let them eat chocolate instead of broccoli as a side serving to their protein. We don’t let them go partying until 4am; we insist they come home at a certain time. So why don’t we remove their phones? Why don’t we make reading the go-to option? It won’t make a parent popular, but then parents aren’t supposed to be their child’s best friend, they’re supposed to be their parent and guide. And the best way to do this – lead by example. Put your own phones away, pick up a book, and watch your child do the same. Who knows, you might even discover there’s more to life than Youtube.

Books in Books for Libraries Week

For #librariesweek, a few books about books. Because we are living in a time of library cuts, librarian redundancies, and struggling independent booksellers, children’s authors are doing more and more to celebrate not only their nostalgia for the old days of libraries, but also a burgeoning belief that they must fight to uphold every child’s right to library access in the here and now.

Madeline Finn and the Library Dog by Lisa Papp

This is a reassuring book for those readers who haven’t quite grasped the fundamentals yet, or who are struggling with their confidence. Madeline does not like to read, especially out loud, for fear of humiliation and ridicule, but she really wants to earn a star at school rather than just a ‘keep trying’ sticker. She does have a great role model in her mother, who takes her to the library, and keeps her supplied with an abundant pile of books. When the librarian suggests that Madeline read out loud to a dog, rather than a human, Madeline begins to see the merit in trying, and before long her reading abilities have caught up with her ambition.

Inspired by real-life programmes of incentivising children to read with ‘Read-to-Dogs’ sessions in order to build readers’ confidence, this is a worthy and also admirable little read.

The book deserves a mention, not only for the quality of the storytelling, but also for the clear, well-spaced text against a cream-tinted background, which provides an ease on the eye for emerging readers. The illustrations are fitting – soft, expressive, and with a winsome collection of scenes from Madeline’s life – from riding her bike, to struggling over her books, to swinging in the garden, and staring out the window, all with an ever-present favourite soft toy. It creates a rounded picture of Madeline, perfect for empathy. The dogs are all cute and fluffy, or sleek and loyal, and delighted my listeners with the several different breeds depicted, and the dogs’ loving, attentive eyes. You can buy it here.

Franklin’s Flying Bookshop by Jen Campbell, illustrated by Kate Harnett

Jen Campbell takes her bookish book one step further, with a dragon protagonist who loves to read aloud. Perhaps he needs a dog, for this dragon can find no one to read to (the people he encounters run away in fear). Then he meets an inquisitive book-loving girl called Luna, who isn’t afraid because she has read about dragons in books, and so they come up with a plan to enable the sharing of books as widely as possible – a flying bookshop on top of a dragon.

If the concept sounds a little strange, it is – but it fits with the quirky whimsy of this book, which uses the bulk of its prose to extort the virtues of reading (expanding knowledge and extending imagination) by creating a higgledy piggedly mix of what the dragon and the girl bump into within the books in their reading sessions, from roller skating and King Arthur to kung fu and pirates, carol singing and anteaters.

This is quite literally drawn out in Katie Harnett’s illustrations of ant-eaters juggling, kungfu bats and mice moving furniture. The illustrations feel dreamy and timeless, with pencil colouring textures and shading and painstaking patterning – particularly the horseshoes on the dragon’s green skin.

The book speaks to unusual friendships, accepting others who may have only kind intentions despite threatening appearances, and the power of books. You can purchase it here.

Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers

This Luna is more than just a girl who loves the library. She has a special reason for loving the library, and it’s because her Dad waits for her there, and together they explore the books. Although not explicitly stated, Luna’s mother and father are separated and so this is the time she spends with her father. In a story within the story, (a physical inset), a not-so-hidden metaphor for Luna’s family situation, the enduring love for a child is explored using trolls and mermaids, despite the splitting of the family unit.

So, of course this is a book about dealing with family breakup, and yet it will appeal to all, for its illustrations are warm, affectionate, colourful and brimming with life and imagination. Lumbers depicts the library books coming to life – with vines sprouting from one book, bugs from another, and magic tricks busting from a magic book.

More than this though, is the attention to detail in the depiction of the library: the clever welcoming posters in the foyer, the comfortable chairs, the abundance of books, and the set up, which shows a spacious, well-lit modern library with a self-checkout. Lumbers and Coelho are at pains to depict not a fanciful idealisation of libraries and family life, but a confrontation of where we are and how we can still find happiness and hope within it. (Although I wish my local library was as well-lit and stocked).

Lastly, and by no means least, are the people depicted within the book. Lumbers and Coelho tick all boxes here, both the diverse mix of people using the library, but also in the comfort and ease of the body language – the children flopped over chairs, or tucked up tight, others with legs akimbo, hair wild and smiley faces. But the best – the armchair hug with Dad. You can almost feel it. You can buy it here.




Talking About Books

This week, Chris Riddell is leading a campaign to protect school libraries. But also the librarians within them. For a room full of books can’t provide the accessibility to reading without a guiding hand, a guiding voice.

In the primary school library I read books with the children, and to the children. And they read books to me. But I also spend a good deal of time talking about books with the children, and encouraging them to talk to each other about books. My library isn’t very hush hush. What do they want to read? What have they read? What do we collectively, and individually, think about certain books? Which authors do we dream of meeting? What sort of writer do we dream of being?

Talking about books gives them an importance, but it also grounds them. It gives them a place in the everyday bustle of life.

As a parent, my children arrive home with their school reading books, and I’m instructed to ask them questions about the text. To form a sort of oral comprehension. It’s not always easy – we’re not always excited about the ‘set’ texts they are given. But we use it as a tool to decipher how much they understand of what they’re reading. Do they understand the inference? What is the author implying? What’s going to happen next? What’s surprising? What’s funny? And then we can apply these tools to the books they read for pleasure.

Why doesn’t the Gruffalo eat the mouse? Why does Paddington prefer marmalade while Pooh prefers honey? Why did Bill Sykes kill Nancy? How upsetting is the fact the tiger never comes to tea again?

And it is important to check that they’re not just sounding out the words, that they actually comprehend what they’ve read. I can read the terms and conditions of my mortgage easily, but it doesn’t mean I’ve taken in and processed what the information is telling me. (Please don’t set me a comprehension on this).

If we go even deeper, we can see what subtleties the author has slipped into the text. And it’s only by talking about them that we can reveal them to each other. Some children won’t get the allusions to fairy tales in books we read because they don’t have that cultural heritage at home. In the same way as I might completely miss allusions to Star Trek in a television programme or comedy because I’ve never seen it. It doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy the new story, it just means I won’t have the full richness of the experience. It’s hard to appreciate even the title of The Wolf Who Cried Boy unless you know of the original story.

In fact it’s sometimes only in talking out loud about the book that a richness emerges from the text. Very few children will pick up on the allusion to The Tempest in Katherine Rundell’s beautiful children’s story, Rooftoppers, but in mentioning it to them when discussing the book, you can lend a wealth to their experience – kudos to the eleven year old who can talk about having read a book that references Shakespeare. Indeed, children often want that richness of experience. Think about what they ask when they meet a ‘real live’ author. ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ Is one of the commonest questions – yes because they want to know if they can do the same, but also because they want a deeper understanding of the author’s work. ‘What is your favourite book?’ is another often asked question. Reading leads to reading.

Even adults do this. When readers attend literary festivals or bookclubs they want to know from the author more detail about the book they loved – they want it talked about for a richness of experience. We do this with many narratives. Who hasn’t watched a box set and then wanted to discuss the unfolding events?

There is a great deal adults can do to enliven a child’s reading experience when talking about books. Applying them to everyday life can be fun, and make the book more tangible.

“Doesn’t that elderly lady on the bus look like gangsta granny?” or “Eat up your moonsquirters.” Or, when frustrated at the dinner table: “I wonder what Burger Boy would eat?”

Compare books they’ve read. Invite an extra imaginary character to tea.

As they get older the fun’s still there. We might not discuss what Elmer would do, but we do discuss if Jessie Wallace has the right amount of swearing in Out of Shadows. We try and pinpoint which house in the street looks most like how we imagine Boo Radley’s house.

It can also be a really good way of addressing difficult topics using hypotheticals. When one youngster was reading the Casson family books by Hilary McKay, it was a great way to discuss the sadness of divorce and shifting family relationships by referring to made-up people, rather than addressing it directly. This can be helpful for a child to see that difficult things happen to others, as well as a way of talking about it obscurely. It’s like confronting a teenager about a tricky issue and not making eye contact all the time so that they don’t feel as if they’re being directly scrutinised.

Of course all this, parents may sigh, is so time-consuming. After all, knowing all these references intimates that parents too have to be knowledgeable about the books their children are reading. This is where I always say, that reading children’s books is just as satisfying as reading adult books. As CS Lewis said “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”

It shouldn’t be a chore. It can be a key way to develop conversation with your child beyond instructions and mundanity. “Have you got your PE Kit, where are your shoes, put the TV remote down.”

Talking gives them confidence, and instills in them the idea that their opinion is worth listening to. One of the best experiences in the school library is overhearing the children discuss books amongst themselves, recommending books to each other or pouring over a page together – often with non-fiction they will excitedly read out facts to each other, they will read jokes to each other from the joke books – sometimes laughing, sometimes groaning, and more often than not, supplying the answer because they already know the joke!

But you don’t need to be in a library to talk about books. You can even do it in front of the TV.

To read about dyslexia and comprehension, see here.

Volunteer Libraries


“In theory,” said Homer Simpson, “communism works. In theory.” In theory, volunteer-run libraries are a good idea. What community spirit! What a lovely thing to do in your spare time!

The reality is somewhat different. My council (Barnet) this week voted to make my local library volunteer-run (and to cut the size from 3,606 sq ft to 1,991 sq ft). But what does this actually mean?

The library will be unstaffed – which means that there will be no toilet or baby changing facilities available and access will be removed for all children under 16, unless they are accompanied by a parent. Access will be ‘technology’ based, by which I’m assuming a pin or key card.

When I go to my local library today, I meet the elderly who go there because it is warm and comfortable and free – there is a person of authority there to call an ambulance if something goes awry, to assist them in the use of computers (many are not able to navigate the internet at home even if they have it – and many have to fill out forms and carry out administration), and to help them find a book or newspaper. They have easy access to the library – they can just walk in the door!

There are numerous students there who need a place to study because their home environment is not suitable for many different reasons. Having a safe place is crucial, and having a person in authority to help them sift data, do research, or simply keep the peace, is a necessary requirement. Many of these students are under 16. They come after school or in free periods to study by themselves. And they need space.

Parents and toddlers roam the library – using the baby-change facilities, participating in staffed story time, rhyme time, craft sessions, and reading books for the first time. They make a mess of the books, but it’s okay because there are staff to help re-shelve and tidy, and manage and run those sessions.

Let’s take the idea of volunteers (and let me mitigate that by saying I am a volunteer – have been for years as a governor, a fundraiser, event organiser, community news editor and yes, librarian). Recruiting volunteers is hard. Keeping them is harder – the turnover of volunteers is swift – they get bored, find jobs, and move on. They work at times that suit them, they don’t turn up sometimes (maybe they don’t want to volunteer on their birthday – or when it’s snowing). Their timekeeping can’t be controlled any more than their behaviour. Volunteers do exactly which job they want to do.

I’m a volunteer librarian. I work at my local primary school running the library. It’s hard work. And yet, on hand I have – a Head and staff who fully back the ethos of the library, a staff co-ordinator who liaises with the rest of the staff, sorts the library timetable for me, works on library displays, organises book week etc., an IT man who fixes any problem with the computer system. I have on hand a first aider should anything go wrong (not only with the children, but for me too – hefting books around all day comes at a price), and insurance, and help if the fire alarm goes off, or the furniture needs mending. I have a front office to take in parcels of books, help to print labels, and handle invoices.

And in a school library there are a finite number of borrowers. I know them all, their interests, and their reading habits. I also know exactly when they are going to use the library. And how they are going to behave (generally!)

A librarian does more than put books on shelves in the correct order (and even that is tough and time-consuming.) A librarian deals with stationery and labels, has extensive knowledge of stock, orders new titles, weeds out old titles, repairs books, repairs furniture, liaises between libraries, has knowledge in health and safety, does first aid, can handle cash and invoices and orders, deals with overdue items, hands out reminders, issues renewals, has a knowledge and skill for dealing with the building management and fire alarms, manages the public when someone behaves inappropriately, keeps the library clean, organises the library displays, keeps up to date with the technology, and can fix it when it breaks. Librarians schedule sessions for children, local schools, toddlers, reading groups. When a librarian qualifies, they have a Master’s degree – because they have to know research and reference and cataloguing and information systems inside out – they are evaluating information resources, synthesising and organising data. They can assess the stock – is it balanced and up to date and appropriate?

How many volunteers will be able to do all this – even the basics – do volunteers know what an ISBN is – or where to shelve a reference book in the Dewey Decimal System? Or know more about literature than the borrowers? I have questions from the children such as “I need to find a book. It’s about animals, and has a pink pony on the cover.” I know which book that child is seeking – do you?

And once you’ve trained your volunteers in the basics, they can turn around and leave whenever they want.

In my local area, we do already have volunteer-run libraries. Friern Barnet is wonderful, and I don’t knock those amazing volunteers who run it. They are fabulous and need thanking profusely. But even a glance at the minutes of their latest meeting shows how much work is involved – having a volunteer co-ordinator, raising funds through public grants, dealing with security, having a business plan, training, lease negotiations, membership records, author visits, literary festivals.

There’s also no evidence about volunteer libraries. There hasn’t been a pilot scheme to show if they are viable, if they survive over a long period. Speak Up For Libraries are collating evidence – but there has been no credible research to date. See their website here.

And we need libraries. They are crucial. For the kids who have no books at home (15% of children according to the National Literacy Trust), to the adults who have no internet at home, to everyone looking to expand their mind, to escape, to grow as a person. 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.

Don’t misunderstand me. I love being a volunteer librarian (despite harbouring strong opinions that librarians and school libraries should be a legal requirement, just as prison libraries are, and that really it’s a paid job), but I’m happy to lend all my expertise to my local school, interact with the children, run a vibrant book space, and encourage a love for reading. It brings me much happiness and satisfaction.

And I hope volunteers will help run my local public library. I just think our government, and our local councils are misguided.

In Barnet, they made the park-keepers redundant so we have unstaffed parks. What’s next, unstaffed GP surgeries in which you Google your symptoms?

You wouldn’t want a volunteer teacher. So why would you want a volunteer librarian?



An Interview with children’s author, Jason Rohan

sword of kuromori shield of kuromori

For the YAshot bloggers tour, I’m delighted to interview Jason Rohan, author of The Kuromori Trilogy. (please click on the title to see my review). Having met Jason last April and had a deliciously bookish discussion in a Waterstones branch, Jason then kindly agreed to answer my questions for over the summer. Once again I must also thank Alexia Casale for all her work with YAshot. Please click the link to find out more about this event.

Hi Jason. You used to work for Marvel Comics. Who’s your favourite superhero and why?

My favourite super-hero has always been Iron Man and that goes back way before the movies. I like the fact that he’s a self-made hero. Tony Stark’s only powers are courage and intellect. He isn’t born with any special gifts; he isn’t an alien; nor is he the result of a freak accident. In the comics he used to carry the Iron Man armour around with him in a briefcase and, when trouble arrived, he’d run away to find somewhere to get changed, whereas everyone else thought he was a coward. There was a nice sense of humour and style that I admired. Also, his playboy lifestyle made for some James Bond-esque settings and witty repartee. But the best thing? Anyone could be Iron Man – all you needed was the suit.

Your trilogy, The Sword of Kuromori, is based on your time teaching in Japan. What is the biggest difference between Tokyo and London life?

How long have you got? Seriously, Japan is an incredible place but the differences are many and deep-rooted. When I first arrived, expecting to see temples and kimonos but instead encountering McDonald’s and KFC, I was disappointed, but over time I realised that those Western aspects were purely superficial and that traditional Japan was very much alive and present. If I had to single out one key difference, I’d say it’s the sense of conformity. People in Japan tend to go with the group for the sake of harmony, whereas in the West we tend to laud the individual who goes against the tide.

In that case, whilst setting the Kuromori trilogy in Japan, did you deliberately make your protagonist, Kenny, a Westerner to highlight the clash of cultural mindset? Or, is he a reflection of a younger you?

The idea with making Kenny a Westerner was a combination of things – the trope of the innocent abroad; the hero’s journey in an exotic land; the fish-out-of-water aspects; having an Everyman focus for the reader to follow as he comes to grips with a new culture – but you do highlight the two key points. One, that Kenny is a proxy for me and has some of the same reactions I had. Two, his special ability – the one thing which sets him apart from everyone around him, particularly his Japanese colleagues, is his unconventional thinking. It’s not intended as a critique of Japanese cultural norms – far from it, and there are many Japanese people who go against the tide – but I remember many times being told that I couldn’t do something because it just wasn’t the done thing. Of course, being a gaijin, they politely forgave me for not knowing better! Two quick illustrations of this come to mind: one, Japanese people will wait patiently for the lights to change before they cross the road, even on a deserted road with no cars coming; two, for what we call common sense, meaning ‘good judgement’, the Japanese equivalent is what we would call ‘received wisdom’. That’s a big difference. Common sense puts the onus on the individual to use their noggin to know if something is a bad idea; received wisdom draws on collective ideas of the norm.

So far in the trilogy, book one is about finding belief in yourself and book two explores the concept of duty. Which three qualities would you say are essential for the next generation?

As a father, teacher, manager and football coach, I am lucky enough to work with young people, and they get a bad rap in general. Many cranky older people seem to forget what they were like at the same age. But let’s face it, the next generation is going to inherit a messed-up world with a whole lot of challenges. If they’re going to start putting things right they’ll need resilience, courage and imagination. Resilience because the only guarantee is that it’s going to be tough and everyone will have to dig in and pull their weight. Courage because the solutions will not be pretty and the temptation will be to blame others, to be fearful and to duck the difficult choices. Imagination because, more than ever, there is going to be a need for new ways of thinking, of approaching issues, and of resolving seemingly intractable problems in order to enact a better future for all. When the old ways no longer work, you have to invent anew.

You infuse your work with an understanding of Japanese mythology. Is it important for you to impart knowledge as well as tell a good story?

Absolutely. I grew up reading the Willard Price Adventure series and I learned so much about the world from those books. As a reader, I’m always looking to learn something new, whether it be cutting-edge science from Michael Crichton or an insight into the human condition from William Golding. If I read a book and take nothing away, I feel slightly cheated. All the great stories teach something, whether they be parable, myth, play, poem or novel.

For me, a trait of modern children’s books is to feature dual protagonists – one male and one female. How important is it for you to portray gender balance when writing?

As a parent of both boys and girls, I see first-hand the damage that gender stereotyping can do, even from an early age, and I cringe at things like body-shaming. I’m a firm believer in equality of opportunity and I try to ensure that my own children aspire to achieve their ambitions, regardless of what society might say. That carries over into my writing and is why I refuse to write a simpering female character whose only purpose in a story is to cheer lead for the male hero or to be rescued by him. I’ve been surrounded by strong women all my life so for me it’s natural to portray female protagonists who can more than match their male counterparts and I think it’s important for girls, too, to see these role models in fiction as well as in real life.

YAshot celebrates libraries. In what way are libraries important to you?

Libraries are so much more than just places where you can borrow books. To me, they are the repositories of all human wisdom. Without delving too far into it, you could make the case that Europe entered the Dark Ages following the loss of classical learning and only emerged with the fall of Constantinople and the resulting dissemination of knowledge as scholars fled with salvaged texts. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, but the idea of libraries safeguarding the cultural and intellectual wealth of a nation isn’t far off the mark. I read a recent thought experiment in which people were asked whether erasing history and starting afresh would be a good thing, as we wouldn’t have our grievances and enmities. The conclusion was that people would end up finding new reasons to squabble and that history is there to prevent us making the same mistakes repeatedly. Libraries house knowledge; without them you dumb down the world.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m currently reading Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and The Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. Before that, I read Kingdom Come, a Superman graphic novel. I like to mix things up!

Do you have the next idea simmering for when the trilogy comes to an end? And can you share it with me?

Kuromori was the first book I sold but not the first one I wrote, so I have a couple of earlier, finished novels already, which I’m dusting down. One is a MG all-action adventure which I describe as Thunderbirds meets Die Hard. The other is a YA supernatural horror which draws on Milton’s Paradise Lost. I’m currently working on a MG scfi-fi novel which is about space exploration.

You can purchase Jason’s The Sword of Kuromori and The Shield of Kuromori from Waterstones by clicking on the titles for the link, or you can click on the Amazon sidebar (from a PC).