Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Many cheers for a school literature festival, librarians, libraries and English teachers!

Last week I enjoyed two special events. The first (arranged through Authors Aloud UK) was Lytchett Minster School's Literature Festival.  My day began in the theatre, buzzing with excited primary age children from surrounding feeder schools. Many of them had been reading Journey to Jo'burg which added depth to their questions as well as lots of children lining up afterwards for me to sign other books. (Thank you Gullivers Bookshop!)

My second session was with Year 8s who are currently reading The Other Side of Truth . It's a special pleasure when young people begin to emerge from the group with individual distinctive voices - and the design of the day facilitated this. I met some of the same students later as a class group and, over lunch, a few keen readers accompanied me and the school's librarian Clair Bossons to the 'Secret Garden'. Hidden behind high redbrick walls, the garden has existed from the days of the original manor house.  Eating our sandwiches in the shade of an alcove, we chatted about favourite books, writing diaries, and this and that. Such a lovely interlude!

My final session included a rare treat. How often is it that an author gets to hear someone else reading their work aloud, keeping their audience gripped? Arriving in the library to be interviewed by one of the Year 8 classes, I found their English teacher Lesley Johnson deep into the chapter where my characters Sade and Femi are homeless and lost on the streets of south London. I loved her reading, especially the rendering of Video Man who hands the children over to the police.

Many years ago, as a newly-qualified teacher in London, I kept the last half-hour of each day as sacrosanct time for reading to my young teenage students. They lived challenging lives and often brought challenges into the classroom. But whatever we had faced earlier in the day, for this last half-hour, we put everything aside except the story.  I chose books that would grip them and that gripped me too. (The Silver Sword by Ian Serailler was one.) It was a genuinely shared experience that I believe saved me as a teacher. 

There's so much curriculum pressure these days that these kind of experiences get squeezed out. Yet these are experiences that enable us to grow; that help us see books as offering life-long learning and pleasure; that turn us into readers and writers. The Literature Festival also brought Marcus Alexander, Joffre White, Chris Priestley, Bali Rai and Steve Skidmore to Lytchett Minster to meet its young people. We all know how much planning and work goes into a week like this, with much praise due to the librarian and staff involved, as well as to the PTA who raised the funds to make it possible. 

Finally, my second special event last week took place on Saturday morning at Southbourne Library where I shared with a wonderfully cross-age audience my new Cinderella of the Nile, splendidly illustrated by Marjan Vafaeian and published by Tiny Owl. I dedicated my storytelling in memory of the late Connie Rothman, much-loved as a librarian in Southbourne, and also as a tribute to all our current librarians. I admire how valiantly they work to keep our libraries alive as welcoming places despite huge odds and the appalling cutbacks to our national treasure.

 I shall meet Marjan for the first time in person next month at the Edinburgh International Book Festival where, with a Farsi-speaking translator, we shall present a couple of events, one for schools and one for the public. Another of Tiny Owl's fabulous illustrators, Ehsan Abdollahi, who will also travel from Iran, has been appointed the Edinburgh International Book Festival's illustrator-in-residence. How exciting is that?