One of the nicest things about being editor of BfK is that you get to meet and talk to so many people who are enthusiastic about books and committed to getting children reading. I keep in touch pretty regularly, for instance, with our teacher reviewers. Last school year whenever I rang Colin Mills we always ended up talking about what he was doing with his year off. By the time I put the phone down I invariably had something new to think about and his enthusiasm was a real tonic. New ideas and an inspirational ‘lift’ are things we can all do with. So we asked Colin to share his thoughts and experiences in this issue of BfK which poses the question What’s New in Reading? (page 4). While Colin was collecting his thoughts Liz Waterland’s booklet Read With Me came out. When I read it I wanted to cheer. It must contain the answer to any, ‘yes, but’ reservations about learning to read with ‘real’ books; the warmth, common sense and sheer professionalism that comes off the pages is both challenging and reassuring to the waverer. I was delighted when Liz Waterland and Nancy Chambers, her editor at Signal, agreed to allow us to include an edited extract in BfK (see page 6).
We’re Getting There
When Jill Bennett compiled the first edition of Learning to Read with Picture Books for Signal in 1979, the idea that it is books as much as teachers that teach children to read and that involvement of parents and other readers can be very significant was being expressed by a small ‘lunatic fringe’. This month the third edition of Jill’s list is published – get it even if you’ve got the others; there are lots of new books included (0 903355 18 3, £2.40)-and those ideas are spreading and growing in strength. In The Bookseller recently Hertfordshire’s County Librarian reported an increased demand nationally for picture books, stimulated, he suggested by their use in learning to read. And yet – at the same time Educational Publishers are urging us to invest vast sums of money in their everything-you-need, ‘total approach’ packages for reading. They reassure us that their materials have been compiled with regard to all the latest developments in reading theory and research (while retaining the traditional approach!) Such schemes and packages offer a seductive sense of security – for the teacher. With grading and coding what children learn about, reading has little to do with the pleasure of exploring what an individual writer or artist has to offer. It becomes instead a competition. a race, a status symbol with all the associated risks of failure. Schools and classrooms (and there are many) which like Liz Waterland’s have followed the logic of the real books argument can bear witness to the difference in children’s attitudes and to the joy of being with apprentice readers who are at home with books.
And we certainly can’t complain about a shortage of books. Bill Gillham from the Psychology Department of Strathclyde University has been promoting Paired Reading. In October Methuen publish four Paired Reading Storybooks by Bill Gillham – one or two lines of text per page beneath a jolly Margaret Chamberlain picture, building into a short 22 page story, (£1.95). Included is a clearly set out eight point guide: How to Pair Read. Of course you can use the technique with other books. Ideal for parents – useful for teachers too.
Out this month from Hamish Hamilton, Cartwheels is a new series in the Banana Books vein– short texts, full colour illustration throughout, lively varied stories by writers such as Sheila Lavelle, Linda Allen, Catherine Sefton. Six titles in the first batch, £2.95 each.
Shirley Hughes is a writer/artist who has thought long and hard about children becoming readers. Her latest book, Chips and Jessie, Bodley Head, 0 370 30666 X, £5.50 is a brilliant demonstration of how books teach reading. It’s worth studying closely to see how many different ways, in words and pictures, she allows and encourages the reader to play the reading game. Brilliant!
Theme 2: South Africa
The other major theme in this BfK is South Africa – though we had no idea when we started to collect material that by the time the magazine came out the situation in South Africa would be so much in the news.
By another of those magical coincidences that seem to happen to us fairly frequently we had just been talking to Hugh Lewin about Africa when Isobel Randall dropped into the BfK office on a visitor’s fact-finding tours. She told us about her involvement with Ravan Press and about what READ is doing in Black schools and soon found herself signed up to write for us. (Page 12). Isobel was visiting this country and the USA with her husband, Peter Randall who had six months leave from Witwatersrand University to research in education.
Peter was one of the three founders of Ravan Press – the name is an anagram of the first letters of their names – and because of his publishing activities he was a banned person in South Africa for five years.
Isobel writes as an editor of her frustrations and problems in publishing for children. Apart from censorship – she seemed as surprised as we were that her ‘multi-cultural’ A Visit to the Newspaper hadn’t created more of a stir-there is the problem of finding a market. Hugh Lewin echoed Isobel exactly in talking about the ‘academic stranglehold’ on the market and he was more outspoken about the out-of-date methods in schools which do not encourage the creation of readers.
‘I feel very strongly about the terrible position children’s books are in in Africa. Publishing is so much a commercial enterprise that because there is no market, children’s books are the last to be taken up and the first to be dropped. We have a desperate need for a children’s literature; there is little material available and much of what there is comes from abroad and is either lousy or tied up with our colonial past. We have a responsibility to break the academic stranglehold. Good African writers have never had a chance to write for children; it never occurs to them; they have enough problems getting published anyway. It’s got to be changed. We are not just dealing with children we are dealing with the future.’
I’m sure Isobel would agree – though we were pleased to hear that her two submitted books had been accepted as school texts which means Ravan can now afford to publish them and perhaps finance other projects.
Of the many books we looked at together. Isobel was most enthusiastic about the Peckham Publishing Project’s Our Kids, one of the winners of this year’s Other Award (page 28). She could see something similar being produced in Johannesburg and finding a market not only with children but in adult literacy classes. We seem to be getting more stories which help us to feel what it is like to live with apartheid. Beverley Naidoo’s Journey to Jo’burg also appears in the Other Award list. Just out, for rather older readers, is Toeckey Jones’ Skindeep, Bodley Head, 0 370 30507 8, £4.50, which depicts the emotional seesaw that is teenage love in any country but adds the harsh dimension of living in and being inevitably conditioned by a segregated society. It’s uneven but packs a powerful punch.
As, predictably, does the new Robert Cormier, Beyond the Chocolate War. In a way it’s Cormier’s answer to all those who accused him of putting out the lights and taking the stars away; but it’s as uncompromising as ever and peels away yet more complex layers in revealing the anatomy of a corrupt society.
The summer term after the autumn of the Chocolate War ends with Archie inviolate and perhaps triumphant -‘You’ll always have me. I’m the thing you have inside you.’ and Jerry, also perhaps a winner, his moral courage restored, ‘You can only really lose if you fight them. You have to outlast them.’ No rosy sunset but maybe a pale gleam or to put it another way something on the other side of the scales this time.
Lisa Kopper who has established a considerable reputation for her ability to ‘draw black people’ (page 24) also, like Hugh Lewin, faces a moral dilemma: what is the position of the white artist or writer depicting a black world? But one book in which this wasn’t a problem was Coming Home, a true story of a dog’s struggle to survive. Lisa was herself involved with the dog’s rescue and some of the illustrations are self portraits. A different kind of moral stand by Walker Books led to a children’s book making the national news on both BBC and ITV – not a usual occurrence. But this wasn’t a children’s book; it was of course The Children’s Book in aid of Save the Children Famine in Africa appeal and it was being launched by Princess Anne. Still, prime time coverage; good for books and reading, good for Walker Books, good for the Famine Appeal. If the Children’s Book Week train does as well Tom Maschler of Cape and of the CBW Committee will be pleased. For him the £70,000+ promotion ‘is not about selling books, but aims to attract for children’s literature a media interest such as has never been seen before.’ He’s off to a good start with ITN News at One running a weather slot with illustrations by Foreman and Browne – and that we are told is only the tip of the iceberg.
Are you meeting the train? Let us know what happens if you do.
It’s going to be such a frantic, noisy week. I don’t suppose anyone will be able to do much reading!