The first BfK of 1987 and we make no apology for giving more space to best-selling The Jolly Postman. The Ahlbergs have done it again: an idea for a book so right and so simple that it seems blindingly obvious – once you see it, and (and here’s the magic trick) brought to life with wit, ingenuity and a scrupulous attention to detail. The Jolly Postman is fun but there is also a whole agenda for developing readers and writers between its shiny covers. So many voices to attend to, so many texts to explore and add to, so much as yet unwritten mail for the postman to deliver. This is a book worth celebrating and Chris Powling is just the man for the job (see page 4). Share with him the delight in looking closely to see how and why The Jolly Postman works and then share it with children who will show you even more.
Anyone still in doubt that experience of good fiction is central to children’s development as readers and writers – and in many other ways too – should be directed at once to Dipping in a Street and All Four One. Dipping in a Street tells how 26 teachers from 13 primary schools in West Leeds based a half term of work across the curriculum on Berlie Doherty’s How Green You Are with Jamila Gavin’s Kamla and Kate in support for younger children. It is full of examples of children’s work: poems stories, instructions reports, observational drawings, maps, drama, music. All Four One is a 140 page hardback book conceived, written and published by the 260 children and the teachers of Earls Barton Junior School. For a school year they took a Focus on Books project to it’s logical conclusion: the first years collaborated on a full colour picture story, The Jelly Lover; the second years devised Friends with Nature, 32 pages of poems, puzzles, pictures and facts; the third years became poets and illustrators of Lost for Words, and the fourth years produced a 13 chapter illustrated novel, Guardians of Zargon, set in the village and involving exciting time shift adventures for two eleven-year-olds. It’s an excellent production, well worth reading in anyone’s terms.
The Leeds and the Earls Barton projects have things in common. They involved thoughtful, enthusiastic, imaginative teachers committed to the principle of first hand experience and purposeful learning, and convinced of the value of literature. Both also enjoyed the extended participation of professional writers and artists. In Leeds Berlie Doherty worked for three days with the teachers on a residential course and then for a week talked and worked with children in schools. In Earls Barton, writer Gwen Grant and illustrator Kim Palmer worked closely with staff and pupils. And of course both projects needed and got financial support-from their LEAs, from Writers in Schools and in Earls Barton’s case a special SCDC grant.
Beyond Our Ken
Those two books should be in every school and sent to Kenneth Baker with a note to remind him that much work of this kind is going on. On the evidence of a recent speech he is concerned that children should learn to love reading ‘for the enlightenment it can bring; and for the engagement with language and authors’; he wants pupils to be ‘reflective users of our language: able to understand it as well as to use it; to be in control of it rather that at its mercy.’ Hurrah! Hang on though, he also appears to think that a combination of schools, parents and television is stopping this happening. What does he want us to do? ‘I would like to see bench marks for progress in English which actually set out lists of the sort of books or authors children should be able to read and understand at particular ages and levels of achievement.’ For example? ‘Animal Farm at 12, David Copperfield at 15 -for children of average ability.’ Oh yes, and he’s appointing another ‘high-level independent committee’ to tell us what our pupils ought to know ‘about the English language.’ Words fail me. How can anyone be so right and so wrong in the same speech? We don’t need another committee, or another prescriptive checklist. What we need is support: INSET support to give teachers time to plan, collaborate, evaluate; support to allow more writers, poets and artists to work with teachers and children; support for better information, for exchange if ideas between teachers; support for book events, book weeks and all those other activities which we know help children to become readers for pleasure.
And how can we help teenagers to go on developing as readers? Last November the Book Marketing Council launched the Teen Read promotion; several publishers, including Virago and The Women’s Press, are developing new young adult lists. Our seven page special on Teenage Reading reflects some of this (see page 14). From my own mini survey in three schools the BMC’s Teen Read newspaper was a hit. The pop stars, the sport, the association with Nike, the romantic fiction, the clubs to join (Nike and Sweet Dreams) were all enjoyed. Books were ordered, bought, borrowed. But it was still mainly girls who responded. How do we get more boys reading? How do we provide the kind of reading experience that leads more teenagers to Peter Carter (see page 19) whose books get literary awards but are not top of the pops? His latest novel, Bury the Dead, whose atmospheric jacket illustration we feature on our cover is accessible to a wide readership if they find a way to it.
For this Teenage Reading feature we welcome back Steve Bowles’ distinctive voice – this time enthusing about some recent publishing (see page 17). And we have a new reviewer, Val Randall, another lively voice. Val is Head of English in a comprehensive school in North East Lancashire. And finally news for Chris Powling whose favourite literary fantasy – he revealed in November’s BfK – is a meeting between Just William and Christopher Robin. Well, Richmal Crompton, Mary Cadogan tells us in her biography or William’s creator (Allen and Unwin, 0 04 928054 6, £12.95) got there first. In William the Pirate he meets spoiled brat Anthony Martin whose mother writes ‘literary stories and poems about him’ – ‘Homework’ has the refrain ‘Anthony Martin is doing his sums’. Needless to say prissy Anthony is no match for William and the Outlaws.
Dipping in a Street, Ed. David Morton, 0 906835 25 9, £4.50, from The Primary Schools Centre, St Mary’s Street, Leeds LS9 7DP (Cheques to ‘Leeds City Council’). All for One is available from Earls Barton Junior School, Earls Barton, Northampton, NN6 0ND, £5.95 plus £1.50 p&p.