‘Follow that!’ I thought when I saw the Picture Book Special May edition of BfK which guest editor, Chris Powling, put together. Thank you, Chris, I really enjoyed being ‘one of our readers’.
Back in the Editor’s chair I’m writing this with the general election campaign in full flood, and a feeling, shared by many I think, that the outcome of this election will profoundly affect the education on offer for our children. This issue of BfK will be at the printers before we know which party is mandated to put its policies into action but in the first BfK of the new school year we’ll be looking at what the result means for books, schools, libraries and children.
Meanwhile in the following pages we cover the equally serious topic of child abuse – yet another concern which hard-pressed teachers have had to take on board. It’s good to find Judith Milner and Eric Blyth (page 4) so confident and optimistic about teachers’ ability to take on this problematic area. Good, too, to find that there are books like Michele Elliott’s Willow Street Kids, now in paperback and featured on our cover, which are positively helpful to teachers and children. Not a situation we found when we went looking for books about AIDS (page 22). Though we did find Too Close Encounters and what to do about them (Piccadilly Press, 0 946826 69 2, £5.95), a guide for teenagers in which Rosemary Stones deals in a practical and straightforward way with sexual harassment and sexual assault and also with broader but no less important topics like sex roles, social and peer group pressure.
What sort of readers?
AIDS has been the subject of a great deal of rhetoric, little of it has been helpful and some, by polarising and over-simplifying, has been counter-productive. Something similar is happening to the debate about the teaching of reading. Betty Root of the Reading Centre in Reading has recently published a pamphlet In Defence of Reading Schemes. on behalf, she suggests, of all those teachers who feel under attack from the ‘real books’ brigade. This seems to me to be an unhelpful document. First of all it suggests two armies of teachers in embattled opposition. My experience has been much more of teachers in varying stages of willingness to question prevailing practice, many who are interested to understand the principles underlying alternative approaches, and some who have very gradually begun to adapt and change. If anyone is in embattled opposition it is the publishers and writers of reading schemes who stand to lose a great deal if there should be a general move to ‘real’ books.
Betty Root also, inexplicably, characterises the supporters of ‘real’ books as people who have ‘not been exposed to the unremitting daily pressures exerted by a class of lively mixed ability children.’ Can this be a description of Jill Bennett and Liz Waterland, both classroom teachers and the writers of the most influential publications on this subject? Teachers the pamphlet suggests are ‘not being credited with the ability to choose the method which works best for them.’ The language here reveals and conceals an important difference between the two approaches which Betty Root leaves unexplored. Moving away from reading schemes and graded readers means looking at books and readers (children!) in a completely different way. It’s not what works for teachers that is important; it’s what works to make children into readers. Books are not to he seen as disposable tissues to be used and discarded, things to be read once and never returned to because going on, up the ladder, is all that matters.
Books are to be read again and again for sheer pleasure, at 4, 5, 6 etc. with developing competence and in different ways; to be enjoyed and shared by adults and children alike. And yet we now have Longman’s Reading World at Home, a series clearly coded and labelled with `Levels’ and age-ranges so parents can replicate the reading scheme at home. Parents anxious to help and insecure about what to do need directing to Pat Hutchins, John Burningham, the Ahlbergs and Shirley Hughes, not to a series which for school and home offers only three authors.
The ‘real’ books approach, says Betty Root fits ‘highly competent, highly literate teachers who really know their books.’ The implication is that these are an eccentric minority and perhaps that getting to ‘know their books’ is beyond the majority. Again my experience suggests otherwise. More and more teachers are setting out to increase their knowledge of books and of how children come to read them, and sharing their discoveries with others (Real Books for Introducing Reading, from Newcastle, and the latest issue of Reading Matters from ILEA are just two examples). What they are asking for is support and information. Without wishing to reinforce the ‘two camps’ image, BfK tries and will continue to try to offer that help and to applaud initiatives like the one from booksellers Sherratt and Hughes which helps parents (and teachers?) to find their way to books (See pages 7-9 and 19).
From real reading to real writing. Writers-in-residence schemes are giving some children an insight into the writing (and publishing) process. Chris Gudgin tells what happened in his tiny fenland school when Alison Prince accepted the challenge to write a novel with the children (page 20). The latest novel by Carnegie medal winner Berlie Doherty (page 11) had its origins in eleven double English lessons with 3P, a lively bunch of 13 and 14-year-olds at Hall Cross Comprehensive school in Doncaster – an arrangement sponsored jointly by the school and Yorkshire Arts. Tough Luck (Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12016 0, £6.95), as 3P requested is about ‘people like ourselves, the kind of things that happen to us.’ The book created with the class was reworked as a novel, a process Berlie Doherty says can’t be shared and must be left to the writer in the attic.’ The resulting story of Twagger, Sprat and Nasim of 3B is well worth reading.
Another event that gives me particular pleasure is the presentation of the Eleanor Farjeon award to Valerie Bierman. Many years ago I went to see Val in Edinburgh to persuade her to follow in my footsteps as chair of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups. It wasn’t easy but encouraged by her family, especially her husband, Mike, she eventually agreed and I went away knowing the Federation would be in good hands. Val works tirelessly, effectively and quietly; I’m pleased to claim her as a friend and to applaud this recognition of all she has done and continues to do. A good time to remind you of the third Edinburgh Book Festival (August 8-23) with the Children’s Fair once again organised by Val.