Jane Inglis of Hillside School, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, describes an experiment in reading
Whatever one thinks of book prizes and shortlists, there’s no doubt that the hype surrounding a prestigious award like the Carnegie Medal generates a glamour and excitement that can be used to motivate children to read. Last year we took Hertfordshire Library Service’s Carnegie shortlist and invited our top Year 10 English group to read all six books and vote for a winner. The children chose Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty (Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13056 5, £8.99; Tracks, 0 00 674618 7, £3.50 pbk) which went on to win the medal. As a group they certainly read more than usual, they thought more about books, enjoyed the novelty of the discussions and produced written coursework for their GCSE examination.
Encouraged by the success of the project, we decided this year to wait for the national shortlist and repeat the exercise. The schedule was crowded, the list being announced right at the start of the summer term and the prize awarded on 30th June. As soon as the list came out I `phoned publishers and begged for donations or discounts. As before, I had a varied reception, but with donated books and some 25%-30% discounts we were able to collect nearly 60 volumes, including one complete set given by Peters Library Service, the sponsors of the Award, and several copies borrowed from our Schools’ Library Service. Unfortunately, the publisher’s promised copies of Robert Westall’s Gulf never arrived, so we managed with three. The children passed them around and a number managed to read this very popular title which, luckily, is quite short.
We spent most of the lessons concerned with this project in the library. At the first session, I sat the children in a semi-circle round a display of all the available copies, at least one of each book. I gave them a quick introduction to the Carnegie Medal, and briefly presented each of the shortlisted titles. I explained that they would be shadowing the selection process, acknowledging the difficulty, for adult judges as well as for them, of comparing The Angel of Nitshill Road, written for newly competent readers, with A Bone from a Dry Sea, a challenging novel for teenagers. My colleague Carl Heap, their English teacher, then explained how the time would be used and what exactly would be expected of them. Carl and I had agreed that our objectives were threefold: to get the children to read more, and more critically, than they otherwise would; to increase their oral skills both in small and larger groups; and finally to provide them with material which some at least would use for GCSE written work.
This early session generated a gratifying amount of excitement. The class responded well to the challenge of reading so many books in such a short time. They coped sensibly with the problems posed by Geography field trips, a History expedition to Belgium, and the half-term holiday, making their own arrangements to pass books around and put scarce copies to the best possible use. We soon realised that having two titles well below their reading age (The Suitcase Kid and The Angel of Nitshill Road) helped the children feel their way into their role as judges, and of course notched up a quick score of two titles read.
Early in the term Carl spent a double lesson with the children designing a questionnaire which was then issued to every child for each book read. This double-sided A4 document contributed a great deal to the success of the project, particularly as the children had helped draw it up and were invited at intervals to assess the usefulness of each question.
Straight after half-term we divided the class into six groups of four to five pupils. They had their completed questionnaires to prompt memory and boost their confidence, and they spent an hour discussing the eight books. After this session they were given for homework the task of drawing up a private order of preference.
The next day we planned a further discussion, differently structured. This time the questionnaires were sorted out by title, and eight groups of three to four pupils were scattered round the library, one to each book. All the pupils in each group had read the book. Their brief was to collate the questionnaire responses, consider some further questions (Would it make a good film or television programme? Is there a message or a moral, and if so, what?) and decide how best to present their book to the whole class. Great excitement was caused by the presence at this session of a young reporter from Radio 5’s Education Matters. He went round each group recording their deliberations, and the following day Hillside pupils heard themselves on a programme about the Carnegie Medal.
The last two library sessions involved these small groups presenting their books to the class as a whole, an exercise which our pupils found much more daunting than the discussion that led up to it.
The final vote was synchronised with the announcement of the medal. It wasn’t easy to devise a fair voting system when not all had read each book. Two lists were drawn up. Each child was asked to select the eight titles in order of personal preference. We also used a percentage system devised by the class to select a single winner, each child being asked to name their favourite and say how many they had read. In both lists The Suitcase Kid finished first. The table below summarises relevant statistics.
Four of the eight pupils who read all the books were invited to the Award ceremony, and although we dissented from the final official choice (Anne Fine’s The Flour Babies) everyone at Hillside agreed the Carnegie Medal project had been a great success.
Book No. of Readers Adjusted % Individual 1st Choices
1st Suitcase Kid 25 84% 14
2nd Gulf 19 79% 7
3rd Skye 17 71% 4
4th Flour Babies 18 66% 0
5th Nitshill Road 28 61% 0
6th Elephant Chase 20 58% 0
7th Angel for May 16 54% 0
8th Bone from Dry Sea 21 46% 4
One voter, absent on holiday, would almost certainly have chosen The Suitcase Kid.
Jane Inglis is part-time librarian at Hillside School, as well as being a translator, reviewer and writer. Her book Some People Don’t Eat Meat (Oakroyd Press) was featured in the BfK Green Guide to Children’s Books.
Details of the Carnegie shortlist books:
An Angel for May, Melvin Burgess, Andersen, 0 86264 398 8, £8.99
The Angel of Nitshill Road, Anne Fine, ill. Kate Aldous, Methuen, 0 416 17892 8, £6.99; Mammoth, 0 7497 0974 X, £2.99 pbk
A Bone from a Dry Sea, Peter Dickinson, Gollancz, 0 575 05306 2, £9.99
Flour Babies, Anne Fine, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13252 5 £8.99
The Great Elephant Chase, Gillian Cross, Oxford, 0 19 271672 7, £8.95
Gulf, Robert Westall, Methuen, 0 416 18590 8, £9.99; Mammoth, 0 7497 1472 7, £2.99 pbk
So Far From Skye, Judith O’Neill, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13213 4, £9.99; Puffin, 0 14 034980 4, £3.99 pbk
The Suitcase Kid, Jacqueline Wilson, Doubleday, 0 385 40175 2, £8.99; Yearling, 0 440 86311 2, £2.99 pbk
Fiction Criteria For Carnegie
Can be revealed through narration, conversation, thoughts of others, action
Are the characters convincing; credible or Stereo-typed; are they consistent with age and background and known child development?
Is it appropriate to the subject?
Is there natural dialogue?
Do narration and dialogue balance?
Are the sentence patterns appropriate?
Is there creation of mood, e.g. mystery, gloom, evil, joy, security?
The storyline may vary between, historical, fantasy, social, realism, science fiction, adventure, etc but the working out of the plot, the basic theme, must be well constructed in that events and characters progress, not necessarily logically, but acceptably within the limits set by the theme. Apart from fantasy and magical themes a solving of the problem by agencies hitherto unrelated to the plot is not considered acceptable.
According to the genre of the book and the age of the child reader, the plot should be constructive in the sense that
a) it ties up loose ends in a secure and satisfying manner, returning the child to the known world or
b) provides inspiration based on the working out of the events, and
c) produces a sense of having extended knowledge, emotional capacity, taking the reader a step forward even, occasionally, into a disturbed state.
There may be plot characteristics such as the elements of anticipation, humour, suspense, strong elemental human nature aspects such as love, hate, fear, greed, good and evil.
The whole work should provide pleasure from the integration of the plot, style and characters, pleasure not merely from surface enjoyment of a good read, but the deeper of subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience, that is retained afterwards.
Fiction Criteria For Hillside School
Have you read any other by this author? YES/NO If yes, which?
Does the book have a recommended reader age? YES/NO
If yes, what?
Do you agree with this recommended age? YES/NO
If no, what should it be? Why?
Is the story intended more for (1) Boys (2), Girls (3) Both?
If (1) or(2) in what ways does this show?
Where is the story set? In what time(s) is the story set?
Name Age Sex
Did any of the characters have unusual powers or abilities?
Were there any important animals in the story? Give details.
Give a brief description of the family circumstances of the central characters
Did someone recommend the book to you? YES/NO Who?
What did they recommend about it?
If you had just seen it on the library shelves would you have picked it up and read it? YES/NO
If yes, why? (e.g. cover design, blurb, reviews, author, title, read a bit etc.) If not, why not?
Did you enjoy it? YES/NO/MIXED FEELINGS If not, why not?
If yes, at (roughly or exactly) what point in the book did you start to become hooked or engrossed?
What aspects of the book hooked you?
(If you had mixed feelings, fill in both spaces above.)
If this had been your own personal reading, would you have read to the end of the book? YES/NO If no, are you glad you did? YES/NO
(If Yes, well done for being humble)
Would you recommend it? YES/NO
Does it make you want to read other books by the same author? YES/NO
Was there anything unusual about the way the story was structured? Describe briefly.
Was the story predictable? YES/NO If as, did that matter?
Was the conclusion of the story satisfying? YES/NO
If no, how would you have preferred it to end? YES/NO
Jot down a few adjectives to describe any emotions that you came away with.
Was the book like anything else you’ve read or seen?
(Book, Film, T.V_ etc.) If so, what?