Reading for Pleasure Conference, The Guardian Education Centre, 17/03/2016
Chaired by Julia Eccleshare, the Guardian children’s book editor, this event included talks by some high profile figures in the world of children’s books – Rob Biddulph, Simon Mayo and none other than, Jacqueline Wilson. I was somewhat excited! To introduce the event, the Guardian Education Centre staff spoke briefly about their various roles in empowering reading communities, in particular through their Guardian Children’s Book website – which had 800,000 views on World Book Day. They also have a teacher’s network which some of those present were aware of, and which looks incredibly useful in terms of teaching resources and ideas. For anyone working in schools, anything that can help inspire staff and students is worth looking at – especially when it’s free!
The first guest speaker was Rob Biddulph, author & illustrator of the award winning picture book ‘Blown Away’. It was absolutely fascinating to hear about the creative process behind a picture book, as well as how he himself ‘became’ a children’s picture book author. Visually creative from a young age, Rob’s artistic talents led him to the world of magazines and to work for The Observer. Having his own children re-introduced him to the delights of picture books. Reading to his daughters at bedtime reminded him what a creative medium pictures in stories are. These included ‘The Busy World of Richard Scarry’ (love this!) and his favourite, ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’. Dr Seuss went on to be the inspiration and benchmark for Rob’s use of rhyme in his picture books so far. “A good picture book can be around forever” he said, and then went on to show the audience a selection of pictures from his portfolio, his current book ‘Grrrr’ and his next picture book in the making. This talk was a brilliant insight into one author’s experience of success in the picture book industry and how important every detail is in creating these amazing stories.
‘Reading for Pleasure in the Classroom’ was the focus of Mathew Tobin’s offering, a Senior Lecturer in English and children’s literature at Oxford Brookes University. I loved what Mathew had to say about how to encourage reading for pleasure and ensure it takes pride of place in any classroom. The focus was on what we, as adults, as teachers, can do to get children to read through leading by example, ensuring we have knowledge of children’s literature which we celebrate with them from a young age and how book talk can build insight and raise confidence in all young readers. This last point particularly rang true for me – I truly believe talking with children about books, showing them what is available to them, showing them how to access books for enjoyment and giving them the tools to choose the right book for themselves is essential to setting them on the path to discovering reading for pleasure. Mathew spoke passionately about the importance of libraries and giving children access to a well stocked library; a social space that celebrates children’s reading.
Jack Sloan, Deputy Head at Hanover Primary was also incredibly passionate about the work they do to ensure they are supporting their pupils as readers. He spoke of the “moral imperative to give children the joy of stories”, such an important statement in times where imperatives such as these take a back seat so that education can meet ‘requirements. He also talked about the importance of ensuring schools are working with parents to support them, so they can continue the positive encouragement of reading in the home, stating ‘we can’t have a school as an island, where reading takes place but then it stops as soon as the child gets home’. It was great to hear the hard work they have put in to ensure they are supporting their pupils on the path to reading for pleasure, as well as meeting the requirements of measuring the impact of what they are doing and then using this to engage both the child and their parents. I attended the ‘Engaging with Parents’ workshop led by Jack and there was further focus on recognising the issues that may affect a school’s ability to work with the parents, with suggestions for how to solve these. Putting on reading events was one of the ways suggested to create interest and participation, utilising the ‘lure’ of author visits to get parents talking about books. I wholeheartedly agree with this and whilst these do cost money, reading events don’t have to cost a fortune and are worth their weight in gold when you think of the positive impact they have.
Simon Mayo demonstrated how interesting author visits can be, sharing what shape his school visits take and how he generates interest in his books and reading in general. I must admit I was a little star struck – being a regular Radio 2 listener – but also totally interested in hearing how Simon became an author and what gave him the inspiration to write the ‘Itch’ series. We were even showed a clip of Daniel Radcliff singing the elements song on The Graham Norton Show, with Simon’s comment being if Daniel Radcliffe can make it interesting, then Science could make a comeback! There were great questions for Simon from Julia Eccleshare, including asking him how he felt about Science when he was at school – it used to bore him! And English did too, which led him to comment that ‘when a teacher thrills and excites you it revolutionises your life’ which I couldn’t agree with more! Simon also commented that initially his son was the thought behind his main character, until his son pointed out to him that Itch was basically Simon as a young boy. It was nice to hear the personal reflection of an author and how this is shown in his writing. He said that whilst his books are classified as children’s fiction or in the case of his new novel, ‘Blame’, YA fiction, they are all just stories. And I liked this because ultimately it’s the stories that connect us all, whatever our age and experience.
And finally, like the cherry on top of an author cake, Jacqueline Wilson chatted about her writing, her childhood and her new creative writing competition, the winning entry of which will be published in one of her new novels. Jacqueline talked about wanting to have a competition where children could write stories that didn’t have to fit any curriculum requirement, so they could just focus on the excitement of the story without the rules and regulations. With so little time for creative writing in schools, perhaps this will give interested 7 – 12 year olds an opportunity they might otherwise not have. As a child, she herself would make up stories in her head all the time and her favourite thing as she got older was to go to Woolworths and buy a new notebook and pen to write down all her ideas in. Jacqueline cites Enid Blyton and E Nesbit as two of her inspirations – not because she necessarily loved their work but because they wrote stories that allowed children to ‘fill in the blanks with their own imaginations’. Her own preference was to write ‘more real’ stories perhaps and she cited Sylvia Plath and J D Salinger as being authors she loved in her youth. She talked about her writing being character led; a bit like playing the imaginary games of her childhood and as if she actually ‘became’ the character. Interestingly of her new historically set books, Jacqueline said that it was easier to ‘getaway’ with the grittier storylines than if the story was set in present day, possibly because people are more accepting of hard-times during the past. It was lovely to hear how she enjoyed sharing a love of stories with others and wants to encourage as many children to read as possible – and not just her own books! Jacqueline talked of the wealth of children’s books available today, something I wholeheartedly agree with, and how important it is to share the immense pleasure reading can bring.
All in all, it was an informative, inspiring and encouraging event, thoroughly worthwhile attending. As one other participant commented; if only every teacher, staff member and parent could hear what was said, we could all share the love of reading and ensure our children are encouraged to love reading too.