Libray-versary: a decade in school libraries!

This time ten years ago I took my first steps as a School Librarian. I can’t actually believe it’s been ten years.  It was never my plan to work in a school library, dare I say it?! But I’ve always been a reader and always loved books. I loved visiting the public library as a young girl, taking out as many books as I was allowed, devouring them one after another.  This was where I discovered some of my favourite authors –  causing a few raised eyebrows as I took out virtually an entire shelf of books by the same author!

I’d had various ideas about what I wanted to do when I grew-up, but as is often the case life happens and plans change or adapt.  When I did my degree, I recall thinking the Classification unit was really quite boring and I would avoid the Dewey System if I could…! I worked in events management initially after University and as a ‘born organiser’ (as my parents would say), this suited me very well and I loved it.  The arrival of children meant it was difficult to balance this career (late nights, long days and lots of travelling) with parenting and this is when I applied to work in a local school in the library. I will admit like many who are attracted to working in schools, the hours and holiday times were well-suited to family life. But little did I know this would lead me to discover a brand new career and rekindle my passion for books.  Not that I had ever stopped reading; I hadn’t, but I had never thought about sharing and encouraging others to discover a love for reading, beyond my book group.

It was a huge culture shock going from industry to working in a school. After six weeks I had a complete panic and went to see the Personnel Manager to discuss handing my notice in.  She was brilliant – kind and reassuring and encouraged me to stick with it till the end of that term, saying that many people who come from industry find it a big adjustment.  She also sent me on a training course  all about how to run a school library.  This was a huge turning point for me.  I suddenly realised the value of the job I was doing and will never forget what the man running the course said:

“You can either be the person who sits behind the desk stamping books or you can effect real and positive change in the lives of the children who walk through the school library door.”

It was definitely a light bulb moment for me. Up until that point, I had felt that I had no real purpose other than to look after the very dusty and underused library space, stop students from misbehaving when they came in for the odd lesson and issue the occasional book. I went back to school with a new focus: I was going to revamp the library and make it a hub of activity! A place where students couldn’t wait to be; where they felt supported; where they were inspired and most importantly, a space that celebrated and enabled the discovery of the joy of reading.

Quite a challenge in a library that had had little love or attention for many years!  But despite this, I did achieve a huge amount, working with some great people, of which to this day I feel very proud.  I was able to make good use of the skills I had learnt in running events, marketing and PR. At its simplest level, I saw the library and books as the ‘product’ and the students and staff as my target audience.  It was just a case of working out the right sales pitch amongst other things!

This first experience stood me in good stead throughout my career and I’ve had the rewarding task of revamping nearly all the libraries I’ve worked in.  I’ve learnt a huge amount over the last decade. Not just in terms of running a library; but also working with children, school staff and parents; in teaching and learning; understanding special needs; general education issues; managing a team and a myriad of other things I’d never even thought about.

Without the wider support of those working alongside you, a school library (and the librarian) can quickly become obsolete.  I’ve collaborated with some amazing teachers, teaching assistants and fellow librarians, who have been fundamental to ensuring the success of the libraries I have worked in. I’ve also continually developed my understanding of the importance of reading to a child’s development across all areas of their lives.  I realise how incredibly blessed I was to discover a love for reading at a young age (thank you Dad) and have it come completely naturally to me.  And now even more, I realise that it was a lot easier to grow-up when I was young; these days children have so much to deal with and as school librarian I feel a huge sense of responsibility in supporting young people in school. It’s this that keeps you going when you’re having one of ‘those’ days.

Since that first day, I have worked with nearly 7,500 children ranging from two to eighteen years.  It is a unique position to be in, interacting with the entire school community. In a single day, librarians can be teaching and supporting upwards of five different curriculum subjects for a range of ages, taking book groups, running reading campaigns, recommending books to individuals, writing school policy, as well as the general administration of the library. Add to that the role of tutor in my current position to a group of Year 8 boys and it’s busy!  Perseverance is key as are good working relationships. It is absolutely a full time job and should never be underestimated; but it’s also totally rewarding.

This career has led me to some wonderful things, not least founding The Book Activist. I’ve had the absolute pleasure of sharing my love for reading and been able to read hundreds of wonderful books ‘for work’! I’ve faced challenges in ways I couldn’t have imagined and I’ve had moments of fulfilment that I will never forget. I’ve been fortunate to work with some lovely people and made some friends for life. So on my library-versary, it’s a good time to thank all of those who have supported, inspired and encouraged me. And to thank all the many children who have made my job so rewarding.  And of course, all those amazing authors, illustrators, publishers, editors and brilliant book-ish people who create the stories we love.  I don’t know where the next ten years will take me, but I expect if books and reading are involved, it’s going to be brilliant!

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Crossan and Conaghan at Waterstones Brighton.

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I was somewhat excited about hearing Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan talk about their new book We Come Apart at Waterstones, Brighton and arrived about 45 minutes early in my haste to get there on time.  The seats filled quickly and the talk began, brilliantly chaired by Nikki Sheehan (author of Swanboy and Who Framed Klaris Kliff?).  It was absolutely fascinating to hear the story of how two award winning authors with such unique writing styles came together to produce what will no doubt be a bestseller.  We Come Apart, written entirely in verse, tells the story of Nicu, an immigrant from Romania and his relationship with Jess, a a fellow teenager with a troubled home life.  I’m looking forward to reading it, especially after hearing how it came together.

Brian approached Sarah with the idea of writing together and Sarah agreed; and so began an incredible process of writing mainly via What’s App! With no actual ‘plotting’ the story unfolded between them, each author taking on one of the central characters. Brian would write the story from Nicu’s point of view and Sarah would write the story from Jess’ point of view. Rather than plan the story, each author would write responding and reacting to what the other author had produced, so the process was totally organic.  With their own varied approaches to writing it was clear from the conversation that their various strengths and weaknesses blended well.  And unbelievably it took just five and a half weeks to write!  Both authors shared what they had learnt from the process of a joint writing experience. Amongst other things, Brian, to plan a bit more and Sarah, to keep the gremlins of self-doubt at bay! It also came across as a very brave thing to do, which Nikki Sheehan highlighted saying that as a writer ‘giving’ your story to anyone is like giving something or someone very precious away.

When asked if they would do it again, both agreed there wouldn’t be a sequel.  They also said they’d consider writing together again but perhaps in prose. They both have ideas of characters bubbling away so perhaps it’s a case of watch this space!  It sounded like it had been a very rewarding but also quite challenging experience and it was fascinating to hear the creativity behind it.

As a young girl, I will admit I really disliked poetry. Having studied Chaucer (the original text) to death when I was about 14, I think you could forgive me for being put off poetry for some time.  I was somewhat sceptical when I first heard about The Weight of Water and whether it would appeal to young people based on my own youthful experiences. Sarah shared how in the UK it had been a much harder ‘sell’ because of some negative attitudes to poetry.  She pointed out that young people are often more flexible than their elders and they quickly embrace different styles of writing.  Not only that, for many it appeals as it’s often a quicker read and can be easier for children with dyslexia. Sarah described writing in verse as like sewing lots of different pictures together and how you can get to the heart of the story much more quickly when you don’t have to describe every tree and every ‘high road’! Brian and Sarah both talked about how writing in verse enables the reader to use their imagination to ‘fill in’ the blanks, creating those elements of the story that are left out, in the way they choose.  In that sense, it can be incredibly powerful and also very personal.  For me, reading in verse is an amazing way to communicate a story and has gone a long way to restore my love of poetry.

I wasn’t aware that both Sarah and Brian were previously teachers and both of them talked about this and how it informs their writing. Brian spoke about how he would often be talking to the reluctant readers in the classroom so that he could engage them in even just a small amount of reading, so they could feel a sense of achievement and enjoy stories like anyone else. Not being much of a reader himself as a teenager, he can relate to those who don’t read and even now doesn’t read books with a tiny font.  Brian commented that he writes books for people, about real life and real situations and for those who don’t like this, well, they don’t have to read his books.  I can’t help but agree with this sentiment.  Life is a varied and many splendoured thing and writers can choose what they want to reflect on and the reader can choose what they want to read.  Hence why book choice is so personal – and so important.

Sarah shared that as both a teacher and a mother, she felt a sense of responsibility in being very aware of what she chooses to include in her books and that she always likes to end with even just the tiniest glimmer of hope – even if the ending isn’t a ‘happy’ one.  I can’t help but agree with this too – life is hard and full of difficulties, but it’s often our hope in each other and the future that keeps us going and it’s good for young people to believe this.

Brian and Sarah were both hugely entertaining to listen to, and I can only imagine how excited their agents and publishers were when they were told they had written together; this confirmed by the Bloomsbury representatives and Brian’s agent in the audience.

It’s what I love about the world of books and reading; people are so passionate about stories. Listening to those who write them, hearing their enthusiasm and the creativity behind the story is totally inspiring.  I’m so glad I was able to attend and if Crossan and Conaghan are visiting a Waterstones near you, make sure you go if you can!

A review of We Come Apart will follow soon!

Non-fiction: why is it so important for children’s reading?

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You may have noticed that November has been National Non Fiction Month. With so many days and occasions to celebrate reading, the focus is often on fiction.  This of course, is wonderful and absolutely as it should be. But it’s also wonderful and as it should be that we celebrate the plethora of amazing non-fiction books out there for children.  And that’s just what the Federation of Children’s Book Groups does through National Non Fiction month.

So why is non- fiction so important for children’s reading?  Well, one might say, it teaches them about the world and helps their education perhaps supporting whatever current topic they’re working on. And of course this is true; knowledge is empowering at any age. But it’s more than that. Because for some children, reading stories just isn’t something they want to do or perhaps it’s something that they can’t do.  So non-fiction opens a door to reading ensuring they too can experience the wonder of words.

Non-fiction books help children unlock the world around them, but also enable them to participate in reading, tapping into their varied interests and engaging them in a way that stories sometimes can’t.  If a child has a learning need, they can struggle with understanding the often inferred narratives in a story – with non-fiction they don’t have to worry about this, they can just read the facts off the page!  Would you believe that many children I have worked with say they don’t want to read because they don’t like stories? Of course I explain to them that this is simply not true, they haven’t found the right book yet.  But if they are adamant and don’t want to read a ‘story-book’, I will establish what their interests are and recommend a wonderful non-fiction book as a starting point that fits the bill; whatever the topic there’s bound to be something they will enjoy.  As it’s not a ‘story’ and it fits in with their interests, they start to read.  And whilst they read they are still benefiting from language, vocabulary and expression through the information presented in front of them.  This is amazing sight to see, when you’ve had a student roll their eyes on being asked to read – and a little while later they’re busy enjoying a book!

There are some simply gorgeous and amazing non-fiction books produced today for all ages with beautiful illustrations bringing the information to life. The FCBG have put together an amazing list of 100 children’s non-fiction books; plenty of ideas to choose from!

And there’s always what are viewed as the more ‘commercial’ non-fiction books; the Guinness Book of Records, Lego, Minecraft……a bone of contention for some; ‘It’s not reading’.  Well actually, yes it is. It’s a start. And for those young people who are so switched off from reading they’d rather stare at the wall, it’s the perfect combination of words, pictures and fantastic facts.  Without even realising it they become engrossed in a book, through something that interests them.  It’s a step on the road to reading – it’s fun and above all we want children and young people to associate their reading experiences with fun.  Once they find the joy of books, they are far more likely to develop a reading habit. Sadly not all have had a positive start to their reading journeys, not all have homes with books in and many have a complete lack of input as they get older.  So if we can find something that hooks them, non-fiction or fiction, little by little they will discover reading for pleasure.

How to get teens to #LoveToRead.

Waking up at 5am with a horrible cold, I got up and sat with my lemsip, flicking through the somewhat weird and wonderful world of early morning TV.  I remembered I’d yet to watch ‘The School that Got Teens Reading’.  This is just one of the programmes scheduled for the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign, so I settled down, between sneezes, to see what it was like.

I’d never heard of the exuberant Javone Prince before. He admitted to being somewhat nervous having no experience of schools other than his own schooling – I don’t blame him! I remember my first ever library lesson about ten years ago – I was absolutely terrified. But what he lacked in experience he made up for with enthusiasm; it was great to hear how much he loves reading and wanted to share that passion with the students.

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Memory recall & reflection.

It’s like starting all over again” said my 13 year old who is going into Year 9 in September – and is dyslexic. “I don’t remember anything…a, b, c”. Then he laughed as he spelled out the alphabet.

Privately assessed by an educational psychologist when aged 7, who said “it’s glaringly obvious” that he has dyslexia, we have been aware of his learning needs for some time.  We’ve done our best to support him throughout – including moving schools, when one particular headmaster responded to my complaint that my son was not getting any support, even with an ed psych report:  “This is all we are going to do. If you don’t like it, take him somewhere else”. So I did. Parent power is essential for any child with a learning need, in an age where some schools are still ill-equipped to help or are oversubscribed with an ever-increasing number of children who need extra help.

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Bookchat at Warden Park Primary

I had a fantastic visit to Warden Park Primary to run bookchat workshops with Year 5 & 6. The children were brilliant and enjoyed sharing their thoughts about reading, as well as participating in the various activities. The aim was to share the joy of reading and enable them to discover the magic of books, with guidance on how to go about choosing the right book, using their own interests as a guide. We looked at the concept of genre and played genre based games, which they loved.  They also loved the travelling bookcase and the fantastic books it contained!

It’s such a joy to talk about books with children and see their excitement and appreciation. Bookchat is such a great opportunity to develop reading skills and empower children to become more confident in their reading choices.   I’m delighted to say the feedback was great; thank you Warden Park Primary!

“The children loved the workshops, they are now so much more motivated to read and explore books – children that used to say that they didn’t like reading are now asking to go to the library so that is great! Also, when I ask them to find book to do some quiet reading I am now met with smiling faces! The activities that you led were engaging and really encouraged the children to think about reading and what it means to them without being too intense! The workshops had an extremely positive impact.”

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Bookchat at Waterstones, Haywards Heath.

When the Manager of Waterstones in Haywards Heath got in touch to ask if I’d like to get involved with a primary school visit to the shop, I jumped at the opportunity.

Lindfield Primary School brought a group of children ranging from Reception to Year 5, to find out about their local bookshop and choose a book for themselves. After an insightful talk about the bookshop from James, one of the fantastic booksellers, I set about delivering a bookchat workshop.  Being in a bookshop was a little different to the usual classroom setting, but was definitely a very appropriate place to be chatting about books! I was able to encourage the children in choosing the right book for themselves, giving them hints & tips along the way.  Being able to share my love of reading, as well as some favourite children’s books was a thoroughly enjoyable task!

The children were brilliant and clearly very excited to have the opportunity to buy a brand new book. It was great to see them put the ideas they came up with during the bookchat straight into action and choose their books.  With so much wonderful choice, there was lots of animated discussion! Finally, decisions made and with the school bus beckoning, there were 25 very happy souls who went back to their classrooms, each clutching a brand new book!

I’m very grateful to Waterstones for inviting me to participate and to the children & teachers from Lindfield Primary for their wonderful response. Thank you!