Tuesday, 27 July 2010

VRH Interview with Julie Nixon

Our third and final VRH blog arrives!

The tough economic climate, and forthcoming budget cuts, affect companies, charities and public sector bodies alike. UK readers may have seen Karl Wilding from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations on the television recently, talking about the NCVO’s concerns over the impact of cuts in public sector funding of charities.

Charities like Volunteer Reading Help provide an effective means of supporting children who are struggling with their literacy skills. Just a small gift of three hours a week during school term-times can make such a huge impact on the life of an individual child – and VRH is going from strength to strength in 2010.

‘We’re so proud of increasing the number of children we help by 18% this year,’ Julie Nixon, Director of Services at VRH told Books and Adventures. ‘I foresee many opportunities to provide schools with vital 1-to-1 sessions for their children. We are a cheap alternative to many reading schemes which cost far more, and our intervention is also about the whole child.’

My visit to the Birmingham offices of PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this month opened my eyes to the generosity of firms who work with voluntary sector organisations like VSO. In addition to donating funding and the time of their staff, Julie tells me that PwC also provides rooms to host VRH functions free of charge, giving the charity a vital inner-city base of operations.

Whizz-Kidz founder Mike Dickson has spoken of the benefits of supporting a charity on this site before. Looking to the future, Julie tells Books and Adventures, ‘It would be great if companies would sponsor a local school’s VRH activities, our website, or some of our marketing materials. The support of firms like PwC is a tremendous help.’

To find out more about VRH and how you can get involved, see their website, here.

In additional news, I'm pleased to announce that on October 24th I'll be running the Birmingham Half Marathon to raise sponsorship for the VRH activities at Herne Bay Infant School in Kent, my former base as a VRH Helper. More news nearer the date!

Friday, 23 July 2010

Space Hop! Interview with Mark Brake

The 2010 Summer Reading Challenge has a science fictional theme as UK libraries blast off on a Space Hop.

Over 700,000 readers are taking part in the mission to read six books from their local library across the summer holidays.

On tour as part of Space Hop are Mark Brake and science rapper Jon Chase, who are ranging far and wide across the UK to promote the Summer Reading Challenge, celebrating science fact as well as science fiction.

Mark and Jon contributed to the BBC's Space Hoppers series, which you can currently catch on CBBC, Sundays at 5.15pm, and there's also a Space Hoppers book.

Mark caught up with Books and Adventures for a brief interview earlier this week.

-You’re on tour with Jon Chase this summer to promote the Summer Reading Challenge. What can people expect from your visits?

A rather quirky fusion of science and music, I guess. The CBBC series upon which my book is based gets young viewers and readers to imagine what it might actually be like to go into space. The human experience of space, if you like. It's an approach that has inspired science fiction for centuries. Science finds out stuff about the universe, and fiction tells tales of the very taste, feeling and meaning of scientific discovery.

-What is Rap Science and how did it begin?
The fictional approach mentioned above is fused with a musical approach. After each tale of adventure we relate to the young readers, Jon retells the details in musical form using rap. It's his own unique fusion of rap to communicate science, which he does very well!

-What books would you choose for your Summer Reading Challenge?
Having read plenty of books to my 5 year-old daughter, I would choose 'Earth Story' by Eric Madden, and 'Moon Man' by David Donohue.

-A lot of science fiction is pretty wild and amazing. How accurate does the science have to be for a sci-fi story to be good?
Not at all. After all, it's fiction, not fact, and the very point is to take our imaginations where science may fear to tread!

To find out more and sign up for a Space Hop today, visit the Challenge site at http://www.spacehop.org.uk/.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The power of the land: Patricia Wrightson and John Gordon

After last month’s post on sci-fi bug zappers, I felt that it was time to get back to nature here at Books and Adventures.

A few weeks ago, I found out via Judith Ridge, Young People’s Literature Officer for Western Sydney, that Patricia Wrightson had died. I was pretty ignorant about this acclaimed Australian children's writer, so I ordered up The Song of Wirrun, three linked quest stories describing the efforts of a young man to protect his land from troubled spirits.

The trilogy is incredibly powerful – I really hadn’t experienced anything like it since I heard The Iron Man and Beowulf told on the BBC when I was a child. The background, a blend of Aboriginal beliefs, is powerfully evoked as humans and spirits alike are threatened by the misadventures of magical beings. When the delicate balance of nature is upset, one young man, Wirrun, finds himself called to save his land and restore some kind of order.

Our heroes’ quest across Australia is thrilling, but undercut with a deep melancholy. Wirrun and his allies face much sadness and loss on their travels. The second story, The Bright Dark Water, finds Wirrun united with a girlfriend and ready for a ‘happily ever after’, but the ambivalent conclusion, Journey Behind the Wind, complicates matters and challenges us as readers to think about love, forgiveness and the nature of victory.

By chance, the next book I picked up after The Song of Wirrun was John Gordon’s The Giant Under the Snow. This British children’s fantasy from 1968 also takes its sense of landscape and native magic very seriously.

Jonk, a girl on a school trip, is separated from her group and stumbles across what appears to be a giant hand buried in the woods. Taking a treasure that she finds there, Jonk finds herself drawn into the final stage of a centuries-old battle between an invading warlord and the mysterious local spirit Elizabeth Goodenough.

There’s so much to recommend about this book – the unsentimental portrait of the teachers who lose Jonk on the school trip, the terrifying monsters unleashed by the warlord, and the sense of deadly high stakes for the children caught up in a plot to revive the ancient Green Man. For me, the exciting thing shared by both The Giant Under the Snow and the Wirrun books, is the sense of respect for the power of the land.

Both John Gordon and Patricia Wrightson’s spirits show a great sense of territory, and the landscapes they evoke are as powerful as they are distinct from one another. Wrightson’s spirits literally turn the world upside-down, travel through the Australian rock, or call a new Ice Age into being – but they do so with a healthy respect for the laws of territory and trespass. Gordon’s benevolent Mrs Goodenough is barricaded in her forest retreat by the evil “leather men”, while the warlord’s power gradually seals off Norwich along the lines of its old city walls. It’s also interesting to note that the heroes in both stories are given the power of flight by benign spirits, allowing them to survey their native land from a new perspective, and cross the supernatural borders.

Great children’s books are coming out all the time, but it’s also good to treasure books from the past, and it would be a real shame for either of these works to be forgotten. They've aged well and as fantasy stories they have a special quality: serious without being solemn. I love the high adventure of books like Skulduggery Pleasant or Artemis Fowl – when Skulduggery blows the front door off Stephanie’s house in the first book I stood up and cheered! – but there’s also something cool about stories where you really feel something is at stake.

There’s so much more to say – particularly about Patricia Wrightson’s work – but it will wait until a future blog post. Tonight I have gardening to do: the closest I get to the power of the land these days is pulling out fence-posts with a pickaxe…

Coming next on Books and Adventures – more science fiction, more interviews…and the true story of how I became a real-life dragon!

Friday, 9 July 2010

VRH House of Commons and Birmingham events

I’ve had two wonderful opportunities to promote my favourite charity, Volunteer Reading Help, this month.

On Thursday 1 July, I was a guest at the VRH Reception at the House of Commons. I was speaking on ‘Giving the Gift of Reading’.

It was an honour to be able to speak in support of such an amazing organisation as VRH. And the honour was doubled when I was invited to speak on the following Monday at the Birmingham offices of PricewaterhouseCoopers, where VRH Birmingham held its end-of-year event.

Meeting so many VRH Helpers on both days reminded me of the vital work these volunteers do on a weekly basis, across the country and throughout the school year.

I’ve been very lucky to teach and work in a lot of age ranges, and in a lot of different environments. I’ve taught Frankenstein to English undergraduates, Aimhigher weekend courses on film and fairytale, business workshops for Y10s, even Shakespeare in junior schools, but my time with Volunteer Reading Help remains unique.

VRH is an organisation which gives children an exciting and vital one-to-one learning environment which it can be hard for schools to provide. An organisation which gives its volunteers such great opportunities to learn and develop in their own right.

With up to thirty children in a primary class, there can be precious little time for schoolteachers to give the kind of nurturing one-to-one support that VRH does so well.

Schemes like Assessing Pupil Progress can leave you focused on ticking boxes and designing activities for children purely to showcase their skill-levels.

We have to keep track of how children are progressing, but we also have to find time for the fun and adventure that makes children confident and literate for life. That's exactly what VRH offers through its child-centred, one-to-one support.

The funny thing is, if you give a child the opportunity to discover the world of words, and fall in love with books and adventures, the skill-levels will go up of their own accord!

My time as a VRH helper was incredibly rewarding.

It was my sheer good luck that I got to work with an organisation that did so much for me, giving confidence, opening doors and creating opportunities.

It was a privilege to be doing the kind of work that teachers don’t always have the time to do in class.

And above all, it was a privilege to help a child make that journey from hating books to wanting to write their own, just by providing the most gentle support.

I went into volunteering hoping to support and inspire someone in some little way, and my time with VRH repaid me thousand times over.

Find out more about how you can support VRH, or get involved, here.

Coming very soon to Books and Adventures: our final VRH interview, with Director of Operations Julie Nixon...