Monday, 27 December 2010

Books and Adventures Review of the Year

As we soak in the warm bath of another festive lull, it seems a great time to review a busy first year on the blog at Books and Adventures.

We got started in February with an ABCTales/AbracaDABra Radio award for my children’s story Shark with the Mind of a Rabbit. The story had a dual origin in reading sessions with Volunteer Reading Help and old university jokes about a lecturer who we had cast as a wicked witch...

Then came the interviews – and our first celebrity interviewee was a Teletubby, no less...Nikky Smedley joined me to discuss her storytelling and dance production The Tell Woman in March.

April saw the Annual General Meeting of the British branch of IBBY, where I met Mick Inkpen of Kipper fame. During my time with Volunteer Reading Help, I saw a child go from tearing books up on sight to vowing to write his own...Mick’s Anything Cuddly Will Do was a key book in making that transition.

In May I wrote my first theatre review for Claire Massey’s great blog, The Fairy Tale Cupboard. Claire, who edits New Fairy Tales, also pointed me to one of my favourite events of the year, Ignite 2010.

July was the highlight of the literacy calendar for me - I was privileged to speak at the House of Commons on behalf of Volunteer Reading Help, the incredible English charity which helps children develop a lifelong love of reading.

In the same month, I read the first of the late Patricia Wrightson’s Wirrun books, which led on to an interview with Patricia’s publisher Mark Macleod and a series of features on these important, controversial and underrated pieces of fantasy writing. Huge thanks to Judith Ridge for putting me on to this great writer.

The Song of Wirrun, and Nnedi Okorafor’s pitch-perfect novel Zahrah the Windseeker, were my favourite reads of the year. (To be honest, I’m almost scared to read anything else by Nnedi because that first book was so perfect!).

The latter part of the year saw Books and Adventures go on a ‘world tour of literacy support’ with NGOs and charities from San Francisco to Sydney and beyond. Starting with Reading Partners and Reach Out and Read in the USA, we moved on to South Africa’s help2read, and then Rhonda Brain’s inspirational Paint the Town Read scheme in Australia.

In November, I was foolhardy enough to participate in, and complete, the 50,000-word challenge of NaNoWriMo, although the resulting text (written to a topic determined at random by fellow writers) will now be broken up to be re-used in an entirely different way!

Still, Chris Angotti, who runs the Young Writers’ Program for Nano, was kind enough to grant an interview during his busiest month of the year –you can find what he had to say about enthusing and supporting young writers here.

Roland Pietsch

Other highlights from the year’s interviews included: Stories from the Web, Edgardo Zaghini of Outside In, storyteller and psychologist Steve Killick, philanthropy guru Mike Dickson, Elena Schmitz of Wales' Young People's Writing Squads, and an old colleague turned pirate historian, Roland Pietsch. Some of these went on to provide useful fodder for Zoe Toft’s directory of book charities at Playing By the Book.

Amid all this frantic reading, writing and blogging, there was a little time for some running, too. Getting bitten by that bug has led me to make some dumb commitments, like signing up to run a 10k in the immediate aftermath of Christmas. (Assuming we don’t get snowed off, I’ll be the guy at the back of the field, with turkey and sprouts visibly bouncing up and down in a still-swollen belly!).

Once post-Christmas recovery has completed, there’ll be a lot more Books and Adventures to come in 2011...I’m looking forward to more interviews from around the world, including YA author Claire Dopson, and guest bloggers including storyteller Eric Maddern. There’s also some big travel plans on the horizon, so hopefully I’ll be delivering some front-line reports from foreign climes along the way!

Wishing you all the best for the season...see you in 2011!


PS...How pleased was I to see flying sharks in Doctor Who???

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Festive sneak preview

Especially given the weather...I couldn't resist a festive sneak preview...

Winter wasn’t right this year.

It seemed normal enough in the city of London. The weather was cold, the streets were full of shoppers, and there were Christmas songs on the TV and Radio. School finished and the holidays started. Children played in the park, wrapped up in coats and hats and thick woollen scarves.

But winter wasn’t right this year. And only Stella knew it.

Stella’s parents were in the kitchen having breakfast. Dad served the coffee and peeked over Mum’s shoulder at the newspaper.

‘I see there’s a new exhibition on at the Modern Art Gallery,’ he said.

‘Mum,’ said Stella.

‘We could go and see it after we take Stella to the theatre,’ said Mum.

‘Dad,’ said Stella.

‘That would be nice,’ said Dad. ‘I’m just so excited about seeing Barry Hercules! They say it’s the greatest magic show ever!’

‘OI!’ shouted Stella.

‘What?’ said her parents.

‘Come and look at the snow,’ Stella said. ‘It’s…weird.’


Stella and her parents stood in the doorway looking out at the street. The sky was thick with black clouds and the cars had almost disappeared underneath a deep sooty layer of snow.

Stella looked at her parents.

‘Well?’ she said.

They looked at her.

‘Black snow?’ she said.

Dad reached down and picked up a handful.

‘Looks pretty normal to me,’ he said. He made a snowball and threw it at Stella.

It exploded with a PLOOMPH on her coat. It left an oily stain.

‘Look!’ said Stella. ‘Look at my coat!’

Mum reached out and put her hand on Stella’s forehead. ‘Are you getting a temperature, darling?’

‘It’s black snow!’ Stella said again.

‘I think she’s overexcited,’ said Mum. ‘With the trip and all.’

‘Probably,’ said Dad. ‘Come on, Stel, let’s have some breakfast. Plenty of time for excitement later.’

Stella scowled as her parents led her back in doors.

Soon the family would be off on their special trip to the theatre.

And by the end of the night, Stella’s parents would disappear from the face of the Earth.


Merry Christmas!!! Matt

Friday, 17 December 2010

The Lesson of League Tables

I’m sure many UK readers will have seen the news today about the primary school league tables, whose results have just been published.

Angela Harrison of the BBC reports that almost 1 in 10 of schools with validated and published results failed to meet minimum standards in the SATs. But how many of these schools will be located in the most challenged areas of this country, where pupils and parents alike need support and encouragement, rather than teachers bound to a regime of relentless formal assessment?

Teaching in a London school where a high percentage of pupils had English as an Additional Language, I was incredibly frustrated by the box-ticking mentality, especially in literacy.

Such an attitude encourages teaching to the test rather than a love of reading and writing. The best teachers in the world will find themselves sitting with an “underperforming” student on the day results are due in, thinking, “Just let me tick one more box so I can move you up another sub-level!”

My class made great progress in their literacy skills – but more from an attitude on the part of our year group that we would make learning fun, engaging and creative.

A poetry unit was delivered to rap music – our class gave themselves rap names and learned to freestyle to The 900 Number (“I like / chocolate / I want / CHOCOLATE CAKE!”). I knew we had made an impact when months later one of our pupils, who had little English and numerous educational needs, was still using the rap names with his friends in the playground.

In another class, we created a ‘living comic book’ together, using a whiteboard for each panel of the story of ‘Melon Boy’, a superhero who transformed into a caped, flying cantaloupe when he consumed too much of the fruit in question.

The story was inspired by a boy in our class who had given himself a laughing fit that morning, when he said, ‘My mum says if I eat too much melon, I might just turn into one.’

It was the first time he had ever given himself an attack of the giggles. He couldn’t stop, and the whole class ended up laughing along with him.

By using that moment as a springboard for our literacy lesson, the entire class became enthused and empowered to apply their own creativity to reading and writing.

When the education system mandates ‘teaching to the test’ in the very earliest stages of schooling, which should be about fostering a love of learning...
When teachers have their performance management directly linked to children’s formal levels....
It becomes incredibly difficult for classroom practitioners to be confident, creative and...dare we say it...a little subversive.

With the best will in the world, teachers find themselves ‘playing it safe’ and delivering mediocre education under such a system. Check-boxes will never prioritise the kind of passion for learning which brings together parents, pupils, and teachers – the kind of whole-community commitment which schemes like Paint the Town Read deliver so well in Australia.

It’s frustrating that around the world, so much of the ‘heavy lifting’ of encouragement and enthusiasm in education – work which is actively frustrated by the league table/”No Child Left Behind” mentality – falls to committed, creative, subversive teachers – and to those generous members of the community who commit to schemes like Volunteer Reading Help, Reading Partners, or Paint the Town Read. It’s time for the authorities to rethink their priorities and put a love of learning before league tables.


Well, that’s almost it for 2010. Next time on Books and Adventures, our review of the year, along with some sneak previews of features, interviews and guest writers for 2011!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Paint the Town Read - Interview with Rhonda Brain, Part 2

You'll find Part One of this Interview here:

Rhonda Brain, founder of Australia’s Paint the Town Read scheme, now takes the PTTR message to other towns across New South Wales and beyond.

“When I share our scheme with communities, I always remind them that we have been going for a long time, so they shouldn’t be daunted by the amount of things we do....Other towns may use as many or as few of our strategies as they like: they’re a springboard.” 

A number of the communities have adopted the idea of a reading mascot, and most run a Community Reading Day, but as Rhonda puts it, “on the whole, committees take on the concept and run with it! The concept is THE biggest "engenderer" of creative and fun ideas, I have ever come across....PTTR committees are always amazed and excited at how the ideas will flow...”

For example - in Toongabbie, New South Wales, the Portico Plaza shopping centre worked with local authorities at Holroyd City Council this year to run storytelling and craft sessions for children, hosted by local reading mascot Poppy the Possum.

'Poppy the Possum' in Holroyd, NSW encourages the community to 'Paint the Town Read'

Diane Hacking of Portico Plaza explains why the staff and management were so keen to get behind the scheme:

“We’re a small neighbourhood centre, and the majority of our shoppers are families. We had no hesitation in helping local children to get a good start, giving them a chance to be better educated, and hopefully to secure a good job later in life. Many of them will grow up to be the teenagers, mothers and fathers who we serve here at Portico Plaza.”

The fun-filled events run by PTTR committees are fuelled by grassroots passion, but based in the latest scholarship on language development.

“There’s a plethora of research now on the brain's need for stimulus for language development, from birth right up to age five,” says Rhonda Brain. “But it’s of little use if parents near hear of, our motto is RESEARCH SAYS IT, WE SPREAD IT! In a creative, fun-filled, celebratory way.”

Rhonda sees a profound impact in this apparently light-hearted approach: “When something is celebrated, it is given value. We create a climate of wanting to read...with the whole community owning the project, from the mayor to the schools, businesses, parents, maternity wards, police, and beyond!”

Rhonda is emphatic that such a project serves the whole community, not just infants:

“We’ve seen the huge impact such a project can have on building social capacity and connectiveness - addressing our 3 basic emotional needs: to have a sense of belonging; a sense of worth and a sense of competency; relationships - not to mention the positive impact it could have on the economy...”

In 2010, PTTR continues to spread from town to town and Rhonda is now lobbying the government of New South Wales to adopt it as an official scheme.

 ‘Whether they do or they don’t, it’s happening, spreading like wildfire from town to town’ she says. ‘I would love to hold a book relay across New South Wales…and then Australia. One day we hope to have Australians celebrating literacy at the same level we celebrate sport – wouldn’t THAT be something!’