Friday, 25 September 2015

The "Classical" Way to Promote Literacy?

Edge author Katie Dale questions whether cheap classic novels are really the best way to promote literacy.

This week I was thrilled and delighted to be invited to open the new library at a local primary school. At a time when many public libraries are closing, and school budgets are tightening, this was particular cause for celebration. The love of reading at the school was evident, with murals of pupils’ favourite book covers adorning the school walls, and nearly every child  raised their hand enthusiastically when asked who enjoyed reading, scrambling to tell me what their favourite book was – titles that ranged from The Hobbit to The Gruffalo.

School libraries have also been in the news this week, with Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, declaring her determination to improve pupils’ literacy. This is an important issue, especially as “evidence shows that children who develop strong reading skills early on are more likely to succeed at school, achieve good qualifications and go on to succeed in their adult lives and the world of work.”

However, part of her strategy is that “every secondary school
should have sets of a wide range of classics so that whole classes can enjoy them together – books I loved as a teenager by authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Emily Bronte” and she’s calling on publishers to give collections of classics to schools at a reduced cost.
Whilst cheap books for schools – whose budgets are ever-tightening  – is always a great idea, I have to wonder whether this focus on the classics is really the most effective way to promote literacy? Or whether it might actually backfire?

Classic novels, whilst wonderful, aren’t the easiest or most accessible texts for reluctant or struggling readers, and even the way that they’re deemed  “good for you” – and the fact that they’re on the national curriculum – can be an instant turn-off to teenagers.  I’ve always loved reading, but remember long hours struggling to plough through dense, dry, set-text classics as a teenager – and the relief of diving into a fast-paced contemporary book at the weekends, which I devoured by the shelf-full. But many of my friends were put off reading for pleasure, and now, in the age of social media, video games, the internet, and smart phones, reading as a pastime is struggling to compete more than ever before.

Consequently, does it really matter what books kids are reading, as long as they are enjoying reading? Nicky Morgan cites the classics as the books she loved when she was young, but I’m not sure how many modern teens would really put them at the top of their list of books to read for pleasure, and surely this is the true key to improving literacy? If a book is accessible, enjoyable, funny, exciting, fast-paced and relatable, won’t teens be more likely to read all the way to the end and, more importantly, pick up another book afterwards? In which case, might a mixture of popular contemporary titles - including graphic novels - be more successful, at least in the first instance?

After all, as most teens these days have smart phones, the classics are already available free of charge – as ebooks.

Katie Dale is the award-winning author of YA titles SOMEONE ELSE'S LIFE and LITTLE WHITE LIES 
Simon & Schuster UK
Delacorte Press USA & Canada

Friday, 18 September 2015

Love Football, Loathe Reading? Premier League Reading Stars Can Help.

Edge author Dave Cousins explains how a love of ‘the beautiful game’ can inspire an interest in reading for reluctant readers.

Premier League Reading Stars is an innovative programme run by the National Literacy Trust in partnership with the Premier League. The scheme is designed for schools to use with target groups of children aged 9-13 years who “love football but lack motivation to engage with and achieve in literacy.” Building on evidence that footballers can influence the way young people view reading, PLRS offers a range of resources for schools that tap into children’s passion for football. Results show that participation in the project can have a significant impact on attainment and attitudes to reading and writing, particularly among boys and those on free school meals.

Since kicking off its inaugural season three years ago, thousands of children have enjoyed taking part in Premier League Reading Stars. A 2014 evaluation reported that three out of four children taking part made at least six months’ reading progress during the ten week scheme, with one child in three making a year’s worth of progress! 

“On average, the reading progress of participating pupils was 50% higher than peers not taking part in the programme.”

A third of participants go on to join their local library, and the number of children who develop a daily reading habit as a result of the course is more than double. Nearly two thirds of the children involved say that seeing Premier League footballers read, made them want to read more. One of the participating school’s Ofsted report stated: “Both their reading and writing scores rose considerably as a result of their involvement in this initiative.”

The new enhanced programme for 2015-16 includes a wealth of resources and benefits, including:

—1 year membership to the National Literacy Trust Network. 
—Author events with a range of venues, dates and authors.
—New season resource pack (for 20 children) including teacher’s manual, children’s activity books, certificates, stickers and posters. 
—recommended reading list for 2015-16, including the best of football-related reading online. 
—staff training sessions, held regularly across England and Wales, (September to November). 
—NEW mixed box of 20 books specially chosen to appeal to reluctant readers .
—NEW access to our updated website, with interactive challenges, competitions and quizzes, plus entry to the National PLRS Competition with the chance for pupils to win tickets to Premier League matches.

Charlie Merrick’s Misfits in Fouls, Friends and Football, written and illustrated by Dave Cousins is out now, published by Oxford University Press.

Friday, 11 September 2015

All Change by Bryony Pearce

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about change.

I’ve been going through a lot of changes in my personal life – in the last year my mother has died, my family has moved house and the children have moved school accordingly. The first book in the Phoenix series (Phoenix Rising) was published and the sequel will be going to print in December. I wrote a book that is coming out (in America) in November and sold another to Telos. I performed at the Edinburgh festival and have a number of events planned for the next couple of months. A lot of changes. I am not the same person I was a year ago.

This specific date, September 11th, has its own associations with great change. On this day, the world itself changed course.

It seems strange to me, as someone who remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when the news came in, that when I go into schools to speak to students they see this date as history, something that happened when they were babies or in some cases before they were even born. They don’t remember the world as it was before ‘the war on terror’, they know nothing else. To my generation the World Trade Centre attack isn’t history, so much as current events, the repercussions are still ongoing, changes are still being made.

As writers our central focus is change; we launch our protagonists into unfamiliar situations, we put bombs in the centres of their lives and make drastic changes to their worlds. Even as we struggle with the changes in our own lives, we forge our characters in the crucible of change with every stroke of the pen and force them to come out of the other side as different people. We think of the thing our characters most fear and put them through it, we give them challenges with every step; we make them grow as people by forcing them to face change.

Literature is all about change: how we deal with it and what it makes of us.

Change is scary, but change makes us into the people we are. Without change there can be no growth. As teenagers who going into new classes, new schools or even new cities this month, I hope you can embrace the changes you face, knowing there’s a whole new you waiting to emerge at the end of it.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Precious Presence

EDGE Author Sara Grant Unplugged

Precious presence – It’s something my husband says. I think it’s from some self-help-ish book. I’m not sure which one, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s a pithy reminder to be in the moment, which is good advice for me and for the stories that I write.

Precious presence – Sounds simple, but I’m finding it more difficult in real life than ever before. First there’s the blessing and curse of being a writer. I can do my job anywhere. Waiting in the checkout line in the grocery story, I can ponder a sticky plot problem. While falling off to sleep, I can write the best opening to a novel in the history of the world – if only I could remember what it was when I wake up the next morning. I’m never bored. But the flip side of that is that I’m sometimes in my head and not in the world. I’m so busy telling myself stories that I forget to appreciate the wonders around me.

Secondly there’s the never-satisfied hunger of technology. I go to the theatre so excited to watch a play but I have to fight the urge to check my email and then Facebook and Twitter. I’ll check it one last time before I switch off my phone and then just a quick check at intermission. Oh, and have I taken a photo I can post later?

I went to a concert recently where the person in front of me watched the entire concert on the screen of his phone. He was so busy capturing the moment that he wasn’t immersed in it.

And then there’s the urge to plug in. I’ve always found a synergy in writing and walking. Walking gives me distance from a project and time to think. But I often I take my iPhone and listen to music or an audiobook. I realize that I may be stretching my legs but I’m still stuck in my head, letting something entertainment me. Similarly I used to plug into music while travelling. You always see lots of headphoned people on the Tube. But I’ve stopped doing this because it made me feel disconnected. (Also I’ve found some of my best story ideas by eavesdropping and people watching.)

And finally I’m a list maker. I like being busy and I like the satisfying feeling of checking things off
my list. I could check off ‘lunch with friend’ but had I really enjoyed it? Was I mentally cataloguing what I needed to do next instead of really listening and enjoying the meal and my friend? I’m also notorious among my family and friends for talking on the phone while multi-tasking: checking email, emptying the dishwasher or making dinner. I don't do this much anymore because I’ve begun to think multi-task means doing more than one thing but nothing to the best of my ability.

Okay, and here’s where I sound like an old fuddy duddy. I worry about the creativity of future generations. Growing up I spent hundreds of hours playing make-believe. I imagined epic stories for my Barbies that would continue like a soap opera for weeks. I made up games with my sister when we were stuck for eight hours a day in the back of the station wagon on family driving vacations. The neighbor kids and I would play our own version of our favorite TV shows, including Big Valley and Charlie’s Angels. But today I’m as guilty as the next guy of an iPad and iPhone addiction. Will my and future generations' imaginations suffer because we don’t have to entertain ourselves anymore?

When I visit schools, I continue to meet incredibly talented storytellers so I suppose I shouldn’t be concerned. The next great writers are out there. I know it. They may create interactive ebooks or new version of entertainment that my 47-year-old brain can’t even imagine.

Precious presence is important in real life, but it’s also fundamental in fiction. To create a scene writers must evoke all five senses. They must select a few vivid details to bring the scene to life. To do this to the best of my ability, I must get out of my head, off technology and experience the real world. If I’m not absorbed in the moment and endeavouring to experience new things – if I’m not feeding my imagination – how can I ever hope to captivate a reader? 

Sara Grant has worked on both sides of the editorial desk. She has inspired and edited nearly 100 books for children. Her two YA novels – Dark Parties (SCBWI Crystal Kite Award winner, Europe) and Half Lives – are futuristic thrillers. She also writes a funny magical series for young readers – Magic Trix. Sara is currently developing a new action-adventure series for tweens with Scholastic. She leads writing workshops in the US, UK and Europe as part of Book Bound and guest lectures at the University of Winchester.

Friday, 21 August 2015


Paula Rawsthorne shares her summer reads.

Taking my cue from Miriam’s post last week I’m also going to share the books that I read during my holiday because they are worth knowing about.  Over the course of a 'scorchio' two weeks on a fantastic campsite in Spain I was able to indulge in a feast of reading, washed down with jugs of sangria. It was such a luxury to spend hours engrossed in books in between swimming and trying to beat my kids at table tennis.

The only downside of not owning a Kindle is that packing books for a family of five takes up so much of your baggage allowance. However, our suitcases were significantly lighter on the return journey as we left many of our novels for others on the campsite to enjoy.

Call me weird, but when I’m on a beach I like to see how many people are reading from books and how many are using Kindles.  I can report that on the beaches of Costa Brava the vast majority of sun worshippers (of numerous nationalities) were reading physical books.  I saw very few Kindles which, though surprising, is reassuring to see that people are so loyal to books in their traditional form.

My first holiday book was ‘SMART’ by Kim Slater.  It had been on my ‘to read’ list for months, especially because it’s set in an area of Nottingham I lived in for several years.  I had high expectations for this story and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a tough tale told in an accessible way that will appeal to readers as young as ten and eleven.  Along with the grit it also manages to be moving and ultimately heart-warming and it’s a story that sits well alongside ‘The Curious Incident Of the Dog in the Night time’.  Kieran, the main character and narrator, is a gem of a creation; unique, resilient, open minded, idiosyncratic and adorable.

Whilst the author never labels Kieran, his behaviour and quirks make it clear that he has some form of autism.  His talent for drawing and fascination with Lowry is well used throughout the narrative.  He’s also an expert on all CSI type programmes and puts his knowledge to good use when he decides to investigate the death of a homeless man found in the River Trent.  The story deals with tough issues and could have been overwhelmingly depressing- e.g. Kieran’s home life is abusive with a violent stepfather figure and a mother who is the victim of domestic violence and unable to protect him.  However, the story is peppered with humour as Kieran is so optimistic and resilient and never views his situation as bleak.  I laughed out loud several times whilst reading ‘Smart’ and at other times my heart bled for Kieran as I willed him to have a happy ending.  I highly recommended ‘Smart’ for all ages and look forward to Kim Slater’s next book.


‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio is a novel that everyone seems to have read.  It’s the multi-award winning and much loved story of ten year old Auggie, a boy with a facial disfigurement who is having to face school for the first time. I was looking forward to reading it at last. The story is certainly effective in showing how we must all look beyond the surface and be accepting and kind to each other.  I liked the fact that we got the point of views of different characters. I particularly found Auggie’s sister’s perspective to be insightful and loved the way the parents were portrayed (it’s a refreshing change to see great parents in YA fiction).  I was surprised that we didn’t get the perspective of the ‘bully’ boy, Julian as I was interested to know his inner thoughts but on my return home I discovered that the author subsequently wrote a novella devoted to the bully’s point of view.  It’s a heart-warming story that will be particularly effective with many younger readers.  Although I enjoyed it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the story was designed solely to teach a moral lesson, but it seems to have had a positive impact on people’s attitudes and that’s a wonderful achievement.

A book that certainly teaches a great deal without ever being preachy is Matt Haig’s ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’.  Matt’s non-fiction book about his depression and anxiety is brutally honest, generous and without vanity.  He relives his most dreadful experiences to help fellow suffers know that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that this cruel and dangerous illness isn’t something to be ashamed of.   This book is full of humour, humanity and brilliant advice.  It’s a must read for anyone suffering from depression and also anyone who knows someone in this situation.  This is a book that reaches out to people in their darkest hour and persuades them that they are not alone, that they mustn’t give up, because things can and will get better.

Karen Joy Fowler’s  ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ was a holiday read that left me pondering for days after I finished it .  A number of years ago I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’ but her latest novel feels like it is written by an entirely different author.  Unfortunately someone had already told me the twist, so I read it knowingly from the very beginning, but this didn’t spoil the enjoyment of this remarkable story about Rosemary and her unconventional family.  I was so engrossed in this thought provoking and challenging tale that I could hardly bear to put the book down.  I loved the writing style and the way the narrator speaks directly to the reader.  I was absolutely invested in the story and the debates it throws up and was desperate to discuss it with a fellow reader.  This has got to be one of my books of the year!

I found that I raced through Kate Atkinson’s Costa Award winning, ‘Life After Life’, despite it being a weighty tome and having a complicated structure that demands the reader stays alert.   It’s a beautifully crafted story of Ursula Todd a girl born in 1910 who keeps dying at different stages only to be reborn to live her life again and again. I found the most absorbing parts of the story were set in Germany and in England during the Blitz.  I’m in awe of the amount of research Kate Atkinson had to undertake for this book but it certainly paid off.

 I hope that people have found time to read this summer.  If anyone has ‘must-read’ recommendations please let me know.      

Friday, 14 August 2015

Stuff books!! by Miriam Halahmy

It is the summer holidays - HOORAY!!

I've spent two glorious weeks by the sea on Hayling Island. Here I am at seven o'clock in the morning at one of my favourite places, The Kench. There are a few house boats here which have been converted from WW2 landing craft. One of them features in my book, ILLEGAL.

Then I went to Cornwall to stay with a friend. That was also by the sea and a whole different terrain from flat gentle Hayling. This photo was taken on the South West path at Lamorna. We had just watched an amazing helicopter rescue. A man had had a heart attack in the car park and they were literally pumping his heart as they lifted him up into the machine. We couldn't find any news as to whether or not he survived.

So what should I read on all these wonderful holidays and for the rest of the summer? After all, it's only August and I'm in no hurry to bring on the winter and those long dark nights - although of course, they're great excuses for reading loads too.

Of course, I needn't worry because everyone is falling over themselves to bring out the latest list of what they think everyone should read - the top 100, the final fifty, the only books children should ever read, blah, blah blah.
Then another load of people are arguing over the choice of books on whatever list and putting forward their own lists.
Then people comment on those lists and it goes on and on into wearydom.

Can't we just choose books and read them? I quite enjoy reading the odd review especially of books I probably wouldn't know about otherwise. Quite a lot of my reading comes from recommendations and then I'm the sort of person who wanders into bookshops and reads along the entire fiction section from A-Z just for fun anyway. Then I move onto the biography - but now I'm boring you...
But lists? Nah - not for me, anyhow.

I have read all sorts of books this summer - some more memorable than others. Go Set a Watchman was a revelation and now I have my own theory about the two books but will only discuss it with those who have read the book. I loved it. I've carried on with the Poldark novels because of my new love affair with Cornwall and read Jeremy on the way back. Really captures the poverty and what an ass the law is/was. I'm re-reading War and Peace because I'm starting a lit course one evening a week in September. Can't wait!  It's my third time round on this massive tome and it's still as wonderful as ever. I've read After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross which flips the migrant problem through the Channel Tunnel on its head and is a very good dystopian novel. I've read the latest biography of Edward Thomas by Jean Moorcroft Wilson and gone back to reading Thomas' poetry all over again.

But this is not a list - its not even my list. It's just books I've read and there is a nice pile sitting on my desk waiting for me, as well as a few more I've downloaded onto my Kindle.

I hope you are having a wonderful summer wherever you are and that you are blessed with books you are enjoying and being sensible enough to ditch those which you aren't. Life's too short and there are too many wonderful books out there.
Happy Summer Reading folks!!

Friday, 17 July 2015

Harper Lee by Savita Kalhan

On Tuesday 14th July I was fortunate enough to be invited to a party to celebrate the publication of Go Set a Watchman - the second book by Harper Lee, her first book being of course the iconic Pulitzer prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960.

I'm represented by Andrew Nurnberg Agency, who are Harper Lee's UK agents, and fellow Edge author, Sara Grant, and I were very lucky to be shown copies of the original correspondence between Harper Lee and her eventual publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird reached publication.

I will be reading Go Set a Watchman. The reviews have been mixed, but I know that it has been published in its original form, much as it was written in the mid-1950s. The manuscript was assumed lost and only discovered in 2014. The world has moved on since the days of black segregation in the south. Nelle Harper Lee, her given name, is now 89 years old. The book features characters from To Kill a Mockingbird twenty years on.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was a teenager. It was my first introduction to the segregated American south. The book deals with racism in the small town of Monroeville where Harper Lee grew up. I have watched the film many times too and both book and film have had a profound effect on me. I wanted to be Scout when I was growing up. Atticus Finch gave his daughter lessons to live by, lessons in fairness and justice and tolerance, lessons to live by in any age.

To Kill a Mockingbird has been part of the curriculum in many schools over the years, and what Go Set a Watchman might do is to introduce a whole new generation to the book.