Thursday, 18 September 2014

Childhood literacy - let's all take responsibility by Bryony Pearce

Something that really shocks me is the number of kids leaving school in the UK with poor literacy skills.  In this new millennium, around one fifth of school leavers have the literacy skills of an 11-year-old, or younger, making them basically unemployable.  In fact 40% of employers complain about poor use of English from their youngest employees.  

How can this be?  My son has just finished Reception.  He now reads with confidence and expression.  Can his teacher really be one of a select few who can effectively teach reading to youngsters, or is the problem not, in fact, something that can be blamed on our schools?

At a recent school meeting teachers bemoaned the lack of support from parents.  They send reading books home with the children, but they come back a week later having not been touched.  
“Mum says I don’t have to read it.”  The children say.

On school visits I regularly encounter children who tell me sorry, they would buy my book, but there's no point as they simply do not read, they haven’t a single book in their house.

I am a writer, I live by my imagination and yet I cannot imagine a household that doesn’t have one single book in it.  Not a Bible, prayer book, or copy of the Koran, not a book in the toilet filled with useless facts, not a picture book for bedtime, not an atlas, or coffee table book, not a classic novel, or a work of contemporary fiction, not a reference book or dictionary, not a puzzle book, not a ‘beach’ book that came free with a magazine, not a comic, not a graphic novel, not even a dog eared copy of Calvin and Hobbes. 
A house without a bookshelf, to me, is a house without a heart.  It is heartbreaking to imagine all these houses, wordless. 

I understand that books cost money and that in this day and age some families need every single penny to put food on the table.  But aren’t books handed down any more (my kids have dozens of my own old childhood books, some of which belonged to my own mother when she was young)?  Can’t families join a library and fill their shelves that way (I can take 9 books home on each library card my family has.  That means I could have 27 new books for free every single time I visit), and in the areas where the libraries have been shut down, don’t the schools have libraries or library vans for the children to use? 

I imagine that these shelves are not empty.  I picture them filled instead with video games, iPads and DVDs, or even minimalist ornaments (books can, if I’m honest, make quite a messy display). 

And if books are banished from the house what message does that give to our children about the importance of reading?

As parents taking responsibility for our children’s future we should be supporting those who are teaching our children learn to read and write.

So we should let our children see us pick up a book and read, make sure they can find age appropriate books easily, make them feel like a trip to the library is a huge treat, have Santa bring them a book token for Christmas.  And we should tell them that it is actually important that they do their school reading. 

A teacher can be the best to ever walk through a class room and an author can write the most exciting books; books that make children want to devour every page, but if a child is taught at home that reading is pointless, unsociable or something to be hidden away, then nothing the teacher or author can do will reach them.  If a child does not practice their skills by reading for pleasure, there is the risk that they will leave school unable to read anything more complex than Disney Fairies and that would be a great shame.


Friday, 12 September 2014

Favourite Books by Savita Kalhan

Sara Grant’s blog last week was about her good reads and all-time favourites. Everyone who is passionate about reading has their list of good reads, their favourite books, and books that have stayed with them forever. But it’s not that easy to make a shortlist of them if you read a lot – even if you stick to looking at just teen or YA books! And sometimes it’s not that easy to say exactly why a certain book has stayed with you. But I am going to try...

All these books, for one reason or another, are my all-time favourite reads, ones that I would happily pick up and read again, and again, or are books that I feel are truly memorable.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein. I read The Hobbit when I was about 10 or 11, but The Lord of the Rings was in the adult library, so out of my reach until I was allowed to join the adult library at 12. Since then, I think I must have reread the series possibly at least 12 times – and it always delivers on all counts each time.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I could write an essay on this book, actually I have! Here’s the link if you want to read it. This is simply a stunning read.

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly was on Sara’s list too. I have loved that book since I first read it several years ago. It’s beautifully written, multi-layered with a great central character and an absorbing story.

I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti. Set in a small village in Italy, it’s a gripping portrait of a nine year old boy who uncovers a terrible secret, and with that knowledge his life begins to fall apart.

The Bartimeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. The characters are brilliant, the djinni is inspired, and the story hooks you instantly and you fly with it. I think it’s due a reread...

Narnia series by CS Lewis. I know another series! But an all-time favourite.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. The isolation and pain of the central character and her inability to deal with the crime that has been done to her is truly poignant. You really want her to speak.

Dr. Seuss books – yes, pretty much every Dr. Seuss book!

There are lots of other books that I have absolutely loved, but time and space restrict me to the above - for now. I think I may have to do a Part 2 post in this series though...

Savita's Website



Friday, 5 September 2014

Book Mania

EDGE Author Sara Grant Ponders Why Certain Books Become Obsessions

Every reader has a list of books that they adore. But certain books become part of your life story. When I was young, these were the books I read over and over. I lost count of the number of times I read The Boxcar Children and The Secret Garden when I was in elementary school.
I have these types of book obsessions from nearly every part of my life. It’s sort of my life history in literature. (I wonder how a book psychologist would analyse this list – or maybe better not!)
I was speaking to a group of teen readers at Balham library recently. We shared our 'must reads' for the summer, but we also discussed what shifts a book from good to favourite. It wasn’t easy for us to articulate exactly why a book got under our skin.
When I returned home, I began to analyse the books that I’ve LOVED in the past few years to understand why they became obsessions. It wasn’t like dissecting a gadget to see how it works. I isolated well-written characters, but that wasn’t enough. Plots with twists and turns always capture my attention, but they weren’t necessarily favourites. My book obsessions seemed to hook my head and my heart.
I came up with five reasons why I love the books I love. I’ve tried to limit myself to only one example to illustrate each reason, but there are more and some books fit in more than one category.

I identify with the flawed main character.
A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly
I care deeply what happens to the main character – usually because I see myself reflected on the page. I desperately want her to achieve her goal – whatever it is. Her struggle becomes my struggle. Her victory, my victory.

The book challenges my thinking and changes the way I look at the world.
Freaks and Revelations by Davida Wills Hurwin
These books illuminate an issue and demand I examine what I believe. When I read the final line of this type of book, I usually sit, book in hand, for ages. I also lament that I’m not doing enough to change the world, which usually sparks action and life changes.

I’m awed by a wildly original story.
Every Day by David Levithan and Nothing by Janne Teller
Just when you think you’ve read it all…along comes a book that blows your bobby socks clean off. Every Day challenges your ideas of life and love while Nothing is this disturbing modern fairy tale that questions the meaning of life.

Books that give me hope – personally or globally.
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
When I was a teenager, these were books about finding love or how geeks would inherit the Earth. Reading Beauty Queens would have comforted my teen self. It’s a quirky story that celebrates what it means to be a girl – not a stereotypical girl but a real, live girl with secrets, hopes, dreams and fears. Too bad it was published about thirty years too late.

A masterfully plotted book infused with heart and surprise.

We Were Liars by E Lockhart
I love a good page-turner with carefully planned twists, turns and surprises. When reading, I usually can’t turn off the author part of my brain. I don’t mean to, but I’m always guessing what happens next. I see a gun in the desk drawer and I wonder who will pull the trigger. A character is terrified of snakes and I start looking for the rattler under every rock. I love books that are intricate puzzles that show you all the pieces and yet you are shocked and awed at how perfectly they all fit together in the end.

A book can meet one or more of the above criteria, but if it doesn’t have a satisfying ending, it won’t make the list. I don’t necessary want a happy ending but I want an ending that remains true to the story and demands that I consider it for days and years to come. I want an ending that sparks and lingers.
I just finished a book that I immediately added to my list of all-time favourites. I picked it up when I was on vacation in Canada. I read the first half of the novel in one gulp on the plane then I stopped reading. I was devouring the book too quickly. I wanted to savour it. When I returned home, it beckoned from my nightstand for a few days until I broke down and read the rest of the novel. I loved it from the first page to the last. It was one of those rare books that you are desperate to find out how it ends and yet you never want to finish reading it.
The book?
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (In the UK, I believe the title is The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry. I prefer the Canadian title.) This book sums up perfectly why we love the books we love:
“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.”

What are your book obsessions and why?

For more about Sara and her books, visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @AuthorSara Grant

Friday, 29 August 2014


In a week when our children’s laureate, Malorie Blackman, received an outpouring of racist abuse after calling for more diversity in children’s books Paula Rawsthorne says that the haters have inadvertently helped to raise the profile of this important issue.

Sky News was wrong and unprofessional to label Malorie’s interview with an inaccurate, inflammatory headline quoting her as saying children’s books “Have too many white faces”.  Sky apologized and changed the headline to “Call for more diversity in kids’ books” but the damage was done and Malorie still received abuse on the Sky website and through twitter. 

What Malorie Blackman was saying was hardly radical or inflammatory and the subsequent abuse is a disgrace but it has led to more articles and debate about this issue and the widespread support for her reinforces to me that the haters are in a tiny minority. 

A call for more diversity shouldn’t be controversial.  Of course we need to see more diversity and inclusion in books, not just in ethnicity but representing kids from all walks and ways of life.  This isn’t political correctness, it’s just makes sense for stories to reflect the world around us and it’s only right that children get to see characters that they can identify with.


 I’m a white woman but in my books I have significant black characters.   Why?  Well, why not?  I write contemporary fiction that reflects the society we live in, it’s been appropriate for my stories and yes, it does unsettle me that there are groups of children who don’t often see people like themselves represented in books.

 Although it’s great seeing diversity and inclusion in books it shouldn’t ever be about ticking boxes.  The primary aim of a story is to entertain.  ‘Diverse’ characters aren’t there to act as role models or teach the reader lessons.  ‘Diverse’ characters should feel as real as any other creation in a book and that means that they should be an integral part of the plot, fully rounded and multifaceted, not caricatures or patronisingly portrayed as saints who can do no wrong.

I once had a conversation with someone in publishing who was uncomfortable that one of the ‘baddies’ in my story happened to be black.  She said that it could send out the wrong message.  I was rather taken aback and pointed out that the main ‘baddie’ in the story happened to be a white bloke (and the ‘heroine’ happened to be mixed race).  These creations weren’t ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ by virtue of the colour of their skin.  Their actions and behaviour were character led, not colour led. It seems dishonest and unrealistic to portray any non-white characters as paragons of goodness for the sake of political correctness.

Having more diversity of characters in literature isn’t just beneficial for the kids who don’t often see themselves represented in books but also for kids who  have little contact and  experience of other cultures, beliefs and  ways of life.  Stories involving diversity gives us a window into other people’s lives and, very importantly, shows us how similar we are.  (See my Edge post on the ability of stories to allow readers to walk in someone else’s shoes here )

When I look at my kids and their friends, their differences don’t seem to be an issue for them.  The fact that they may be different colours, abled bodied or less abled bodied, religious or no religion, isn’t even commented on because it’s of little significance to them. They’re just friends with loads in common, having a good time.  So how odd that when these kids pick up most books a proportion of them suddenly find themselves invisible. 

So I say, ignore the tiny minority of bigots who respond with abuse to calls for more diversity and inclusion in children’s books.  What Malorie Blackman is asking for is just common sense; it will help stories reflect the world we live in and, in so doing, make it a better place for everyone.