Last Thursday we spent a wonderful day in the company of Mairi Kidd, MD of publisher Barrington Stoke, and Anthony McGowan, award-winning author of many books including 'Brock' and 'Pike'.
Anthony spoke to students from Larkmead School and Thameside School in the afternoon - and in the evening we welcomed teachers and parents to the Larkmead LRC to discover how they can help their children to 'crack' reading.
It was an inspirational evening, one brought alive by Mairi's passion, enthusiasm and courage in the face of the mass of traditionally published children's books which often let down swathes of children by erecting unnecessary barriers to the way words get into a child's brain.
Mairi started off explaining how children read, and then used examples of both the good and the bad in children's books.
Ultimately it was a plea for diversity in publishing, and to give all children the chance to discover books which allow them enter the world of storytelling off the page - something that has proven benefits in everything from improved maths skills, to reducing stress and improving wellbeing.
Anthony spoke about his route to becoming a writer, reading the opening extract of his novel 'Pike' and talking about the nature of inclusive stories, and the importance of stories to convey 'truth' not necessarily fact.
We made notes on the top issues that would open the door to more children reading for pleasure. This list wasn't exclusive:
1. Books themselves can be the problem. The publishing industry in general does not always think about being inclusive and how making even small changes to how books are presented would actually expanding the pool of readers.
2. Around 7-10% of people are dyslexic and will have physical, neurological reasons why they find reading books difficult. Small changes, mostly to the way text is traditionally presented on the page would actually remove most of these barriers and make these people able to read books more easily, eg using a font where you can tell the difference between letters (eg a capital I and the letter l looks identical in some fonts).
3. The way children learn to read is often driven by getting them to recognise particular words, or phonics sounds, repeating the same sounds without there being any sense to the sentence, any story worth reading or any point or enjoyment to what is being read. Children can quickly not see the point of reading, particularly children who don’t have books at home or have role models of adults who see reading as enjoyable.
4. Having picture content is viewed as being for young children, yet the internet is full of adults sharing images. If adults find images such good ways of communicating, why do so few books use images?
5. Books are often written in a particular literary style which does not reflect the way people speak. It is more difficult for children to decode meaning. It can take a while to work out what a sentence means. When we speak, we tend to use subject, object and verb in a logical order, but this isn’t always reflected in books.
6. Reading for pleasure should be about magazines, comics, even audio books – anything that opens a door to taking pleasure in the written word or in stories.
7. There seems to be a perception that as teenagers get older, they want longer books. But the teenage years are often where there is most study pressure and competition from other areas of life and many stop reading altogether. Shorter books can help.
8. There is a prejudice against short books – very few ever make it onto prize lists. Yet research has shown that teenage boys would most like to read books of 100 pages or less. So this is the norm, yet almost no books this short are published.
9. We have a thriving publishing sector for young adult fiction, but figures show that 80% of YA of this is bought by adults. So why do we congratulate ourselves on publishing marvellous fiction for teenagers?
10. Everyone can feel daunted by the challenge of reading. One of the barriers to reading for pleasure is fear of failure. It’s a bit like if an adult wants to be recommended a good book to read and is presented with ‘War and Peace’. People’s perceptions of the value of a good book are very different. It is also easy to ‘dumb down’ to reluctant readers and think they will only read books about football or simple topics.
On the Barrington Stoke website, you can read 'Mairi's 10 Laws' which include a suggestion that we think is absolutely fantastic - a National Reading Day. A day to go to work and school as normal, but one where everyone puts their feet up and reads for the whole day. We know several teachers who would love to do this at their schools - so I reckon we should try to make it happen.
Mairi suggests calling it 'Terry Pratchett Day' and we wouldn't disagree with that either...
We have always been very proud of our association with Barrington Stoke, so if you have any concerns about your children reading - whatever their age and ability - please come in and ask our advice.
We always say 'one mountain, many paths' (which we may have cribbed from someone else!) as far as reading goes, and this isn't a one-shot deal to 'solve' your child's reading issues. It's definitely a journey, there may be a few false starts, but we know that there are books out there that can really open the door to reading - and Barrington Stoke titles (written as they are by many of our most well-known children's authors) is a great place to start.
Thanks to Linda Stone at the Larkmead LRC for doing such a fabulous job of hosting the event, and also to Sally Poyton who helped with the author event in the afternoon - and ran the bookstall for us in the evening.
Having an author to ourselves for most of the day was also a bit of a luxury, so we managed to ask Mr McGowan a few questions about his writing life, and any tips he might have had...
Five questions with . . . Anthony McGowan's writing life
1. What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on a teenage horror/Sci-fi mash-up called "The Wrath" (working title!) set in the future. It centres on a school in a desolate, barely-functioning town, and specifically in an exclusion unit within the school. When a train accident involving a battlefield chemical agent spills into the schools, it turns out the kids in the unit - by way of a medication they have been taking - are unaffected. I like to think it's horror in the way that Stephen King writes horror, aside from the idea and setting, what drives the story forward is following the individual characters that you invest in. I'm also hoping there will be a 'Battle Royale' feel to it (the Japanese novel some cite as an influence on The Hunger Games).
2. What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
I wasn't really given any writing tips as such starting out - I just started writing and made loads of mistakes along the way. But the one thing I did do is read a lot, so I guess I passively absorbed a lot of great writing. After that it's just trial and error as you find your own writing style.
3. What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
When you are writing for teens, you are writing for readers who are at the most intense phase of their life - their friends represent the strongest friendships they will ever have, they have enemies that want to do them actual harm. But above all they are incredibly open to ideas, which means they will go with you on whatever direction you want with the story. They are open to challenging - and sometimes upsetting - subject matter in a way that isn't the case once you get into your 20s. I've talked to students who have walked out because of the subject matter in my books, but teens would never do that.
4. Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
I have a study - the smallest, ugliest room in the house with a window you can't really see out of. And that's where I write, because it's the room with the least distractions. But sometimes I want a place which is a bit more 'active' and I head to the British Library. It's only a half hour bike ride away, but it feels like I'm definitely heading out to work like a proper job (rather than sitting at my desk in my pyjamas!)
5. What was your biggest breakthrough?
That's a really interesting question (*think hard*). I did a PhD, and that required me to write 100,000 words, and actually *finish* something, so I knew I was capable of writing a physical book. I then found myself working in a pretty dull job, and one day I had an idea for a story, and I started writing it down, and the words just flowed out. So I knew I could *write* (getting the words out and down) but I think - creatively - the breakthrough was when I realised that what I was writing was funny, and then I showed it to someone, and they thought it was funny. If you can use humour, you know you can engage the reader. That book went on to be 'Hellbent' my first novel.
(Much more about Anthony McGowan on his website here)