Children’s fiction set in Ancient History

Another blog post collecting titles written for children set in a specific historical period. 

Thanks for all you help with the last collection of titles. I’m asking for your suggestions again, but we’ve moved forward in time. Now I’m looking for fiction and poetry for children based in any of these historical settings; Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Celt, Pictish, Saxon, Viking…. etc.  Anything up to around 1000AD please. 

Thanks in advance! 

Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian, and is currently compiling a book about historical fiction for children. 

http://www.dawnfinch.com

Prehistory in fiction 

This is not a normal blog post. In fact it’s not a blog post at all but is instead a request. I am working on a large project gathering fiction and poetry titles for young people set in specific historical periods. As you can imagine I already have a long list, but I can’t do it all without the wonderful input of the hive mind – that’s where you come in. 

This is the first of ten posts designed to gather your input in the comments field. This thread is for children’s and YA fiction and poetry set in prehistory. Please add your favourite titles below (and feel free to chat with each other) I won’t be able to reply to everyone, but massive thanks in advance for all your help.

Remember – children’s and YA fiction and poetry set in prehistory (from any country) but as historical as it can possibly be. 

Thanks! 

Help, I want to read to my child, but…

…but why should I bother?

…but my reading isn’t so good.

….but I’m not confident about it.

….but I feel like a fool.

…but they can already read on their own.

…but I don’t have the time.

Okay, so these are some of the things that I’m most often asked about. So let’s see if we can tackle them.

Let’s start off by looking at why you should bother. Firstly, your child will do better in school. There’s loads of proof of this, and I’ve put some links in at the end if you need them. Trust me, if your child is a better reader who knows lots of words, then they’ll do better in all their other subjects at school. They’ll even earn more money when they’re older. They’ll learn quicker, and be better at explaining things, so they are less likely to get into trouble. Let’s face it, we all know that happy children do better in school, and when they read more they do better, so they’re happier. That’s just common sense!

There are loads of other good reasons too, but I’m sure you don’t want to wade through all the paperwork. You know it’s worth doing, that’s why you are taking the time to read this. Thank you! You can ask me any questions you like in the comments or by email. Get started by taking a look at the great stuff they have on the BookTrust’s website. They know all the reasons why you should make time to read. The site will give you all the facts, and lots of reading ideas and help. 

Right – next one. “My reading isn’t so good.” Let’s ditch some baggage here –  you’re not alone. Tens of thousands of people have trouble reading for one reason or another. That’s not going to stop you being an excellent parent (or grandparent, or auntie, or uncle, or carer, or foster parent… You get the idea!) Remind yourself how hard it was learning how to read when you were little. Now it’s hard for this child too. That’s not because you found it difficult, it’s because it is hard! Learning to read is like trying to solve a really hard jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box. You can be that picture. You can help them fill in the gaps. Learn with your child. Pretend they are teaching you. Most of all, if you really do find it hard (or you know someone who does) there is help out there. Go to your library, ask a friendly teacher, look on the BookTrust website. Most of all, don’t hide it. You have nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to hide. You can make a difference to your own life, and your child’s at the same time. It’s a win-win situation.

Next up – confidence. I’d love to wave a magic wand and give you reading confidence, but the only thing that will give you that is practice. Like everything you’ve ever done in life, you were probably not brilliant from day one. I’m guessing you made a right mess of things like driving, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t let that stop you. Stick at it. That child in your life really doesn’t care. They love you and will understand that you’re really trying to do something good for both of you. 

Feeling like a fool? Excellent. Me too. Nothing wrong with that, and who cares? Your child doesn’t care. Do you seriously think a small child would stop you from making silly voices, or doing animal noises? If your child is feeling embarrassed or awkward about their reading, then by playing the fool you take the pressure off. Reading then stops being a boring lesson, and starts being fun. Honestly, the bigger the fool you are, the better you’re getting at it. If you’re embarrassed in front of the one small person who will love you with all of their heart no matter what you do, then it’s time to think about that. Be fun, be silly, be memorable. Show them that all that really matters in the world is making them laugh and making them happy. Everything else can fit in after that, and a relationship built on laughter will last their whole lives. Your child will never forget you being silly, so go ahead and enjoy it. If a person can’t be silly in front of their own child, then there is something seriously wrong with the world!

They already know how to read? Really? I’m heading towards 50 and I’m not finished learning to read yet. I come across new words all the time and I often need the whole rest of the page to help me understand the new word. Sure, your child has learnt the basics. They can sound out the words, and probably know a number of tricks that they’ve been taught to help them to say the word, but that’s only the start of reading. I can convincingly “sound out” the whole of a German newspaper – but I haven’t a clue what 90% of it is saying. I haven’t had the help to learn what the words actually mean. Most of the words we know we have learnt by accident. I mean, I doubt anyone gave you a lesson about what a table was. I’m sure you didn’t go to infant school and have a day when tables and chairs were explained to you. No, you just heard your parents call them that lots of times, and that’s how you learnt those words. Reading aloud lets your child do that with words that they might not find by accident. New and exciting words like unicorn and castle and fire breathing dragon. Words that aren’t normally dropped into their lives. Hearing words is almost as important to reading as seeing them. Hearing you say them out loud will let your child picture the word in their head, and this helps them to understand it. Later on it will help them to use it themselves. Learning how to understand letter shapes and make them into words is just the start of the lifelong adventure that is reading. Oh, and no one is ever too old for a bedtime story! Ever. 

Here’s a big one – I don’t have the time? Really? I don’t want to be mean here but… Really? What happens at bedtime? Is that game or dvd going to give them a better life? How about that that soap opera, or reality show? I’m not pretending to be the perfect mother here, my daughter fell asleep to the Home and Away theme tune every afternoon, and I’ve thanked any god that will listen for daytime cartoons, but I still read to her. She’s 23 now and I still read to her at times. We’re not embarrassed by it, that’s our normal. I missed our bedtime stories when she was about 12 and didn’t want them anymore and she instead listened to story CDs. Bedtime story time was the most wonderful thing. All of the stresses of the day were left at the bedroom door and it was just us and the story. Just us two against a world filled with magical creatures, talking animals, pirates, rescues and escapes. The memories of those stories fills me with joy, and I know her dad feels the same. For him it was a very special time because the stories and the telling of them gave both of them a bond that can’t be broken. They chose the story together and there are some that he can still recall because they were favourites that were read many times. Those moments, those cosy hours, can never be taken from them. 

So what are you really waiting for? Not enough books? The library is a treasure trove of free books. They can borrow almost as much as they can carry. We can all make excuses for why we don’t do things. I’ve done it. We all do it. The excuses will always be there, but their childhood won’t. They are grown up in the blink of an eye and your relationship with them as adults is deeply affected by what you do in these younger years. 

It doesn’t matter where you are, read a story. If you don’t read aloud for just a bit of time each day, you’re not only denying your child something that can make their life better, but you’re denying yourself something wonderful. In a world where we are all rushing around, running too fast towards the next thing on the list, take time out for you. Take time out for all of you. Not just because it will improve a child’s education or their vocabulary, but because it will make them happy. It will make them happier people who cope better in life. Oh, and it will make you happier too. 

So, when all around you is rush and chaos – stop, get quiet, get comfy, breathe deep, and open a book. 

Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian who specialises in reader development. She is President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, and a member of the Society of Authors, Children’s Writers and Illustrators Committee. 

www.dawnfinch.com

@dawnafinch

BookTrust is a charity that works hard to bring books and reading to the lives of all, and to improve the quality of life for all our children. You can find out more about them on their website

Share your ideas, stories and thoughts about the importance of making time to read by using social media and the hashtag #timetoread and following @booktrust 

You can find some research and guidance about reading for pleasure and sharing reading here and here and here.



Images copyright BookTrust. 

V for Volunteer – a dystopian reality.

Four months ago I conducted an interview with the chair of a trustee group who are responsible for the museum in their small city. I was visiting the city to do some research for a book I was working on and, in the process, I got talking to the volunteers in the museum about their situation. That talk, and many emails after that visit, now make up the body of this interview. All names and locations have been anonymised as the people I spoke to did not want to cause any bad feelings, and feared that their grant applications would be refused yet again if they were found to be speaking out. I have nicknamed them V for Volunteer.

A little background first.

The museum is in a city with a population of around 43,000 people. These 43,000 people are spread out over a large rural area with a concentration in the city. The area is right in the middle terms of deprivation with the rural areas being very poor, and the towns being better off. The museum was part funded by a trust fund established by a Victorian benefactor, but with the bulk of funding coming from the local authority. It is in an area of great archaeological and historical importance, and conserves and displays items relating to that history, as well as many items of social importance.

In 2013 all local authority funding was cut from the museum, as were all council funded grants. Since then the museum has had to rely entirely on volunteers and donations from the community. Applications for grants have so far been refused, and the trust fund is only sufficient to cover heating and lighting. The volunteers have been left to try to keep the museum going.

This is their story.

Me – First off, I have to say that you do an amazing job. The museum is wonderful and I can see from the comments in the visitor book, and the joy on the children’s faces, that this place is loved. You are the Chair of the volunteer group, how many volunteers do you have?

V – (sighs) That’s a good question. When we first started this whole thing we had tons. I mean at our first meeting in the Town Hall, when they were talking about taking away the funding, we had over 600 people sign up for more information and 480 of those said that they’d volunteer regularly to help. That was back in early 2013. When we started doing this in January 2014 we had, I think, 75 volunteers. That number went down and down every week and now (April 2016) there are 13 of us left.

Me – Wow! That’s a huge drop in numbers. It looks like a pretty nice place to volunteer, and everyone I’ve met is incredibly friendly. Why do you think the numbers fell off so badly?

V – The trouble is that it’s not just us that needs volunteers. There are so many local things that now rely on volunteers and there’s only so much people can do. People gave all sorts of reasons for not sticking at it. Many of our volunteers found that the commitment was too great. As the numbers went down we had to ask people to do more to fill the gaps, but they couldn’t commit. Some got jobs and couldn’t spare the time. Some had other volunteering that they felt had to take priority. Many couldn’t afford to drive into town, and a good few left when they cut many of the bus routes into town. We did ask people why they quit, and the most common answer was that it was “just too much”. Most of our volunteers were over 65 and I think they just found it too tiring. It’s pretty exhausting working in a service capacity, and they no longer felt up to it. Lots of them said it “wasn’t what they expected” too. I think they all thought it was going to be a nice easy bit of a thing to do in their spare time and they were shocked at how much was expected of them.

Me – How do you raise money to keep the museum going?

V – We have applied for many grants, but so far have not been successful. The process of making grant applications is hugely complicated and none of us have any experience of that process and I think that has slowed everything down. We’ve had to beg friends for favours to get some help to put in these applications but each time the application has been turned down. One of the things we keep being told is that we need to be able to “prove a sustainable plan” – but how can we do that when we have no sustainable income? We are being asked to create business plans and detailed accounts, but we’ve been given no help to do that.

We do raise money from the community, but they are at the limit of what we can ask for. You can’t keep going to a community for money. There are literally hundreds of groups asking the community for money and we are experiencing a good amount of obvious weariness from the community over local charitable fundraising. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that we’ve already asked them for so much.

Me – What have been the main problems in running a service like this entirely with volunteers?

V – The main problem is that we really don’t have the skills for the job. I mean, we all do our best and try to learn as much as we can, but we really don’t know what we are doing. Six of us have a background in archaeology so we know the exhibits, and can do the talks for schools, but we don’t know how to write business plans, or handle competitive tendering, or keep a boiler working. This year I’ve had to learn bricklaying because the back wall collapsed and we couldn’t afford to pay someone to fix it. If I’m honest we are keeping going with a whole bunch of guesswork and patching over the cracks.

The other problem is that not all volunteers are really cut out for it. Many are unreliable and simply don’t show up, some are rude and aggressive, some hate children and think that they should be quiet at all time, or shouldn’t be in the museum at all. Most lack any kind of customer service experience. Public feedback is now saying that the museum is not the friendly place it once was, but we are completely dependent on volunteers and so we even have to keep the ones who would not make it if they were paid staff.

My personal main problem is that I’m exhausted. I don’t know how much longer I can keep going like this. The museum is open 35 hours a week, and I’m working around 40 hours a week for nothing. I love this museum, and walking away would be devastating, but for my own sanity and health I can’t keep going like this. I’m afraid to stop because I know that if I do the place will start to fail. I’m already living on my savings, and my husband feels it’s all threatening our marriage and our children’s future. This isn’t fair. We shouldn’t have to do any of this.

Me – That rather brings us to the future. What do you see in the future for the museum?

V – (another very big sigh) Awful question. When I’m asked that in public I have this smiling version of the story and I keep the positive outlook but, as you’re going to make this anonymous, I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t think that there is a future for the museum. Without public funding of some form we can’t keep going like this. We have been allowed to sell some items from our archive and that gave us a little slush fund. I reckon we are six months away from having to charge admission, and charge a lot more schools for visits. The risk around doing that is huge because we know how tight money is in schools and so the move towards charging may well be the final coffin nail. Sad fact is that we can’t afford to not charge. We are between a rock and a hard place. Behind the scenes we are getting really desperate now, and if I’m honest we don’t know how we are going to open this winter because fuel prices have shot up and the dwindling trust fund can’t take much more. Our heating bill alone could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The thing that really makes me want to spit blood is that we all know that if the museum fails, the council will make out like it’s our fault. They’ve lied to us all the way down the line by telling us we’d have support and guidance through this process. Now I can’t even get a reply when I call for help and I no longer even know who is supposed to be responsible for being our support contact. Last year our treasurer had a heart attack and we didn’t have anyone to take her place in time for the accounts to be processed. I contacted the council asking for help and I was passed from pillar to post trying to get someone to help. No one ever did. In the end we had to beg a friend of a friend to do them. We’ve just been cut adrift.

Me – What would you say to other groups taking on tasks like this?

V – Honestly? Don’t do it. We all started with such high hopes and we all wanted to save the museum and make a difference, but it’s been a huge mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I love working in and for the museum and I look at the faces of the people who come in here and for a bit it all seems worth it. Then I’m up at 3am because the decrepit alarm has gone off again, or I’m up to my elbows in the toilet because the old cistern can’t handle tissue, or I’m rallying people to mop up a flood from another frozen pipe. It’s hard to remember how much you love museums and the difference they make when you’re on your knees scrubbing up a spilt drink or consoling another unpaid colleague who has been shouted at by a member of the public. We know that the roof needs fixing, but we all pretend not to think about it.

All of this and we all daily work with the heavy knowledge that we haven’t really saved the museum at all, we’ve just put off the inevitable for a few years. Unless some miraculous benefactor steps in and gives us a few million, we won’t make it to the end of the decade. If the museum goes, it will be one more thing gone in our community. If I had to give people advice I’d say that time is better spent fighting to keep funding and paid staff. Do whatever you can, fight and fight and fight to keep that funding in place.

Me – It’s not an easy question, but I have to ask it. Why do you do it? Why do you think the museum should be saved?

V – We’ve already lost so much, the library is under threat and the buses have gone so that threatens the market. The youth club lost funding last year and so did five other youth projects. Pretty soon there will be nothing left to call this a community, it will just be a place with nothing left in it to give anyone culture or pleasure. The only people who will have any kind of pleasure or culture left will be the ones who can afford to pay for it. We all know the council should be funding community resources, and we all know the huge benefit to any community that a museum represents, but no one seems to listen. A lively and thriving community benefits everyone. It makes for a better place to live and so people want to live there. Those people pay council tax and national taxes and they work hard and deserve to see some kind of return in their towns.

What’s the point in working our whole lives if we have nothing left in our communities to give life more purpose and meaning? How can we hold a community together if there is nothing left to bring people together?

I will leave this interview with that extremely important point – how can we hold any of our communities together without our community resources? How can we possibly expect people to feel valued if an “everything must go” price is put on their community resources? How can we expect our communities, and the individuals in them, to have a sense of cohesion if all we do is drive them further apart?

Museums, libraries, art galleries, youth centres, parks, playground, paddling pools, drop-in centres, housebound services, day centres, community centres… these are the glue that binds our communities. These are the things that bring people together and create that sense of community that makes for safer and better lives for all. The current austerity cuts that are specifically directed at services like this represent an attack on the links in the chains that unite our communities. These cuts are eroding our culture and society and we, as citizens, are expected to do all the work to keep them going. Those of us who volunteer all the time are expected to carry this entire burden on our weakening shoulders. Good people are being lied to, and then they are expected to take all the responsibility for trying to keep their essential community resources going.

It is up to us all to unite to stop that erosion. This should not be a battleground of individual skirmishes, this is a war on social cohesion and on our culture, and we need to join together to raise our voices to stop it before we have lost everything that made our country great.

Write to your MP, sign as many petitions as you can find, speak out against the destruction of our communities, make your voices heard for all of those who don’t have a voice, rally your communities so that they can see what they are losing, make it clear that losing these services is not an option.

Above all, don’t let the desperate struggle to protect our community services and resources drive us further apart. Join your community with others, link to other groups and present a united and public front.

Divided our voices are hard to hear, united we are impossible to ignore.

Dawn Finch is a national library and literacy campaigner, and a children’s writer. She is the Past President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), and a member of the Society of Author’s Children’s Writers and Illustrators committee (CWIG)

CILIP have a national campaign to protect our libraries and support the essential work they do to raise national literacy levels and develop our communities. Please support the campaign for your legal right to a library provision here.

http://mylibrarybyright.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

Columbus Metropolitan Library – treasure and tranquillity. 

One of the joys of attending international conferences, and being CILIP President, is that I’m lucky enough to visit some superb libraries. This year (2016) the location for the World Library and Information Congress is Columbus, Ohio. In June 2016 the Columbus Metropolitan Library reopened after a sixteen month closure for a refurb, and so I stopped by for a look around. Actually refurb is too small a word for the extraordinary work that has gone on at Columbus Metropolitan. The library has benefitted from an investment of 35 million dollars, and on visiting it is immediately apparent where this money has been spent. 

You enter the library through the grand and monumental entrance of the 1907 Carnegie building. The original features of this building have been preserved, and now contain art displays within the Carnegie Gallery space. On the front steps of this building, carved in stone, is the legend “My treasures are within” – what better statement could welcome us to a library? Walking through this classical space, under some dazzling art, you enter the main atrium of the library. 

 

  The new atrium has been opened up with high windows to let natural light flood in making this one of the most dramatically impressive library spaces that I have ever been in. Immediately to your right is the new children’s library, and this is no tucked away apologetic space – this is a large and bright space beautifully fitted out for children. I love the fact that there is space for reading, space for storytelling and space for looking things up…in fact there is a space for whatever a child’s imagination reaches  out for. You can see the planning process here, and it really has children at the heart of it.

The central atrium

Stairs to the upper levels

 The atrium leads through to a coffee shop and then out to the newly purchased and landscaped garden area, which in turn leads in to the wonderful Topiary Garden. If you head up the stairs (or the elevators) the first thing you’ll find is the huge reading room. This is another cathedral of natural light with towering walls of glass that overlook the park. 

The rest of the library fans out around and above this space flanked by rows of neat study rooms. The flow of the lending and reference sections feels very organic and each section leads seamlessly into another. It really is a remarkable space, and staffed by enthusiastic and helpful librarians. (Yes, every person I spoke to was a qualified librarian) 

The reading room

 As I was wandering around I bumped into Pat Losinski, the CEO of the library. I must say that I was most impressed to find the CEO walking around and chatting to library users. He is justifiably proud of what they have achieved here, and what they are working on with the other Columbus libraries. They have already fully refurbished four libraries, and within the next two years the remaining six in the project will be opened. Pat told me how much value the people of Columbus place on their libraries, and how important literacy is to a successful city, and a successful country.  

Art in the Carnegie space

 One thing really struck me about the Columbus Met Library – the overwhelming feeling of calm that the space exudes. The Columbus Met is not an echoing modern edifice, but is in fact a blissfully quiet space. This does not feel forced and stifling, it actually feels genuinely refreshing and spiritually uplifting to enter. The place was very busy as I walked around, but the design seems to deaden the noise and allows people to keep that peaceful sense of calm without feeling restricted. No one is telling people to shush, and it is clear that library users are quiet because that’s how they want to be, and that’s how they want the library to be. 

Child-sized doorway of the children’s library

I know that there is a tendency these days to voice the opinion that silence is an old-fashioned concept for libraries, but I feel that we give up our quiet public spaces at our peril. There are plenty of places in our communities in which to be noisy, but remarkably few places that are quiet havens. The world is a noisy and demanding place, and libraries can offer a peaceful balance to this. Where else can we go for quiet study, reading or just to sit and ease our mental clutter? A free and open space where we can sit and gather our thoughts is hugely beneficial to our mental health and wellbeing, and I do think that it is important that we don’t forget that. 

Columbus Metropolitan Library is a remarkable space, and I think that Pat Losinski said it best of all when I complimented him on his beautiful library. 

“Thank you,” he said, “but it’s not my library, it belongs to everyone.”

Dawn Finch

President, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)

Children’s writer and librarian. 

@dawnafinch 

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE LIBRARIES OF COLUMBUS, OHIO – CLICK HERE.

Trolls, Grim Truths and Parapet Posts

I am a children’s writer, blogger and library and human rights campaigner, and this means that I have an online profile that is fairly recognisable (alarm 1). In the last few years my presence in the virtual world has become more established, and people know me as someone who regularly writes about literacy and is outspoken about human rights issues. People also know me as someone who writes bestselling non-fiction (alarm 2) and my novels do okay too. I support many environmental campaigns and am proud to say that I am an outspoken feminist (alarm 3). Physically, I’m not exactly model material, and am a long way from being the prescribed size 8 that seems to be the socially accepted size for anyone who steps out in public (alarm 4)

I am a great lover of fairy tales. Not the sparkly singing-bunny variety, but the original folk tales that crept out of forests and nightmares. These stories fascinate and inspire me, but they don’t represent a place I want to live. The language of fantasy and fairy tales seems to be currently misused and applied to people who are, in fact, bullies (alarm 5). We call them trolls, but in fact they are simply bullies and to call them anything else is to suggest that they live only in a world of fairy tales and stories that don’t really have any impact on the real world. This is not true, and this is not a fairy tale. We are real people with real feelings and we can’t keep pretending that the virtual world is not the real world.

Many people are aware that I have been the victim of online bullying as I have been open about this before, and have written about it, and so I won’t rehash it here. I got past that bout of online bullying and it seemed to go quiet again. Now my profile is a little higher and this (apparently) has given the bullies an excuse to attack me again. I now seem to have attracted a group of men who have taken it upon themselves to hurl abuse at me (alarm 6). I’ve had death threats, hate mail and more general online confrontation and abuse. I’d rather not detail the worst of the things that I’ve been called, but the general tone seems to be that I am an “uppity bitch”, “fat ugly bitch”, “pathetic slut”, “ugly whore” and (my personal favourite) “feminazi”. So far 100% of the people who have abused me have been men. I don’t know why these men all hate me, but it seems that they really do. I also know that by saying all of this I will, somewhat ironically, be the recipient of even more abuse.

Recently (April 2016) the Guardian newspaper conducted a survey of 70 million comments left on their articles since 2006 and found evidence for something many of us suspected all along – that the people online who receive the most abusive comments are women. The report found that of the ten most abused journalists online, eight were women. The ten least abused writers were all men. The most aggressive blocked comments were those directed at women and connected to articles about female issues or feminism. (alarm 7). These findings are supported by many other studies on online bullying. It seems that online bullying is predominantly a female problem.

I have taken the standard advice about online bullying – ignore, block, delete. This bothers me. This means that I am actively discouraged from standing up to bullying.  That goes against everything I know about bullying. “Don’t poke the trolls,” we are told. Well, this kind of online bullying has been going on for a very long time now and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better with that tactic, so maybe we are going about this all wrong? If this was in any of the schools that I have worked with I would not be advising teachers to just ignore it, I’d be telling them to confront it, talk about it, challenge the bullies and deal with it. I would not expect a parent of a bullied child to be told “that’s life, just ignore it, get a thicker skin, move on, it’s just a joke, don’t let it bother you,” and yet this is what we are told to do every day in the virtual environment. What if we challenge them? If we challenge the bullies, we are afraid that things will get worse. We are afraid that they will expand their attacks and damage our work and our private lives. In the virtual world the bullies have all the power, and we are letting them have it.

All of this has left me wondering what makes someone do this. What makes a perfectly normal person go online and hurl abuse at strangers? Is it because it’s easy? After all, we’re not real people are we? If we set ourselves up to do something more public, are we not asking for abuse? If we offer our opinions in public, should we not expect to be confronted? If we choose to do something more public, should be not just take it? (alarm 8)

I decided to take a longer look at one of the people who recently abused me. Recently, quite out of the blue, I was sent a direct Facebook message from a total stranger that said (and I apologise for the language)  “I hope you die a horrible death you f**king c**t”.

This message went to a filtered mail box and so I did not notice it for a couple of weeks. My instinct was to hit delete and block and leave it at that, but something made me look further. First of all I reported it to Facebook as I assumed this sort of harassment was against their terms and conditions. Then I wondered what I might have done to deserve this. I scoured my Facebook posts to see if there could possibly be anything that might have made this man send me hate mail. But all of my public posts were mundane, or silly, or about saving public libraries, or about book awards – nothing that would make someone wish I would die.

Then I thought I would take a look at the profile of the person who had sent it to me. I wanted to know what would make a stranger sit down on a Tuesday early evening and tell a stranger that they they wished they would die. I could not check the Facebook profile of this man because the brave bully had blocked me, probably right after he sent the message. That did not deter me, and I had my family look him up for me. Instead of discovering the profile of a violent moron or confused and ignorant child, I saw the profile of a regular looking family man. He had a nice smile, and so did his wife and children. He had holidays that looked like the holidays I take, and he had even changed his profile picture to the rainbow filter that I had previously used. I saw the profile of an obviously proud father who loved his daughters and his dog, and someone who seemed perfectly normal. I could see nothing about his profile that would show that he is the kind of person who sends death threats to total strangers. I’m sure that his family have no clue that he secretly does things like this. I wanted to ask him why he did it, but I didn’t want to make his family suffer by exposing his actions.

A few days later Facebook got back to me about my complaint, and apparently they too believe that I am wrong to challenge things. This message, I was told, did not violate their “community standards” – so they too give all the power to the bullies. I checked their list detailing “unacceptable content” and found that it precluded “violence and threats” as well as “bullying and harassment” but it seemed that calling me a “f**king c**t” and wishing that I would “die a horrible death” did not fit either of those categories.

What can we do? In a school I would be advising teachers to talk about the issues and to challenge them head-on. Speak to the bullies and their families and try to discover why they are doing this. I would be advising the school that they should work towards creating an environment where bullies feel driven out, where other children feel safe challenging bullying behaviour, and where they are regularly challenged on their behaviour by others around them.

This is what we should be doing online. This is not right and we should stop ignoring it. We should take back the power from the bullies. If we see it happening, we should challenge the behaviour and speak out against it. I’m not for naming and shaming, but I am for creating an environment where positive dialogue drowns out the negative. Don’t get into arguments with people, and it’s fine to disagree with people and share a contrary opinion (alarm 9) but if the comments become personal or disconnected with the original topic, then don’t be afraid to ask someone why they said it. Don’t tell them they are wrong, just ask them why they said what they did. I think that is something we all want to know – why. Why have they done this?

We are told that behind every bullying child lies a story of their own struggle and their own darkness, it is possible that this is the same with online bullies. I do believe that everyone is fighting a battle that we know nothing about, and possibly this is the same with the people who bully me? The man I mentioned above, the one who wants me to “die a horrible death”, maybe he too suffers in his own way. Maybe he suffers from a crippling inferiority complex and acts out macho posturing to strangers because society stifles his ability to express himself? Maybe he’s just a git.

battle meme

I may never know his reasons, but I certainly don’t wish a horrible death for him. I hope that he finds a way to be a nicer person and to enjoy his lovely family. I hope that he feels shame for what he has done, and realises that behind every comment he leaves there sits a real person and not just a screen. I hope that he realises that every woman he sends death threats to is someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s wife, and that we are just like the other women in his life. Beyond that screen we are all real people with real feelings, and things like this both hurt and scare us. I hope that he is happy in his life and does not continue grind his teeth with internalised anger and hatred for random strangers.

Today I heard that the daughter of a friend of mine has also been targeted by online bullies, she’s only a teenager and shouldn’t have to grow up with this. My own daughter has been targeted too, and so have many of her friends. We would not tolerate this in our schools and working environments, but apparently it’s fine in the virtual world? We all have to find our place in the world, and if you feel that your place in the world is one where you set out to cause sadness and suffering in others, then I feel deeply sorry for you. (alarm 10).

Footnote and alarms –

I was tempted to not open the comments up on this blog, as this post is what I refer to as a Parapet Post. This means that I am sticking my head up and, to the bullies, this is asking to get shot down. I have, however, left the comments open but will be filtering for abuse.

Throughout this piece you will notice that I have flagged certain phrases as “alarms”. These are the points that I know from past experience are likely to be the points most targeted in abusive comments – this is just how fragile this situation has now become. For those of us who have become targets we now feel we have to modify our behaviour, when clearly it should be up to others to modify theirs. These alarms are the phrases that I was most tempted to either remove or reword as an attempt to avoid being further abused but, in the context of this article, I have decided to leave them alone.

 Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian

 

 

 

Living History

Photo 24-03-2016 07 14 49

Getting up close and personal with ancient history was easier in the 70s (that’s me on the far left)

The new national curriculum expects children as young as six to successfully tackle prehistory, but if you ask them what life was like in prehistoric Britain you’d think they gained most of their knowledge from cartoons. Ask a small child to tell you about prehistory and they will mainly tell of a world that is part roaming dinosaur, and part club-wielding caveman. If you ask a child to draw their idea of what life was like in prehistoric Britain, the picture is generally of something along the lines of a sabre-toothed cat eating a woolly mammoth with Fred Flintstone wandering around in the background. I quickly realised that when I was visiting schools with my books I needed to challenge that perception and show them what life was really like.

I went back to the drawing board as talking about prehistory was simply not going to be enough. I thought back to what made me a history addict – how did I become the kind of person who values the place the ancient past has in my life? My love of history started in childhood and remained with me and my first job as a historical researcher allowed me to wade into even deeper waters of the past. I have contributed to, and supported historical research for decades, and last year my own book on the Neolithic site of Skara Brae was published and is now a bestseller. But what inspired that love of history in the first place?

History has always played a big part in my life. For me and my sister every holiday was another adventure of clambering over ancient ruins or running around stone circles. We didn’t have a lot of money, and travel in the 1970s never involved planes, and so that meant visiting historical sites in the UK. My family valued history, but that was only part of it. My school was not blessed with endless funds, and it had very limited resources, leaking roofs, cold classrooms and huge class sizes – but we were close enough to the Roman museums and sites of Verulamium to have school trips there. When I was eight we visited the museum and I was allowed to hold a Roman lamp. I can remember that moment as clear as if it were yesterday. I’d seen pictures of Roman lamps, and hadn’t really given it much thought, but here it was in my hand, a real lamp, and suddenly everything made sense. I could see exactly how it worked. I could almost smell the oil burning and picture the puddle of flickering light that it would cast as I walked the corridors of my villa. That tiny moment holding a real object gave me a physical link to the past.

I’ve worked in primary schools for over decade and, since the publication of my book, I’ve been invited into schools to talk about prehistory. I talk about the creativity and imagination of prehistoric people and how they used that creativity to add to their lives beyond the basic need to survive. I do this by using my Neolithic hamper. In the hamper I have things that would have been familiar objects to the people living in Skara Brae. I expected that most children would not have stroked deer hide, or handled antlers, but what surprised me was how few children knew what limpets were, or driftwood. The objects in my hamper have inspired some wonderful drawings, stories and poems about life in the Neolithic and it demonstrated just how important handling objects is to embedding higher levels of understanding.

There is something in the human psyche that craves physical contact with historical objects to fully understand them, and to forge a stronger link with them. You have only to stand in the British Museum for a few minutes to see how people can’t resist reaching out to touch the exhibits. It is not enough to look at something on a screen. No matter how glorious the 3D rendering is, it can’t possibly compete with the experience of seeing something come to life in the real world.

GET REAL!

How can we make it real in the classroom? Not every child is going to be lucky enough to visit ancient sites, or attend activity workshops, so what can we do in schools? Dr. Tess Machling of the Prehistoric Society has written on my blog before about using archaeology in the classroom. In her post she talked about the importance of being hands-on, and how being able to have physical contact with the processes of archaeology is important to understanding. We are incredibly lucky in the UK in that we have people all over the country working in the field of archaeological reconstruction, and many of these work within schools. It is eminently affordable for schools to find enthusiastic experts who can visit and show how objects were made, and how they were used.

Thanks to the many wonderful makers of replica items in the UK it is possible to create a learning resource box for the school that can be used for many years and adapted to suit different themes, however nothing beats having the expert there with you. I believe that it is not enough to buy the object – to fully engage with the subject you need the skills of the expert too. You need a knowledgeable and passionate expert who can breathe life into the subject.

The extraordinary knowledge and experience of people like Roland Williamson (historian, re-enactor and museum quality replica creator) is worth every penny. Sessions held either in schools or local museums form an essential part of embedding that higher-level understanding of history that all teachers are looking for. Sally Pointer and Gareth Riseborough spend their lives exploring aspects of early technology and then they bring this to life. Their craft demonstrations allow people to see first-hand how people did everything from metalworking to sock making!

Photo 24-03-2016 09 57 58

Graham Taylor’s stunning grooved ware pots

Seeing how ostensibly familiar objects are made is a wonderful way to show how creative people in prehistoric societies were. Potter Graham Taylor not only brings the  art of making of ancient pottery to life, but in the process the children themselves are able to create something that is a tangible link to the past. A fragment of a pot, or an illustration of a reconstruction does not even come close to watching a pot emerge from a ruddy lump of clay.

Historian and archaeologist, Kim Biddulph, has the most wonderful website that gathers together the details of a huge number of experienced and qualified people who are able to develop and deliver living history sessions in your area.

The UK is full of people who will bring history to life, from prehistory to the Cold War. If living history in your school means little more than wearing an old bedsheet for the day and calling it Greek Day, maybe it’s time to encourage subject leaders to think again. To really bring history to life, you need an expert.
Dawn Finch is the author of the educational book series Prehistoric Britain, and book one in the series is Skara Brae. Dawn is also President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and a member of the national committee of the Children’s Writer and Illustrators Group and writer of fiction for older children.

For more information about school visits and talks, contact me on author@dawnfinch.com