The Empty Shelves

As I was queueing in the post office, the line snaked past the few shelves of books for sale, and an all too familiar situation caught my eye. There were three shelves of books for children. Of these one was entirely filled with Disney franchise books, another had colouring books, and books of stickers, the third had books for older children. On this last shelf were nine different titles – all but one were by the same two celebrity authors. All were the same genre.

This upset me, but perhaps not for the reasons you expect. As an author and campaigner for the rights of authors, this does frustrate me because it limits the opportunity for other authors to get their work into the hands of readers, but it’s more than that.  As a children’s librarian my frustration is doubled.

Let me explain.

I have worked with children’s books and reading for over thirty years, and I have worked with many national groups supporting children’s literacy. I’ve sat on working groups looking at the development of readers, taught hundreds of teachers how to tackle reader development in their schools, and have personally taught almost a thousand children how to read or improve their reading. So you might say I know a thing or two about reading!

People often ask me what the key to success in reader development is, and the single best piece of advice I can give anyone – be it parent, bookseller, librarian or teacher – is that the first important thing is choice. A wide, free, voluntary choice.

I live in a small rural town and, like many other towns, we are a fifty mile round trip to a large bookshop. We are very lucky in that the community fought to keep the little bookshop open. Most small towns (and indeed many larger ones too) have no bookshop at all, and the only access to purchasable reading material is the supermarket, or the few shelves in the newsagent or post office. The few books available on these shelves do not represent a wide, free, voluntary choice because they represent what the supplier wants the retailer to sell. This limits the choice available and skews the popularity (and sales figures) of the book.

In my experience I would say that roughly 30% of children coming into the primary school library choose a funny book. That’s fantastic! As a genre, funny books certainly command a decent chunk of the market share, and feature highly in the national lending figures for libraries. The most popular funny books in my library were always the ones that were a bit smarter than basic fart gags. I love a funny book and am in awe of writers who can make a reader howl with laughter. However, farts are not the only fruit.

I was chatting to bookseller, Tamsin Rosewell from Kenilworth Books, and she says that the figures for children purchasing this genre of books is far lower, and says that around 5- 10 % ask for a funny book.

“Within that, they are very selective”, Rosewell says. “When a child comes into the bookshop, or someone asks for help choosing a book for a child, the first question is “what sort of person are they?” A great many want to see situations and characters they understand to be real.”

We talked about this difference between what is borrowed, and what is bought, and theorised that the reason for this may be that when it comes to ownership, and children have the choice, they lean towards a much wider variety of genres and therefore the money is more evenly spread across the board.

We also talked about the mass-market approach to publishing.

“I’m fascinated by the way today’s book market is polarising,” said Rosewell, “and which parts of it are the focus of deep discounting. The combination of celebrity books being heavily discounted on release, and the fact almost all children’s celeb books are humour, means we are in effect creating an environment in which one genre is having its perceived value reduced.”

Most primary school age children couldn’t care less about the celebrity of the author, and were more interested in the content than the author. This situation was changed when the only books available were from celeb authors. In some of the schools where I have worked, the only authors the children knew were the ones they saw on the telly, or in the supermarket. Their free, voluntary choice had been altered by their lack of choice. They had only the illusion of choice thanks to deprivation or lack of access to other reading materials.

“If we can accept that these celeb books are a brand,” Rosewell says, “then what we have is a high-cost brand marketing campaign targeted directly at children. If it is extremely costly marketing that drives high sales, then please let’s call it marketing and acknowledge that these books are often marketed well beyond their quality.

How many adult readers realise how the big retailers and publishers are manipulating them towards the books they want to sell? Are customers of those big bookshop chains aware that publishers have paid a lot of money to have that book on a display table, and even more to be displayed in the window? Do people realise that to get on those celeb book lists the publisher has paid a vast sum?

The big publishers offer huge discounts to retailers who stock their big names. I do some work in our small community bookshop, and I am stunned at how large the discounts are for some of the big celeb names. I’ve seen new children’s titles offered to us at up to 60% discount. This is very tempting for retailers because we can sell them at full price and make a tidy profit. Of course this does mean that many retailers feel they have no choice but to give up valuable shelf space to… you guessed it… the same limited pool of authors.

All of this means the entire system is skewed towards a very limited pool of authors, and this ends up with that shelf in the post office with only celeb authors, and only one genre of books. These books obviously appear at the top of the bestseller lists, and this is hardly surprising given they dominate available retail space and command marketing budgets that would make most authors weep with envy. Every year the pool of authors who are heavily pushed in this way seems to get smaller and smaller. This means in turn we have nothing here that is diverse, inclusive or challenging. Go into any retailer who stocks books as a sideline – be it post office, supermarket, train station or airport – and no matter where you are in the UK you will see exactly the same authors, and exactly the same books.

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What a well curated choice looks like in a small bookshop.

What this aggressive marketing means is that the majority of children looking at the shelves in any large supermarket or newsagent would only see a limited choice, and would probably not see anything that they can identify with. This does not mean they won’t end up owning these celeb or funny books, because well-meaning family will see these books occupying 90% of the available bookshelves in retailers and they buy them because they believe they are doing the right thing. If it’s there, it must be popular and what every child wants, right?

Wrong. It’s not what the child who favours fantasy, or real-life stories, or non-fiction, or poetry, or thrillers wants. For these children the shelves may as well be empty.

Reading for Pleasure has a whole range of wider benefits (as detailed in the Reading Agency’s report Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, a report for which I was honoured to sit on the steering group). However, to gain the wider benefits of reading for pleasure it must be two things – a free voluntary choice, and a pleasure. This means that to support national literacy and to wider spread the benefits of reading for pleasure, people must have more available choice.

My field is, obviously, children’s books, but I know that you will see the same limited pool of authors and genres for adult books. The books the publisher wants you to buy. The authors representing the biggest investment the publisher has made so they desperately need to claw back that huge advance. Publishing is, after all, a business and the book is not a sacred object, it is a product they need to shift in large quantities in order to help their business survive. We can’t blame a retailer for stocking what serves them the largest margin of profit either.

What can be done about this? I would suggest that the only person who can actually change this situation is the shopper. Tell the retailer that you want more choice, or shop elsewhere. Seek out a retailer who is not in the sway of the super-massive publisher. It’s not easy to find an independent bookshop, but you can always use Hive and order online. Independent bookstores are more able to make independent decisions about what they stock, and they can strike deals with indie publishers and often have a far more diverse and interesting selection of books. If you’re buying books for a child as a gift, don’t be influenced by the small number of same-olds in display, ask the child who their favourite writers are and then seek professional guidance on who else writes like that. A real bookseller or librarian will be able to help you. If you don’t have one nearby, you can find them all over social media or online. If you regularly buy books, I’d suggest using the excellent services of Who Else Writes Like….? This is often also available free via the digital offerings of your public library.

Which brings me neatly to the library.

If you really want your child to grow up to become a lifelong reader, they will need choice. Lots of it. The library is a key factor in turning your child into an accomplished reader – precisely because of that treasure trove of choice. Where else can your child stand in the midst of hundreds of different titles and grab whatever catches their eye for free? Where else can your child try loads of different things until they work out which genre suits them? The school and public library should be like a groaning buffet table where children can try loads of different tastes and flavours to work out what they want to feast on for the rest of their lives. When they’ve decided what they like, then it’s time for ownership. Then it’s time to make sure that every penny spent on books is heading in the direction of something they ACTUALLY want, and not just something marketing departments have told them they SHOULD want.

Avid and developing readers deserve to have choice, and in denying them choice we are also ignoring the fact that this should be a golden age of children’s literature. In my three decades working with children’s books, I can honestly say I have never seen books of such variety, and such a high standard, as those being published today. Books are published all the time in every genre that are dazzling, challenging, diverse, inclusive, magical and addictive. I read hundreds of books for young readers every year, and the standard in the last decade has been consistently rising. Once upon a time excellent books for children were as rare as hen’s teeth, today a dozen are published every month that I would consider future classics. So why are so many being published only to never find their way onto the shelves of bookshops or retailers?

I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for that one, all I know is that I read these books and I want to recommend them but they are not in any shops so people won’t find them. Given that over 95% of the coverage of new books in the media is for adult books and hardly any attention is given to books for younger readers, it’s not really surprising people have no idea how many outstanding books miss their moment – despite many being every bit as good as books from our own childhood that are considered classics.

It’s absolutely fine to have celeb books (and fart-funny books!) in the market. Many are great, and definitely deserve space on the shelves, but they don’t deserve all the space on the shelves. Choice. This is what every reading expert knows can turn a non-reader into a reader. It’s what every reader deserves.

This is why I rail against the same-old-same-old stuff on the ever diminishing bookshelves in our communities – because it matters to us all.

At least, it should.

Dawn Finch is a children’s author, librarian and community bookseller. She works extensively in the field of children’s books and writes both fiction and non-fiction for children. She is former president of CILIP (the UK library and information association) and a member of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Committee for the Society of Authors.

Her most recent publications include an educational book about Hadrian’s Wall, and a book for the School Library Association about historical fiction.

@dawnafinch

www.dawnfinch.com

Why I bother with libraries.

I am a library campaigner. I have that in my profile descriptions on social media, and I am known for this role. I campaign and write about libraries, and am a familiar face at rallies and events connected to libraries and reading. I was President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), and now I am standing for election as a CILIP Trustee and so it is evident that I care a great deal about our libraries. Recently someone asked me that crucial question – why bother? It seems like a lot of work, and you don’t get paid for it, so why bother?

After I had calmed down, I explained that the answer was so huge that I couldn’t do it justice in a few sentences, and so I thought I would share some of my past writings to explain why it matters, and why I bother.

Why do I need libraries in the first place? Well, I want a society where people have intelligence and are informed and creative. That matters to me and that’s what libraries (and in particular school libraries) do. I wrote about that here….

Like many people, I live with an invisible disability. I manage just fine, but one day I won’t and now and again I need more help with information. I need a safe space in my community that will offer me support on an ad hoc basis. It will save my local authority a huge amount of money if I can be supported in this way. I need someone I can trust in my community – I need my librarian. I wrote about that here…

I want our children to grow up as readers and to have the skills to access education with greater ease. I want them to be prepared for life and for the onslaught of fake news and biased reporting. I want children to have empathy for others and greater understanding of the world around them. I want them to have a school librarian. I wrote about that here…. 

I want people to read more. Reading for pleasure makes people happier, more rounded as human beings, and they even earn more. I sit on the Reading Agency’s national steering group looking at the wider impact of reading for pleasure, and the evidence is clear – people who read more benefit hugely. Books are expensive. For everyone to read more, and for society to benefit from it, we need more libraries. I wrote about that here….

The provision of a “comprehensive and efficient” library service is a statutory requirement. I need my librarian, and I need skilled library workers who have signed a commitment to providing an ethical and equitable service. Personally, I want to know that when I am handing over my data in a library it is to someone who has a set of agreed ethical principles. As chair of CILIP’s Ethics Committee, I have written about that here…

But here is the big one – I passionately believe that it is vital to protect library workers. We have just had Libraries Week, and I must confess that I was dismayed to discover that many people were sharing things as if the library was some kind of sentient building that was doing all of these amazing things without any human involvement. Masses of people all talking about how astonishing libraries are… but I could count on one hand the number of high-profile media pieces that actually mentioned the library workers who make all these things happen.

Every time we talk about the work that libraries do, what we are really talking about is the work that the library workers do. None of this would happen without them. A library is, after all, just a building – bricks and mortar, cement and glass. It can’t read stories, comfort the lonely, teach digital literacy, support the sick, calm the distressed or find jobs for the jobless – that takes a library worker. Yes, we should protect libraries, but only if they house library workers. It is not right that, as a society, we pay for libraries in our taxes and are then expected to do the work ourselves. I don’t pay for a building, I pay for the people who do the work. Call me old fashioned, but I also want human beings to be fairly paid for the work they do. A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work seems like the most basic of rights to me. Why should essential services become a postcode lottery that means that libraries only exist in wealthy areas where people have the time and money to work for free? This is a rot at the heart of our society – that we are blamed for not doing all the work for free, and if we can’t work for free we somehow are less deserving of the service. People should be paid, and they should be trained, protected and they should be accountable. I have written a great deal about this issue, and these have been some of my most read and shared posts. You can read three of them here… and here… and here

This is why I bother, and this is why I can’t stop campaigning for libraries – because the societal value is huge. Libraries save society money, and improve quality of life and opportunities for millions of people. It is sheer idiocy to put them in danger. To even suggest that libraries offer anything less than extraordinary value for money is a lie. Simple as that. A lie. I don’t mind shouting that from the rooftops. Look at the stats if you don’t believe me. Nobody uses libraries? Who are all these nobodies then? 


I am standing for election as a CILIP trustee because I’ve always believed that if you are going to say a thing you should say it where people are best placed to hear it. If I don’t like a thing, then I’m prepared to step up and try to get something done about it. I can grumble and moan and shout all I like in the vacuum of social media, but it is in the corridors of power that the silence falls and the selectively deaf walk. Representing an organisation like CILIP allows us as a collective to speak louder and to shake the ivory towers. I do believe that there is strength in the collective. I’m up against some stiff competition in this election, and all of the people standing share my thoughts. Libraries will win no matter who is elected, but I can’t not stand. Making a stand is kind of my thing. I’m in excellent company. If you are a CILIP member I strongly advise you to take part in this democratic process. It’s your vote, your voice, use it! If you’re not a CILIP member, join us! Everyone with an interest in the library and information profession is welcome. 

All in all, I want to look back on my life and know that I did everything I possibly could to make a difference. This is why I bother, because it matters.

Dawn Finch, librarian and children’s author, was president of CILIP in 2016 and is the current chair of CILIP’s Ethics Committee. She is a member of a number of national committees concerned with literacy and libraries, and a member of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators committee focusing on children’s reading for pleasure, and the rights of authors.

You can read all nomination papers for the all of the people standing in the forthcoming CILIP Trustee elections here… and if you are a CILIP member voting papers will be sent to you on or around 20th October 2017. The election and manifesto site can be found here

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. 

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

 

 

 

Privacy and the young reader.

young girl reading black and whiteLike all good school librarians I was upset to read about the leaking of the school borrowing history of author Huraki Murakami. This has yet again raised the issue of privacy and the discussion has flared in social media and within library communities.

This is something that I have had to deal with many times in my career, both in public and school libraries. I am a strong advocate of the protection of the human right to privacy at any age, and feel that this protection should be guaranteed under law in public libraries, but what about schools and for very young children?

To me the answer is simple – privacy is a human right that belongs to everyone regardless of age. I was based in a primary school and in my library I had a clear policy of free voluntary choice and the pupil’s borrowing record was protected and belonged to the individual. The only exemption to this was if (after discussion with the person responsible for care issues in the school and myself) we felt that there might be an issue that would put the child personally at risk. This would then involve a private discussion with the child in a safe environment.

This was not an easy policy to maintain as there were many times that parents wanted to know what their child was borrowing and my refusal to share that information was often challenged. I stood my ground and the school supported me for one simple reason; I had it written into the library policy document. Having it in black and white meant that I could guarantee that the children were able to make a free voluntary choice of their reading material and were able to do that without judgement or fear of recrimination.

The first thing I had to do was to ensure that the library policy was accepted, agreed and signed off by the senior leadership team of the school and the school governors. I made sure that the right to privacy was guaranteed for every child, and I also made it clear that the library had a policy of stocking books of all types. I have supported many schools in the development of their own library policies and I quote the suggested outlines here…

“Library users of all ages and levels (including both pupils and staff members) are guaranteed the right of privacy. Should the librarian feel at any time that the pupil is at risk, this will be discussed in private with the pupil and the care team of the school, but the specifics of items borrowed from the library will remain within the ownership of the borrower. This information will be permanently deleted once the pupil leaves the school.”

“It is policy to ensure that material deemed sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise offensive or sexually explicit is not accommodated. However, challenging material will not be excluded simply because it is challenging, and the library will offer some material that may be outside the reader’s normal life experience. This will be to broaden and add depth to their studies, knowledge and understanding.”

This sort of clear policy gives a lot of scope for choosing stronger material and, as an unbiased professional, I felt that I was the best qualified person to make this decision. I’m the book expert in the building, it’s my job! However there were times that I would turn to other professionals and to my colleagues to help me make the decision. No matter what I had on my shelves the pupils knew that they would be able to borrow it without anyone else knowing that they had done so. That was very important to me as I felt that the library had an essential role to play in fostering a love of reading for pleasure and that can’t happen if a child feels that someone is breathing over their shoulder.

That’s not to say that there weren’t times when a Rhino Mum (or Rhino Dad!) came storming in to see me in a shortsighted rage demanding to know why their child had brought home a book that they didn’t approve of. It’s part of the job to be honest and we all have our ways of dealing with it. I had a good friend who was a school librarian in a private Catholic girl’s school and he used to keep a separate library card for girls who wanted to borrow books that they knew would be disapproved of. Another friend kept what she called her “junk card” for pupils in a high achieving school who wanted to secretly borrow trashy novels away from the prying eyes of pushy parents and teachers. I must confess that I also had a large number of books that I had ostensibly borrowed myself but had actually been borrowed by children who didn’t want it to go on their library record. Even the promise of privacy was not enough for some children.

A school library has two main functions – to support and develop reading skills, and to encourage and nurture reading for pleasure. In order to develop reading skills it is often necessary to keep a progressive list of books read, but this process should be distinct and separate from reading for pleasure. Learning how to read, and learning to love books are often muddled for younger children and this is a mistake. I personally feel that there should be a separate school library issue system for study books (including books on reading schemes) to those read for pure pleasure and free voluntary choice.

Privacy for pupils and young people is always going to be a thorny issue as we often bring to bear issues of care and responsibility, but I have always felt that it is deceptively simple. In fact, these rights are protected under Article 16 in the UN Convention document – The Rights of The Child. Furthermore there are a number of other articles within this document that ensure children should have unrestricted access to leisure and information. To restrict their privacy is to restrict access.

Every human being of any age deserves the right to privacy. If we restrict that then we also place restrictions on curiosity and understanding. We drive young people to find information though darker sources, and through marginalized means and that is what in turn leads young people to harbour feelings of loneliness, isolation and social disengagement. The right book at the right time can change or save a life – but will the vulnerable and confused young person find that information if they fear their borrowing history will be shared or sold? 

This is not just about children, this is about the right to privacy that is due to us all. As professional librarians we have a duty of care to the sensitive information contained within our records. If that trust is broken then we not only damage the service we offer, but we also put at risk the mental health and wellbeing of library users. I offer as an example the Books on Prescription scheme. This is having great success and as a result is not only saving the NHS a small fortune, but is hugely improving the quality of life for its users. Would that be the same if people feared that their borrowing history would be leaked or sold? Borrowing history could be open to catastrophic misinterpretation that could be permanently damaging to an individual’s life. Take for example student doctor, Yousif Badri, who was recently cleared of terrorism charges. One of the charges against him was that he “owned books on terrorism” when in fact he’d purchased freely available and academic books on Islamic extremism from Amazon. Misinterpretation of the books he read has dragged him to the point where he had to defend himself in court, and this has been hugely damaging to his career.

 Leaking Murakami’s teenage borrowing history might be interesting to his fans, but what it actually does is chip away at a private part of his life that should only ever have belonged to him and that is an erosion of everyone’s right to privacy.

Dawn Finch is a prominent UK school library and literacy consultant, and a children’s and YA writer.

Useful documents

UN – Rights of the Child – full document

UN – Rights of the Child – summary

UN – Rights of the Child – summary for children

CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) – User Privacy in Libraries – full document

Data Protection Act – UK – search for law pertaining to personal privacy

Facts and First Readers

small child reading image

I have been teaching children to read for around fifteen years and in that time I have seen a huge leap in the quality of reading schemes for children and young people. We have moved from tedious and formulaic material, to extraordinary schemes filled with beautiful imagery and content that is designed to engage developing readers. Sadly these schemes can be expensive and I am often asked by teachers and parents how they can use the books that they already have to support and develop young readers. As a non-fiction writer myself I also spend time thinking how I can use my books for creativity, and if they are accessible for the children who will use them.

As a children’s librarian I know that there are some children who only want to read non-fiction, but this represents a challenge to those teaching the mechanics of reading as these books do not always lend themselves to a progressive reading scheme. It is actually quite simple to choose non-fiction for teaching reading, but it takes careful selection and consideration.

So what are we looking for in a good non-fiction book for this purpose?

To successfully use a non-fiction book to teach reading we need these boxes ticked

  • Clean and uncluttered fonts

Many fonts act as a blockage to developing readers and confuse the child

  • Sharp and clear images with labels that link and explain

Those blurry and arty photos and illustrations are all very well in adult books, but can a child actually recognise what the picture is? This might be the first time the child has “met” this concept and the picture is an essential part of understanding what the words are saying, don’t leave them guessing.

  • Good use of different colours and well sectioned

Paragraphs and sections in different colours or boxes can help a child feel a sense of achievement. If they can’t tackle the whole page, they can do one section at a time.

  • A concise and readable contents, glossary and index

These are all essential parts of a great non-fiction book as it is the key to successfully navigating the text. To a child understanding these parts of a book is like being shown the secret to finding your way around a book without reading the whole thing, or asking for help.

  • A good mix of language using higher level vocabulary in context

Great non-fiction isn’t afraid of adding in higher level vocabulary to drop new words and concepts into a child’s life. This should be embedded in contextualisation and surrounded by solid visual prompts. When we are teaching reading we need the child to not just struggle through a whole bunch of hard words, and so a good mix is ideal.

  • Tells us something new

So many non-fiction books for children cover the same ground. I know that this is not thanks to the writers who would love to drop exciting new gems into the text, but publishers often err on the side of caution and cover familiar ground. Don’t! Each book on a subject should endeavor to tell us something that we didn’t know before.

  • Is not just there to look pretty!

There is space for books that simply look beautiful and are a joy to own, but if you are trying to use them to teach reading you need a little bit more.

When we’ve chosen the books we want to use to teach reading, we need to remember a few more things to make it work.

  • The child must choose the subject matter

Ownership of the task is important and enjoyment is the key to success

  • Start by exploring the index, contents and glossary

Help the child to first browse what’s in the book. Show them that the contents page is a bit like a tv guide, and they can quickly see what might interest them.

  • Only start reading the main body text at the very beginning if that’s where the child wants to start

Dip in and out, flick back and forth and stop at pages that catch their eye.

  • Don’t quiz!

Okay, so I know that this will probably get many teachers angry here, but I hate quizzing. It works for some children, but for many it is a dreaded task and it ruins the natural flow. Use it with great care, and informally chat instead. Tell them what you have discovered, and let them tell you what they liked and discovered. Make it a two-way process.

I have mainly used non-fiction with children who are not engaging with the process of reading and who do not like fiction. These children have often decided that reading is not for them, and so I have to be extra careful how I handle them and to make sure that I first tackle their dislike, and then tackle the skills.

Let’s look a case study….

I had great success with two non-reading Autistic boys by using only the books that they loved, not an easy task as they were really only passionate about maps. They both said that they “hated” books and refused to even try to read. One angrily told me that fiction was “rubbish” and both would not even sit and look at fiction book. Using an atlas to teach reading is not exactly easy, and it took a while to find atlases that ticked all of the above boxes, but when I did it made a world of difference (no pun intended!)

I constructed a long list of place names that contained other words, and I printed off visual prompts for the words that were “hiding” in the different countries (Germany has germ, and man, and many, and any for example). We looked at the kind of things that grew in the countries (“where does your favourite food come from?”), and the dates the countries were discovered (great for showing how long numbers look when written in words). We found out about the people who discovered the countries and the ships that they sailed in. We even looked at the languages of all of the other countries and I found foreign words that were the same root origin as ours, and many strange ones that we’d never heard of before (this was great for embedding phonetic skills rather than using confusing nonsense words). I had a huge National Geographic World map that we spread out on the floor and we found the places that we’d read about in our Atlases. We “explored” the globe and the boys learnt how to read almost by accident. They were so invested in unlocking the mysteries of the text around the maps that they almost forgot they were having reading lessons.

I knew that I would probably never create in them the kind of people who would sit and read War and Peace out of choice, but that didn’t matter to me. My aim was to give them a skill that would make the rest of their lives easier and better, and we achieved that together in a way that was hugely enjoyable for all of us.

In November I was invited to hand out the awards for the ISG Reference Book of the Year and I wanted to share with you the three books that were shortlisted for the award for the best information resource for young people. These three books represent perfect examples of great books to engage children not only in the mechanics of reading, but also in the joy of reading for pleasure.

tinyTiny, the Invisible World Of Microbes by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton explains some high-end and complex concepts with exactly the right balance of commonplace and new words. The illustrations are beautifully pitched and support the text in a way that the child can easily identify with. There is a familiarity in the friendliness of the illustrations that allows a sense of ownership over some ideas that will be very new for the developing reader.

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Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill takes the reader on an extraordinary journey through a subject matter that has not traditionally been covered for this age group. The stunning illustrations blend effortlessly with text that has been perfectly pitched for the developing reader. The balance of words and pictures is just right, and there is more than enough visual stimulation to keep the eye on the page whilst we tackle the text.

animalium

Animalium by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott (the winner of the ISG Information Resource for Children Award 2015) is a glorious trip to a Natural History Museum in book form. Its large format allows the reader to tumble into its remarkable illustrations and the accompanying text, though challenging, is great for the developing reader. The descriptive paragraphs are short, but to the point, and introduce us to all sorts of new things including Latin names.

These three books represent a small section of the very best non-fiction books for children, and they also demonstrate that some publishers are willing to take a risk and publish books that will both engage and delight.  When all is said and done, one of the most important things that we need to remember is that teaching the mechanics of reading is completely different to creating an ethos of reading for pleasure, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pleasurable. If a child is not enjoying the process, they are far less likely to become passionate lifelong readers and that’s a long term aim that matters to all of us.

Dawn Finch

Vice President CILIP

Children’s author and literacy consultant 

CWIG Committee Member

http://www.dawnfinch.com

@dawnafinch

This post was written in support of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups as part of their celebration for National Non-Fiction Month. To find out more about the excellent work of the Federation, and to support their work, please click the link below.

Federation of Children's Book Groups