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

Reading – what’s in it for me?

library in the sky image

For those of us addicted to reading we know exactly how enjoyable it is, but in an increasingly busy world it is often hard to make time for it, so why should we bother? There is no doubt that reading improves literacy levels, and higher literacy levels allow people to gain better educational results, and in turn get better jobs, but is that enough of an incentive to make people want to read? Despite the evidence about the benefits of reading we still see reports in the news about falling national literacy levels and the decline in reading. The Reading Agency decided that in order to tackle this it was time to look beyond literacy levels and consider the wider personal benefits of reading for pleasure*.

The Reading Agency received generous funding from the Peter Sowerby Foundation for a collaborative project to develop a reading outcomes framework. The main aim of the project was to collate and summarise the findings of the most robust studies that related to non-literacy outcomes of reading for pleasure or empowerment*. A steering group was formed from the collaborative organisations and the report (conducted by BOP Consulting) was compiled. As Vice President of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) I was invited to be part of the steering group, and I am delighted to now be able to share this report.

The report: The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, contains a powerful and undeniable message – reading is good for you.

The report confirms that people who read for pleasure benefit from a huge range of wider outcomes including increased empathy, alleviation or reduction in the symptoms of depression and dementia, as well as an improved sense of wellbeing. People who read for pleasure also have a higher sense of social inclusion, a greater tolerance and awareness of other cultures and lifestyles, and better communication skills. When we looked at the impact of reading for pleasure on people with increased health needs or issues, we found that people who were reading for pleasure demonstrated better health literacy, and were more able to cope with, and access, information related to their conditions. People who read for pleasure also showed lower levels of general anxiety.

For children and young people the evidence obviously demonstrated that children who read for pleasure had higher levels of educational attainment, but what is most interesting is how it improves the overall quality of their lives. Children and young people who read demonstrate significantly enhanced emotional vocabulary. In short, the young people who read like themselves better and cope with life better. They are more likely to use positive mental self -imagery and generally used more positive vocabulary in both their work and their lives.

This shows us that reading for pleasure is an important way of helping us to tackle issues such as social isolation, teenage depression, negative self-image, and social and educational disengagement. Reading for pleasure can make an isolated and depressed young person feel better about who they are and can make them more confident about the importance of their unique role in the world.

What can we do?
A key finding of the report is that extensive studies show that enjoyment of reading is a prerequisite for all these positive outcomes: people who choose to read, and enjoy doing so in their spare time, are more likely to reap all of these wider benefits. Negative attitudes towards reading for pleasure therefore have a much wider negative impact, and it’s essential that we create a far more positive attitude towards reading. We can throw out the “haven’t got time” and “reading is a waste of time” comments because we can clearly see that if you are reading for pleasure you are doing something that will improve the long-term quality of your life and your health.

It is worth noting that this process has to be about reading that is a free and voluntary choice. This is distinctly separate from learning how to read, and it is not the same as reading that is undertaken for study or educational purposes. In order to benefit from the wider outcomes of reading for pleasure we need to focus only on one word – pleasure. At school a focus should remain on uncritical free voluntary choice reading. Children and young people should be able to read freely from a wide range of material. They should be able to choose whatever format and style of reading material they want without feeling that it is yet another lesson or form of study. To facilitate this it is simply not enough to only have reading schemes and reading lessons, pupils of all ages require access to a well stocked school library and this will give them a better chance of becoming lifelong readers. To nurture a reading for pleasure environment all children should have access to someone who can help them to navigate the maze of books and reading in a positive way – logic dictates that this should be a school librarian.

Reading is good for you, and is something that we should all do at every stage in our lives in order to benefit personally. This should start at the cradle with reading aloud and sharing stories, and should move through our lives as pastime that is perceived as enjoyable. Reading is habit forming, and the children of readers read and are more likely to accept books and reading into their lives. We cannot expect our future adults to become readers if the only books they know are those on the reading scheme.

It doesn’t have to be expensive (remember, librarians are there to help you for free), and it doesn’t have to be great works of worthy literature. The evidence shows that all that matters is that people are reading a wide range of fiction and non-fiction in any form, and that they are reading it simply because they want to. No discrimination was made about the type of reading material, or the format – all reading is good reading as long as you are doing it because you have chosen to. We need to throw out the false idea that reading is an elitist or snobby pastime that is only for the idle, and that only “good” books matter – this is simply not true.

We are bombarded with health messages that we should be acting upon, but this report shows that reading for pleasure is the simplest and most enjoyable way to gain a significant number of long-term health benefits.

So stop feeling guilty! When you’re reading you’re not wasting time, you’re working on your long-term health.
The message is simple – pick up a book, and feel better!

Dawn Finch
Vice President CILIP
CWIG Committee
Children’s author and school library consultant.
www.dawnfinch.com
@dawnafinch

Links and the technical stuff…..
The full Literature Review document can be downloaded from the Reading Agency’s website and it contains a full bibliography of all of the research used. Please share and quote the report and use #readingforpleasure to keep the conversation going.

The Reading Agency worked in collaboration with the following organisations: Arts Council England, Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians, Book Trust, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Education Endowment Foundation, National Literacy Trust, Publishers Association, Scottish Library and Information Council, Society of Authors and the Society of Chief Librarians.
The report was compiled by BOP Consulting with funding from the Peter Sowerby Foundation 

* For the purposes of the report the phrases “reading for pleasure” and “recreational reading” are used interchangeably within the body of the document. We defined this as “non-goal orientated transactions with texts as a way to spend time, and for entertainment.”
The term “reading for empowerment” is (for the purposes of this report) defined as “transactions with texts as a means of self-cultivation and self-development beyond literacy”. For example reading non-fiction material such as craft or self-help books.
Both terms were used to define reading for pleasure and empowerment in all formats and media.

Full link URL – http://readingagency.org.uk/news/media/reading-for-pleasure-builds-empathy-and-improves-wellbeing-research-from-the-reading-agency-finds.html

The image used is licensed CCO public domain but courtesy credit due to bonnybbx, creator on Pixabay. Please always credit creators.

A Primary School Librarian’s List Of 125 Books That A Child Might Want To Read.

these are your kids on books

The publication of yet another list of the “top 100 books” that children “should” read in primary school raised an extensive discussion on social media about the books chosen. Whilst the books on the list are undeniably classics, and books of quality, do they actually represent the kind of books that will nurture a love of reading in children, or is this instead a list of national curriculum and Amazon favourites?

To challenge that list I give you the list of an experienced primary school librarian. These books are the ones that I know have created delight in young readers and have been loved with a passion. You might not agree with all my choices (and some of them are not to my personal tastes) but these have all been loved by REAL CHILDREN who devoured them and wanted more after finishing them. These are not only books that children have enjoyed, but also ones that parents have enjoyed sharing with them. Sharing books aloud is an important way to foster a love of books and reading in a child, and no one is ever too old to hear a story.

The list progresses roughly through developmental stages, but is by no means prescriptive, and it is not in order of preference. “Top books” charts are far too subjective, and the books on this list are all great. If you need more guidance and advice on children’s reading there really is only one person to seek out – a school librarian. These titles are all for primary age children and (with one notable exception in William Grill’s Shackleton) are all fiction titles.

Just for clarification, I don’t believe that any of these books “should” be read by all children, that’s not how a love of reading works. This is list of great books that I know children have loved and, if any of them suit the tastes of children you know, then they too might read them and enjoy them. If they want to. Your list might be different, and I’d love to know what you’d recommend – please add your titles to the comments. I’m sure there are many titles that you feel should be added, so go ahead! Please do add newer books that you know have worked, and please remember to credit all creators of the work, and do post links to their websites where possible. I’ll aim to keep the comments open so that we can keep adding to it and share the list as a resource.

Every one of these books have two things in common: they are beautiful stories, and children love them. All in all enjoyment of reading is the most important thing. It’s all about what children want to read and it should never be about just ticking off a list of books that adults think children “should” read.

Hopefully you will enjoy these books too.

Picture Books (for first word recognition, first reading, and sharing)
1. The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
2. Dr Xargle (series) by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross
3. Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell and Helen Oxenbury
4. The Shirley Hughes Collection
5. Meg and Mog (series) by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski
6. The Blue Balloon by Mick Inkpen
7. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers
8. Elmer (series) by David McKee
9. Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
10. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
11. Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson
12. Smelly Louie by Catherine Rayner
13. Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan
14. This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
15. Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allen Ahlberg
16. Whatever Next? By Jilly Murphy
17. Q Pootle 5 by Nick Butterworth
18. Here Come The Aliens! By Colin McNaughton
19. Beegu by Alexis Deacon
20. Morris the Mankiest Monster by Giles Andrea and Sarah McIntyre
21. No Matter What by Debi Gliori
22. Sand Horse by Michael Foreman
23. Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley
24. We’re Going On A Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
25. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
26. Wolves by Emily Gravett
27. Mouse, Bird, Snake, Wolf by David Almond and Dave McKean
28. Jim’s Lion by Russel Hoban and Alexis Deacon
29. The Whale’s Song by Dyan Sheldon and Gary Blythe
30. Changes by Anthony Browne
31. Use Your Imagination by Nicola O’Byrne
32. The Queen’s Hat by Steve Antony
33. Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake
34. Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs
35. A New Coat For Anna by Harriet Ziefert and Anita Lobel

First Chapter Books (and slightly longer First-Readers)
36. Shackleton by William Grill
37. Monkey in the Stars by Jamila Gavin
38. The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl
39. The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson
40. Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre
41. Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
42. Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell
43. Mr Majieka (series) by Humphrey Carpenter
44. Astrosaurs (series) by Steve Cole
45. How to Write Really Badly by Anne Fine
46. Cartoon Kid by Jeremy Strong
47. My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond and Polly Dunbar
48. Nelly the Monster Sitter (series) by Kes Gray
49. Dirty Bertie (series) by David Roberts and Alan MacDonald
50. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
51. Necklace of Raindrops by Joan Aiken and Jan Pienkowski
52. Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr
53. Horrid Henry (series) by Francesca Simon
54. Betsey Biggalow (series) by Malorie Blackman
55. Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce
56. Give Peas a Chance by Morris Gleitzman
57. Cliffhanger by Jacqueline Wilson
58. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
59. Dinkin Dings (series) by Guy Bass

Moving on….. (longer chapter books and/or stronger themes)
60. Dragons of Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett
61. Emily Windsnap (series) by Liz Kessler
62. Varjak Paw by SF Said
63. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
64. Box of Delights by John Masefield
65. Great Ghost Rescue by Eva Ibbotson
66. Mr Stink by David Walliams
67. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
68. Awful End (series) by Philip Ardagh
69. Uncle Montague (series) by Chris Priestley
70. The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
71. Dream Master (series) by Theresa Breslin
72. Molly Moon (series) by Georgia Byng
73. Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
74. Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
75. Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer
76. Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin
77. Charlotte’s Web by E B White
78. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
79. The Dark Is Rising (series) by Susan Cooper
80. Chrestomanci (series) by Dianna Wynne Jones
81. Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome
82. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
83. The Owl Service by Alan Garner
84. Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce
85. Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
86. Holes by Louis Sachar
87. Last of the Spirits by Christ Priestley
88. Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
89. Clockwork by Philip Pullman
90. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner
91. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Transition books (stronger themes for transition from primary to secondary school)
92. The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine
93. Noughts and Crosses (series) by Malorie Blackman
94. Mirromask by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
95. Alex Rider (series) by Anthony Horowitz
96. Strawgirl by Jackie Kay
97. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier
98. Once by Morris Gleitzman
99. Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
100. City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende
101. Krabat by Ottfried Preussler
102. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
103. Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus and Julian Sedgewick
104. Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy
105. Book of Dead Days by Marcus Sedgewick
106. Spooks series by Joseph Delaney
107. Wonder by R J Palacio
108. Diary of Anne Frank
109. Tamar by Mal Peet
110. Maus by Art Spiegelman
111. Witch Child by Celia Rees

OH – and you can’t nurture a love of reading without poetry – so the list gets a bit longer with some poetry…
112. Puffin Book of Brilliant Poetry edited by Brian Patten
113. All the Wild Wonders by Wendy Cooling
114. All The Best – selected poems of Roger McGough
115. Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here! by Michael Rosen
116. Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl (illus Quentin Blake)
117. Wriggle and Roar by Julia Donaldson
118. The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear
119. Give The Ball To The Poet – an anthology of Caribbean poetry
120. Silly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan
121. Highwayman by Alfred Noyes (illus Charles Keeping)
122. Wicked World! By Benjamin Zephaniah
123. Nightmares by Jack Prelutsky
124. I Had a Little Cat (collected poems) by Charles Causley
125. Casting a Spell (an anthology) by Joan Aiken, Wendy Cope and others

Note – almost all of the authors on this list have a whole body of extraordinary work in their catalogues, and many of these books have sequels that are equally worth reading. Please do take the time to look up the other work of these authors.
Extra footnote– I mean no offence to any of my writer friends if I’ve left off your work! If this was a list of all of the books that I love for primary age children, I would need to buy more webspace as it would be hundreds of pages long.

Dawn Finch is a school librarian and children’s author, and is currently the Vice President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)

What value……? Creativity

Living in a country that increasingly values only a monetary return on investment (ROI), it seems timely to take a look at some of the more apparently esoteric aspects of our lives, and question what value they add to society.

First up – Creativity

It is a fact that many of the teachers that I work with tell me of the diminishing amount of time spent on the creative arts in their schools. Increasingly I find myself advising teachers how (and why) they should be incorporating the arts and creativity into their curriculum.
But why bother? I have been asked this question countless times; “my child is not going to be a painter or a poet, so why are we wasting time with this stuff?”

Okay, so let’s answer that one first.
Creativity is the key to developing imaginative thought processes, and imaginative thought processes are the key to problem solving. As a society we desperately need people who are imaginative problem solvers.

Well, that was simple! What, you want more?

Right, let’s have some identifiable scenarios and look at how this fits into all of our lives and imagine (because we have well developed imaginations and so we are able to do this) a life without creative and imaginative problem solvers.

  • I want a carpet fitted but my room is an awkward shape. My carpet fitter is great at maths and so has no problem working out the square footage, but he lacks a creative imagination and so he can’t work out how to work his way around the room economically. He loses money, and so do I.
  • My car has broken down, but all of the diagnostics show that there is nothing wrong with it. My mechanic has all the tools for the job and is well trained, but he lacks a creative imagination and so he is unable to imagine any unusual scenarios that might be causing the problem. I lose money (and a car) and his business suffers.
  • I need an operation. My surgeon is well trained and has the most amazing qualifications, but she lacks a creative imagination. When I’m opened up she checks all of the medical equipment, and the text books, but she can’t see anything wrong that fits what she has learnt. She does not have the imagination to think of what might be possible, and is only able to see what is actually there. I die.

Personally I want all of the people around me to have a creative imagination because it makes for a safer, wiser and more multi-faceted society. I desire creativity and imagination in every person that I work with or hire; plumbers, electricians, cab drivers, bus drivers, cleaners, lawyers, doctors, nurses, police officers, politicians, bankers, hairdressers, teachers… In fact there is not a single occupation that would not benefit from having staff who are creative and imaginative.

In our private lives we are able to achieve greater levels of self-improvement if we are creative problem solvers. Students who are imaginative problem solvers do better with their studies and achieve higher grades. This is turn makes for a better educated society and one that is more caring and self-supporting, and one that is better equipped at problem solving.

But, to convince those sceptics out there, we are going to need some more evidence of that.

 Big businesses know that creativity is vital to success within a corporation. An IBM survey of over 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries found that they overwhelmingly valued creativity in their staff. Frank Kern, senior vice president of IBM Global Business Services said;

“Coming out of the worst economic downturn in our professional lifetimes — and facing a new normal that is distinctly different — it is remarkable that CEOs identify creativity as the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future.”

The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) prepared a report from their 17 nations about business practices and staff development. In the report they declared that “creativity and innovation” were key “21st Century competencies” They stressed that staff could not develop if they lacked creativity.

An article from Newsweek (link below) covered a number of case studies and drew on the educational creativity markers referred to and developed by E Paul Torrance. The article drew attention to the global importance of investing in the development of creative societies.
“All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others.”

art-423530_1280

This conversation starts with the child and so let’s consider the importance of creativity for the young. It is clear that we need to have creativity at the very heart of our curriculum to ensure that it takes its place at the heart of our society. It is not just about discreet teaching, creativity needs to lay like a blanket over every subject area. Teach history using paintings and poetry. Teach science and innovation by using creative writing and imaginative tasks. Teach physical fitness using dance and more physical forms of expression. Add the creative arts into social studies, literacy, languages and study skills. All subjects benefit from a broader approach, and the pupils studying them will benefit from greater creativity and will develop the ability to solve problems imaginatively.This makes for adults with a higher sense of wellbeing.

There are excellent reasons for having a cross-curricular approach to the teaching of creativity, however it is still being removed from the timetable. This is largely due to a misplaced belief that Ofsted and the Government want schools to entirely focus on academic achievement. This is simply not the case and the Ofsted inspection framework tells a very different story.
In 2012, Ofsted Director of Education, Jean Humphrys said; “Children’s ability to appreciate and interpret what they observe, communicate what they think and feel, or make what they imagine and invent, is influenced by the quality of their art, craft and design education.”

In 2014 the Department of Culture, Media and Sport commissioned a report to look into the impact of cultural engagement. Being a Government department they like to put a monetary value on things, and one of their key findings stated: “Arts engagement was found to be associated with higher wellbeing. This is valued at £1,084 per person per year, or £90 per person per month.”  

The report finds that: “These findings suggest that participation in culture and sport could lead to increased employment in the economy as there are associations between culture, sport and job satisfaction”

They also found that engagement with the arts results in a significant increase in the likelihood of young people going on to further or higher education. Despite this evidence headteachers and senior leadership teams genuinely believe that they will not achieve the grade of Outstanding if they have a curriculum that shows a leaning towards creativity and the arts. However the inspection reports that I see tell a different story.

One of the schools that I am connected to recently received a glowing inspection report and achieved the enviable grade of “Outstanding in all areas.” The headteacher at this school is a poet and a writer and has encouraged his staff to work with an incredibly creative curriculum. Every time I visit he is working with the children on a new art project to embed all that they are learning in other subjects. There is a fabulous dinosaur in the library (made to support their prehistory studies) and the dining hall is hung with paper mache fruit (made by children during their science work about healthy eating.) Every class is decorated with the creative work of pupils, and there is a strong ethos of drama, dance, music and art that runs throughout the whole curriculum.

In the inspection report for this school, Ofsted say this about the curriculum: “All of the themes create plentiful opportunities for pupils to practise their reading, writing and mathematical skills, engage in creative musical and art-based activities and debate about issues of morality.”

“Pupils learn in lively, stimulating classrooms and are excited about their learning. Those who spoke to inspectors said that their new creative curriculum was both interesting and challenging.”

But for me the very best reason for developing a school ethos based on imagination and creativity is that it makes for happier children, and happier children make better learners. This is my favourite part of this Outstanding report as it says everything you need to know about the importance of a school that understands the value of creativity.

“The behaviour of pupils is outstanding. The school’s over-riding supportive ethos forms the basis of a friendly atmosphere, in which relationships thrive. Pupils’ attendance is high, and they love coming to school to learn with their friends.”

This is the true return on investment in creativity and the arts; a better society.

Dawn Finch

Children’s author and literacy consultant

Vice President CILIP

CWIG committee member

Links

Tardis Destinations – Companion’s post by author Helen Grant

Helen Grant

Helen Grant

For this post we welcome aboard our Tardis YA author Helen Grant. Helen writes the most wonderfully scary and atmospheric books and her latest (Demons of Ghent) is due out today. It is the second book in her Forbidden Spaces trilogy, the first being Silent Saturday, and the latest in a rake of fabulously scary books. I am a great fan of Helen’s work and so am thrilled to read her choice for a Tardis Destination, and a tale of a delicious mystery…. over to Helen!

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Tardis Destinations from Helen Grant

 If I had a Tardis, I know exactly when and where I would go: the city of Ghent in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium), 1426.

 Although I spent every summer in Belgium as a teenager, I never visited Ghent until 2011, when we were living in Flanders. I fell in love with the city instantly. It has such a strong sense of times past: there are many beautiful old guild houses, magnificent churches and even castles. If you stand at the top of the keep of the Gravensteen castle, you can see the three famous towers of Sint-Baafs cathedral, the Sint-Niklaaskerk and the Belfort (city belfry).

Sint-Baafs from the Belfort

Sint-Baafs from the Belfort


It’s amazing to think that if you had stood there five centuries ago, you would have been able to see that same view.

 Ghent is also intersected with canals. There is one particularly beautiful waterfront area called the Graslei where the gorgeous old buildings are reflected in the glossy water.

Graslei, Ghent

Graslei, Ghent


Altogether, it is an enchanting city.

 When we visited it in 2011 I was working on the first of three books set in Flanders, and I decided there and then to set the second one in Ghent. It is hard to write convincingly about a place when you have only spent four hours there, so I went back for a week in December 2012, and spent days walking about, taking photographs, writing notes and asking questions.

 I loved everything I visited in Ghent, but the place that spoke to me most of all was Sint-Baafs Cathedral. Built in the 14th-16th centuries, it is a massive Gothic church with a huge square tower, a vaulted crypt and lots of interesting side chapels. Best of it, it houses the Ghent Altarpiece, the enormous panelled painting sometimes called ˝The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.“ It was largely this painting that convinced me that I wanted to set a book in Ghent, and indeed it features in my new thriller Demons of Ghent.

 
Demons of Ghent
I’d like to go back to Ghent in 1426 because I would love to satisfy my absolutely raging curiosity about the Ghent Altarpiece! There are so many unanswered questions about it. It is described as being by ˝Van Eyck“ but there were two Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan, and nobody seems to know for certain who contributed what to its creation.

 Hubert Van Eyck was the elder brother and he is thought to have been commissioned to create the Altarpiece around 1420. However, he died in 1426 and the work was apparently taken over by his younger brother, Jan. It was evidently completed by 1432 because that year it was installed in the Vijdt chapel in Sint-Baafs.

 Over the years there have been many theories about who was responsible for what part of the painting. It has been made much harder by the fact that there is virtually no other surviving work by Hubert for comparison. He is thought to have started a painting called The Three Marys at the Tomb but someone else finished it – perhaps Jan. There is  a latin verse on the painting’s frame that praises Hubert and describes Jan as ˝second in art“, but this might be a piece of brotherly generosity. In the past, Hubert’s very existence has actually been questioned, because of the lack of evidence of his work.

 There is also a weird story that Hubert Van Eyck’s right arm – presumably his painting arm – was cut off after his death and preserved in a casket over the cathedral door. The rest of him is buried somewhere else in the cathedral. How strange is that?!

 I think writers, with our overactive imaginations, make great conspiracy theorists. I heard all of these disparate details – the confusion over who painted what, the death of Hubert before the painting was finished, the severed arm thing – and some truly wild explanations suggested themselves to me. Some of those ideas became the backdrop to Demons of Ghent.

 I’d love to travel back to 1426, just before Hubert Van Eyck died, and see what was happening. Did Hubert hand over the brushes and the pots of oil paint to Jan when 95% of the painting was finished, or did he leave his younger brother with little more than sketches? If I could ask Hubert about the rest of his now vanished oeuvre, what would he tell me – perhaps even show me? Did his contemporaries really think that Hubert was the greatest and Jan was second best – or was that a piece of humblebragging from Jan? Did they really cut Hubert’s arm off his cooling corpse and stick it in a box over the door, like a particularly grotesque bit of interior decor?

 Maybe Jan stood there watching while they sawed the arm off, thinking, “Ha, that will serve you right for leaving me with a handful of sketches and six years’ work on your blimmin’ design.”

 That’s the main reason I’d go back, to find out what really happened. But there’s one other thing about the Ghent Altarpiece that fascinates me.

 The central focus of the painting is the Mystic Lamb on its red-and-gold altar. On either side of it are crowds of saints, prophets, pilgrims, hermits and so on. In total the painting has 170 figures gazing into the central panel at the Lamb, or casting their eyes down, sometimes to read holy books. Amongst the red-robed clerics at on the right, a single bishop stares out of the painting at the viewer, his head inclined, a challenging expression in his eyes.

 When I first noticed this figure, I found him distinctly creepy. Are we, the viewers, meant to notice him? Why does he, alone, attempt to connect with us? Is there some significance to his challenging gaze? I’ve often wondered – all the figures must have had models, so was there something special about that one? Did Hubert, for example, put himself into the painting? Since the only portrait of Hubert I’ve been able to find was a woodcut made long after his death, there is no way to know now. Unless….I had a Tardis.

Useful links:

 http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be   A website showing the Ghent Altarpiece, with the ability to zoom in on any part of it.

 http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/the-demons-of-ghent-forbidden-spaces-trilogy-book-two/9780552566766   Random House website entry for Demons of Ghent, including click function to read a sample of the book.

 http://www.helengrantbooks.com   My author website.

All aboard the Blog Tour!

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So, it’s all aboard the Blog Tour as part of #mywritingprocess!

We have chugged along the line and stopped at some fantastic places and have now arrived at my little station in the woods thanks to an invite from the ever charming Sally Poyton and you pop over to visit her wonderful blog about books, reading, writing and dyslexia here!

Ok, on platform one we have the ever popular question – What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment I’m currently working on a YA project about a serial killer, as well as the sequel to my book Brotherhood of Shades. I’m usually working on two or three projects at a time, and a few other side projects as well. I like to keep busy but I think I could do with a holiday at the moment.

My favourite project at the moment is not one of my own. I am Author in Residence at a school in Hertfordshire and there is a ten year old girl there who is currently working on an amazing novel and we spend time every week sitting in the school library sounding out her ideas. She is quite remarkable and it is great fun working with her and one day I expect her to say thanks to me by sending her private jet out to fly me to her private island when she is rich and famous.

Over to platform two and it’s – How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Errr, ummm, it’s written by me?

Ok, that’s a bit of a cop out, so let me think…. Ah, I have been told that it is unusual to have your main character die in the opening chapters. He does come back as a ghost so obviously he does need to die first. I’ve always loved ghost stories and really wanted to write a classic ghost story but in a modern setting. Mine is unusual because it does move from the past to the present day, and has a modern feel but touches on historical events like the Great Fire of London.

The locations in my book are all real and can be found in London, and there is soon to be a map of the locations so that readers can see if they can find all the places mentioned.

Platform three is ready to leave with – Why do you write what you do?

Although I write contemporary fantasy, I feel that what I’m actually writing is all about real life (and death!) experiences. When I was a small person I wanted so much to believe that there was more to the world than that which you can see. I wanted to believe that there was another world that operated just outside our reach and that has heavily influenced my writing. I always say that it’s all about the world out of the corner of your eye.

I’m sure it’s there, we just need to find a way to see it.

 Standing room only on platform four as the Blog Tour is almost ready to leave with – How does your writing process work?

Well, nothing like ending on a biggie!

I know that there is this whole Planner vs Pantster thing, but I’m honestly a bit of both. I don’t have a strict plan but I do rough a lot of the story out and know where it’s going. I often rough out dialogue and even pace out some of the scenes to be sure that they will work. I keep a timeline of events, and a whole mass of post-its with ideas that have popped into my head.

A writing day tends to start with me doing my emails and clearing the mental clutter that might rattle around in my head and stop me from concentrating. I do a bit of social networking and read the papers online in this time too, and drink tea. All of this is often done from bed with a biscuit accompaniment as I find this is a good time for consume something for energy (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.) I get to my desk by ten (which is not tricky as it’s only on the other side of the bedroom) and I get on with my work.

My desk is in a funny little wardrobe so that I can a) shut it all away at night without having to tidy it up and b)not stare out of the window. I live overlooking a street where something is always happening so it’s not wise to be facing it. When I’m stuck on something I’ll go for a walk, or I’ll get a good long chunk of vital Staring Into Space time in. I do think that a good amount of daydreaming is essential to plot development and so I feel no guilt about sitting in front of a nice breeze watching clouds and trees.

I try not to write past eight in the evening, but that’s not always possible if my characters (or deadlines) decide otherwise. I’m just a puppet in their hands and so if they are really nagging me then it is just easier to give them the attention they require rather than fight them.

I do write seven days a week, 365 a year. I’m quite bad at taking days off but I’m working on it!

Ok, as the last train of the Blog Tour chuffs out of the station with a lonesome whistle and an enigmatic whirl of steam we jump quickly on board and look forward to the next destination.

I’m passing my Blog Tour ticket on to one of my favourite writers and illustrators – the completely fantastic Thomas Taylor. Visit his blog and he’ll tell you all about himself, and his latest projects, including (and I’m so excited about this that I can hardly say it…) a collaboration with Marcus Sedgwick. Click on the Scarlett Hart link to find out more.

Thomas Taylor Interview – Getting to the Hart of the matter.

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It was hard to know where to start with this interview as there is so much I want to ask! I think I’ll start at the beginning with a question that is one of my favourites.

What (or who) did you want to be when you were seven? What sort of kid were you, what entertained you as a small person?

 Hi, Dawn, and thanks for interviewing me. This is a fun question to start with.

Do you remember Joe90? I looked a bit like that, only scrawnier and with NHS specs. I was a loner, who secretly wanted to be either Doctor Who or Luke Skywalker, or – if possible – both. Lego and small metal figurines were everything to me. Girls were a long way off.

 ·I always find that question fun, but I can’t quite picture you as Joe90! So you were very imaginative as a child, good start! You illustrate your own books and covers, and your background is in illustration, but your books are wonderfully written – which discipline do you prefer; illustrating or writing?

Thanks for the compliment. As for which I prefer, it has to be the one that’s going the best at any given moment. That sounds like a cop-out, I know, but they are so different that it’s hard to compare. In general, I think I find writing comes slightly more easily, but only once the ideas are flowing. These days I think of myself as a writer who also draws.

 ·I am glad to see that you are still creating picture books (my daughter loved George and Sophie’s Museum Adventures when she was little!) A lot of your books you have written and illustrated yourself, but when you are working with an author on a picture book, how does that process work?

 It’s nice to hear someone remembers George and Sophie!

There isn’t much to the process, beyond being sent roughs and invited to comment at various stages. It’s rare to meet the illustrator these days. Choosing the right illustrator is a vital part of an editors’ job, and I’ve learnt to trust them, however long it takes. My next picture book, Too Many Tickles (out in Feb next year with Macmillan), was written over four years ago – it took that long to match up an illustrator with the text. Penny Dann was definitely worth waiting for though.

 ·I suppose that there will always be people connected to books that the creators don’t get to meet, but it must have been a strange (and wonderful) experience having David “The Hoff” Hasselhoff reading yours and John Kelly’s picture book, Jack’s Tractor, aloud on CBeebies. How on earth did that come about?

 It was strange and amusing all at once. I remember as a child watching David Hasselhoff as Nightrider (in my breaks from being a timelord or a Jedi knight). As for how it happened, I didn’t even know it was happening at all until someone on twitter said they’d just watched it. At least, I knew the BBC had bought the broadcast rights for Jack’s Tractor, because I’d signed a contract six months earlier, but I’d since forgotten all about it.

 ·Let’s get out and about, I know that you do brilliant school visits, and most authors have a hell story and a heaven story about their school visits – can you share any of yours with us?

 My worst school visit was one of my first. I turned up at the school having verbally agreed to ‘visit a few classes’ over the course of the day, only to be given a schedule that had me spend half an hour with each of EIGHT classes of all key stages, with no time allowed to dash between them. When I finally reached the end of the day, a complete wreck, I was handed paintbrushes and some pots of unsuitable emulsion and asked to paint part of the school mural! I was young and stupid enough to say yes. I didn’t get home till after dark, having been kicked out by the school caretaker. Moral of the story: agree in advance, in detail, what you will and will NOT be prepared to do.

 ·Oh my word! Wise advice for all of us doing school visits! In the last few years you have been concentrating more on books for older children, kicking off with Dan and the Dead in 2012. Dan can see ghosts and speak to them, and in this very witty and entertaining story he helps ghosts sort out their problems. I am greatly drawn to your work because we share a fascination for ghosts. So what fascinates you about ghosts?

 I’ve never been attracted to the scary side of ghosts, partly because as a small child I got a bit freaked out by the idea of them. It was only later that I realised the link between ghosts and time travel – that ghosts were a possible point of contact between the present and the past. I’ve come to find that idea deeply fascinating. After all, if Hampton Court Palace really is haunted by Catherine Howard, being freaked out by her seems a terrible waste of a perfectly good spook to me. I’d rather hear what she has to say. Or scream… 

 ·I love that, and share that thought, imagine what you could ask her! I’d be too busy taking notes to be scared (unless it was particularly gory, or was trying to kill me – I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes down to it)
Your book for older readers – Haunters – is a thrilling adventure with wonderfully original concepts like dream-terrorism and the ability to time travel through dreams, more ghost-like episodes…. How different was it writing something so much darker? Is there another Haunters in the pipeline?

 Dan and the Dead was written using conventional ghost story material left over from writing early drafts of Haunters, which is in many ways an inverted ghost story. I found Haunters very difficult to write, not least because I wrote the first draft without doing any plotting at all! You don’t panster your way through a story that involves two changing interconnected time-lines, you just don’t. It took me years to straighten that tangle out and turn Haunters into the fast-paced thriller it is today. I’m very proud of the book now, but it nearly blew a fuse somewhere in my brain. I learnt a hell of a lot in the process though. As for a sequel, I have plotted out a second book called ‘Dreamers’, but I had another unrelated story by then, one that was calling much more loudly. I’ve written that now, but I don’t want to talk about it until I hear back from my editor. All I’ll say is, it has drawings in it. Oh, and only one timeline. 

 ·Speaking of drawings, I’m very excited to see that you are collaborating on a graphic novel project with Marcus Sedgwick. Scarlett Hart looks brilliant, and I’m really enjoying your blog where you share sneak peeks at the work in progress, the sketches so far are fantastic! Are you enjoying the process, and how different is it working on a graphic novel?

 This project is terrifying and exhilarating all at once. In many ways I’m coming home, since graphic story-telling is where I started as a teenager, and the world of comic books has always beckoned. I often think I should have gone into comics after art school instead of illustrating picture books. Either way, it’s taken me along time to find my way back there.

 As for the process, it feels like the classic ‘you write it, I’ll draw it’ relationship on one level, but Marcus and I are very much co-creators of Scarlett Hart. We just have our own domains, that’s all. He often suggests changes to the look of the book, and I feed through to him any narrative ideas I may have. Actually, it’s an especially fruitful relationship because I know about writing process myself, whilst Marcus draws very well, and understands the project visually. Anyway, we haven’t killed each other yet!

 ·OK, I’m afraid we can’t have an interview without asking you about THAT cover (in case you have been living in a cave, Thomas was the illustrator of the iconic first cover for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.) That must have been an exciting time for you, but what are your feelings on it all now the dust has settled?

 Harry Potter has cast a long and sometimes chilly shadow over my career. I try to keep my distance from it now. You can read more about my uneasy relationship with HP on my blog.

 ·Good response, and the post about it on your blog offers up a lot to think about for young illustrators. What advice would you give to young writers/illustrators starting out now? What should they look out for when starting out on this long creative road?

 Both writers and Illustrators need to practice their art all time. Writers should also be reading insatiably, while illustrators should be constantly looking at what’s new in their field. Neither should worry about style (as I did, endlessly). Your own personal style will develop out of practice and will be as unavoidable as growing up.

 ·So true, I think that finding your voice only happens when you stop straining to hear it.
So what next? When can we expect to see Scarlett, and is there more Dan in the pipeline?

 I’ll need most of 2014 to produce the art for Scarlett (gulp!). The publication date is some time off yet (and I’ve been told to keep it secret).

I’m writing the third Dan adventure right now, and will blog about it soon. I’m a bit coy about works in progress, I’m afraid, but I can tell you that in contrast to his subterranean brush with death in the catacombs of Paris (Dan and the Caverns of Bone), Dan will need a good head for heights in Dan and the Shard of Ice.   

 That sounds thrilling, and I’m trying not to speculate (spoilers!) Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed, I’m massively looking forward to Scarlett Hart and will be keeping an eye on your blog for more sneak peeks.

 Thank you, Dawn! And good luck with your own excellent writing and projects.

 Stop press….The new website for Scarlett Hart is under construction and you can follow the whole process for yourself here. It is up and running and added to all the time, so bookmark it for news along the way.

If you are looking for the definitive answer to the question of who is the mysterious wizard on the back cover of Philosopher’s Stone – easy, it’s here! Mystery solved.

 

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Fantasy In Motion interview.

Recently I was interviewed by Fantasy In Motion and thought I’d share it over here too. It’s a great site, go and have a look at his beautiful fantasy maps! He takes commissions too if you are looking for one.

Dawn, welcome to Fantasy In Motion. Thanks for joining us.
Thank you very much for inviting me, I’ve enjoyed reading your blog a great deal and I’m a huge fan of fantasy maps. I have a designer working on a map of Brotherhood locations at the moment so I’m looking forward to sharing that before the end of the year.

Could you start by telling us a little about your novel, Brotherhood of Shades?
Brotherhood is a contemporary ghost story with roots in the sixteenth century. Adam, a streetwise homeless teenager, dies of cold and starvation on the streets of London and after death is recruited into a clandestine organisation called the Brotherhood of Shades. The Brotherhood is an organisation of ghosts set up after the Dissolution of the Monasteries to oversee the passage of the living through the World Between.
The book details Adam’s transition into the Brotherhood, and their battles with demonic forces as they attempt to retrieve a coded manuscript, and protect the world of the living, from the world of the dead.

How did the idea/inspiration for the story come to you?
One of my first jobs was at the education office of a Cathedral and I used to dress as a monk to take children on guided tours. I was aware that young children worked in monasteries and had a brutal and harsh life there, and I felt that it was an untold story. Brotherhood started off as a short story but I liked the central character and knew that he had more to say and it grew from there. I’ve always loved ghost stories and felt that I wanted to bring classic ghost stories to a modern audience.

I was interested to see that you've previously worked in publishing and in libraries. Do you think that working with books has helped you as a writer?
I have always worked with books, but my first job in publishing was hardly what I’d call “in” publishing. I worked in the post room and one of my jobs was sorting the slush pile and making sure the unsolicited manuscripts reached the right desk – or not! Some of the manuscripts were, well, shall we say, odd! I certainly learned how not to submit a manuscript after wading through manuscripts that were sometimes barely legible. I think my favourite was one written on serviettes that had clearly been written whilst very drunk and made no sense whatsoever but became increasingly angry as the pile of tissue went on. The writer ended up ranting about how the publisher would be insane to reject them, but never actually got the point about the subject matter.
I have worked for over twenty five years in libraries and I am the current vice-chair of the London and South East School Libraries Group. I campaign hard for all schools to have a library and a librarian as I see this as essential to the literacy of our children, and our adults. Working in libraries has taught me so very much about books, and I read constantly. I always say to young people that if you want to write, first you must read!

Who would you say are your favourite authors/books?
That’s an impossible question! My favourite author is always the author of the book that I’m currently hooked on. When I find a book that I really enjoy my immediate response is to buy the entire back catalogue and read everything. I have so many favourites so it wouldn’t be fair to pick one out.

What was your first encounter with fantasy fiction? Have you always wanted to write in the genre?
I’ve always loved fantasy. I grew up in a hard-up area and the future did not seem promising for any of us kids. For me fantasy was the perfect escape and it remained that way and so when I came to write myself it was fantasy that drew me. I was never really interested in reading about the real world, and was far more interested in the world out of the corner of your eye.
I read Ray Bradbury, Susan Cooper, Ursula K LeGuin, Alan Garner, Brian Aldiss, Joan Aiken, the list is very long, shelves full of doorways to different worlds. I wanted to be somewhere else, I wanted to be chased across moorland by ancient spirits, battling my way out of dark houses in whirling snowstorms, fleeing scarlet-eyed wolves across wild moorland, conjuring spells to hold back demons, escaping dark forces hell bent on destroying me… basically anywhere other than a tatty and cold school heading for a job in a factory.
When I came to write myself it was not as if I had a choice. I think that all writers need to find their voice and the story will roll out. I didn’t really choose my genre, it chose me.

What was your route towards publishing your first novel like? Any advice you would give to any of our readers who are looking to publish their first book?
Oh dear, my route was very long and complicated! This book was almost published a number of years ago and then the imprint went under and I was left without a publisher. I was lucky in that I did have an agent and he supported me and encouraged me to keep going. My book still didn’t sell (the public seemed to have moved on to an obsessive desire for sparkly vampires and ghosts were not deemed fashionable) and so I focussed on my other work in school libraries.
Writing is a very isolating business and a friend encouraged me to upload my work to the writer’s site – authonomy. I wanted some feedback and it was nice to have the opinion of other writers. My book was very quickly spotted on there by the man who almost took it to print the previous time! He remembered Brotherhood and recommended it to the rest of the team and they enjoyed it so much that they took it to print. These days it’s not about pleasing one person of course, your work has to be enjoyed by a team of people including the marketing team.

My advice would be to be prepared and get some professional editing if you can afford it. I’d buy the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook and try to get an agent first. There are a few writer’s conferences throughout the year where you can meet agents and publishers and those are a sensible investment. Work on your pitch though! If you can nail your plot down to a sharp thirty second pitch, and then hand over a card with your details on, that can do it. I know a good number of people who have secured agents on a “could I ask for thirty seconds to pitch my work to you?” Agents are used to this approach, and a good one won’t mind. If they do mind and react badly, you wouldn’t want to be stuck with them anyway!

Where do you stand in the print vs. e-book debate? Do you think paper novels have had their day or is there room for both formats?
Video did not kill the radio star! I think there is more than enough room for both formats, and we need both. I love my e-reader as I travel a lot and can’t possibly carry hundreds of books around with me in any other format, but I also love print books. A recent survey suggested that people often read the book first on e-reader, and then buy the print copy to keep if they enjoy it – I know I’ve done this! There will always be books that simply do not work in e format, academic and study books for example. Students need to be able to annotate several texts and compare them all at once using several indices, that’s just not possible in e-book form. You simply can’t lay six kindles out in front of you and jot down notes on the pages!
I think that print publishers need to start to be more creative and to offer more for the print version to encourage people to buy it. Maps work so well in printed books, and extra material only available in the print version, or beautiful binding and covers, and maybe offering a free e-version if you buy the print version?
There is a good reason that books will last, they are the best at doing what they do – carrying words. The main thing is that they do not become unreadable. Twenty years ago I remember working with floppy discs and microfiche but now these formats are virtually unreadable, whilst books hundreds of years older are still perfectly accessible.
I think there is space in the market for all formats and we need to remember that it’s the story that counts, not the object that carries it.

Do you have any tips for aspiring authors out there?
Don’t give up, and don’t be precious – get advice and share and grow a very thick skin! I know so many people who say they want to write a book and seem to think it is easy, and that’s why people quit. The first time they get a knock-back, or hear something negative, or actually can’t stick at it to get those words on paper, people quit. If you really want to write a book you need to first accept that it is incredibly hard and time consuming work. It is not something to take lightly and dip into now and again, it takes time and dedication to get over a hundred thousand words down! Once you’ve accepted that it is hard work, and that you will have to make sacrifices to achieve it, then you can do it.
Young people ask me all the time how to become a writer and I always say – write down all the things, and then write down some more!

Are you able to share with us what you are working on at the moment?
I am currently working on the sequel to Brotherhood which is set in some stunning locations from nineteenth century Paris, to London and on to a remote Scottish island. The sequel is very Steampunk as I have a bit of an obsession for automata and machines. I’ve had this idea churning away for some time and am hugely enjoying writing my machines, and avoiding all jokes about the ghost in the machine!

Dawn, thank you very much for your time!
Thanks again for inviting me on board, and I very much look forward to reading more!

Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge?

When my book was first picked up from the Harper Collins site authonomy, I unwittingly discovered the world of the Internet troll. It was true that the person who spotted my book had seen it before, but there was never any secret about that. Unfortunately my troll seemed to think they were a latter day Sherlock when they discovered a five year old post about it, and used this to accuse me of all manner of things. I could (partially) understand if they accused me of nepotism – after all if someone didn’t understand the business, and didn’t understand that it takes more than one person to like your work to get published, then it may (at a very cursory glance) have appeared a little odd. But five minutes of thinking about it would have allowed anyone with even basic intelligence to see that it takes a whole lot more than one person supporting your work to get published. It actually has to be good. No publisher worth its salt is going to throw money at a bad book as a favour – it just doesn’t make sense.
That didn’t matter to my troll. I was accused of doing all sorts of things to get my book published, including “whoring” myself out in return for a contract. This was (of course) by someone who had never read my book or anything about it. That one troll lead to a small number of others who seemed to be more along the jealous haters track. By these I was accused of “thick as sh-t high school French” (one of my characters is called D’Scover – he’s not French and there is a reason for his unusual name, but you’d have to read the book to find out) and even accusations of being “totally mentally sick” as I was “glorifying teenage suicide” This baffling accusation apparently came from the name of my character – Edie Freedom. The hater said “come on, e- die freedom, like saying death is freedom?” Actually the character is named after my daughter, and her surname is from the commune on which the character lives. Edie is very much alive and takes great pains throughout the book to remain so!
The point of this is that none of them had actually bothered to read the book. They had bothered to troll around the net, stamping angrily under their shabby bridges and roaring at anyone attempting to quietly pass by, but they couldn’t be bothered to read my story.
I was advised to ignore them, and I did, and they went away, but that’s not always as easy as it sounds. Today a positive online presence is essential to marketing your “brand” (yes, I know, but that’s another issue!) and people hurling crap about can grubby-up your image pretty quickly. We rely on good feedback and good reviews, and trolls drag behind them a bandwagon that is very easy to jump on. All it takes is one to get it started and soon others will follow like flies on a carcass.
Hugely talented writer and illustrator Debi Gliori experienced this in a horrible way, an escalation that almost threatened her career and had misguided people bandwagon jumping with only the flimsiest bits of information.
One thing that always startles me is just how much hate some people allow into their lives. My case was very minor, and I’m thick-skinned, but some of the well reported cases such as the Caroline Criado-Perez case, were truly horrific. How you you laugh off death threats? How you you laugh off threats of such incredible violence and brutality? Surely that’s not possible? I am stunned that people have such hatred in them and are prepared to direct it at real people.
Maybe that’s it, maybe their social disengagement has reached such a profound level of isolation that they can no longer see us as “real” people.
Well, we are. We all are, every single time someone writes something it is from the mind of a real person. Flesh and blood, and with real feelings and real family too. If you choose to voice a strong and balanced negative opinion, then that is your right. If you wish to express your dislike of something then it should express why you feel this, and why you feel the need to tell others. If, however, you feel the need to express the desire to “rape her in the eyes” – it’s genuinely time to seek some form of counselling or intensive anger therapy for your own sake. It’s simply not healthy to allow that level of hatred and anger to dominate your life. How can people live like that?

So get back under your bridge, get some help, live happy, enjoy the world, and let us all trip-trap over to the quieter pastures beyond.

On writing fantasy – interview by Mary Vensel White

This interview first appeared on the website of top US author Mary Vensel White. Find out more about Mary from her website here

This week, a third book was published under HarperCollins’ new Authonomy imprint. I am rarely tempted by the fantasy genre, but this one looks fantastic. It’s called Brotherhood of Shades and the author, Dawn Finch, has agreed to field a few questions from a fantasy novice such as myself. The book is also classified as YA but like much YA, it will appeal to adults as well. Here’s the book’s description:

From the chaos of Dissolution rose a secret order, a Brotherhood formed to protect the world of the living from the world of the dead.

Adam, a streetwise homeless boy in modern London, knows nothing of the fantastic and precarious world that exists just beyond his reality until he dies cold and alone on the streets of London, aged 14. But he is important and the Brotherhood needs him. His recruitment to their Order takes him on an adventure that spans the worlds of both the living and the dead, traversing time itself as he and a living girl (14 year old witch Edie Freedom) battle to solve a prophetic riddle and save the world. This thrilling and macabre fantasy is set in London, from Tudor times through the Great Fire of London and up to today.

And Dawn’s bio from her website:

Dawn grew up on a London overspill council estate and spent much of her time in libraries. Books were important in her family and she used them as a means of escape and became an obsessive reader. The careers officer asked her, aged twelve, what future she would like. Dawn she said that she wanted to work as a writer and a librarian. She was told to “stop pointless dreaming or you’ll only live to regret it.” A typing course was recommended together with a future in a typing pool.

In an academic publishers in central London, while sorting the unsolicited submissions, Dawn learnt something about how not to prepare a manuscript. Later she worked at St Albans Cathedral as a Research Assistant for the Education Office. This essentially involved taking school children for tours of the Abbey whilst dressed as a Benedictine monk. Dawn later began working in public libraries and helped to establish a large library at her daughter’s school…soon the head teacher convinced her to leave public libraries to run the school library. Since 2003 Dawn has been School Librarian for a large and buzzy primary school taking care of 10,000 books and the children who love them. She also works as a library and reader development consultant and is a member of the London and South Eastern committee of the School Libraries Group and the Society of Authors.

Dawn, congratulations on your first published novel! You seem to have worked a variety of jobs, many of them book-related. Have your employment experiences affected your writing? Will writing become your main job now?
Thank you, it’s all very exciting and still doesn’t feel quite real yet! I suppose when you’ve dreamt of something for so long it is a bit hard to take it in when it finally happens. My past jobs have indeed affected my writing a lot, especially my time working at St Albans Cathedral. A good proportion of Brotherhood of Shades is set there during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century, and so I have drawn on my personal experience of the building. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and so have aimed to stay employed in related occupations. One of my first jobs was as an office go-fer in an academic publishers and this taught me a lot about how not to submit a manuscript as I was the one passing them on to readers and editors.

I love working in libraries and have worked in them for almost twenty-four years. Just under a decade ago I moved from public libraries to school and never looked back. I love working with children and it is very rewarding working with an age group that is just finding its feet in the world of books and reading. Spending time with a reluctant or less able reader, and helping them to jump the hurdles to become a happy and enthusiastic reader is the most magical thing.

It would be wonderful to just be a writer and to be able to spend all of my time doing that, but I feel that I would probably miss being around the joyful and enthusiastic kids that I work for.

Who are some of the authors who have influenced you? What are you reading now?

When I was a child I was a huge fan of authors like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken…and I still am! I read a lot of gothic authors like Poe and Stoker and they have influenced me a great deal as I do love a good spooky story. I am a total fraidy-cat with what most people would call “real” horror and I don’t read (or watch) anything along those lines, but I do love a ghost story with plenty of suspense and jumpy moments. As a children’s librarian I tend to primarily read children’s authors as I’m not comfortable recommending books that I have not read… that and they are generally better (no offence!). My current favourites are Marcus Sedgwick, Chris Priestley and Joseph Delaney, and I do enjoy Rick Riordan too for the historical thrill-ride! I read grown-up books in the holidays and was recently bowled over by Alice Hoffman’s Red Garden (I’ve read all of her books and can’t fault her, she’s just amazing) and Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram (which is stunning).

As a writer who deals mostly in “realistic” settings, I’m intrigued with the nuts and bolts of the writing process when you create a completely new world with different rules. What were some of the challenges and benefits of working outside an entirely realistic setting?

Ah, working outside reality, now there’s a question! Well, the main thing is to set rules for your world and keep them. I have a style sheet that tells me exactly what my Shades can and can’t do, and that is my bible. This means that no one suddenly ups and does something that will make the reader say “hold on, in chapter four they couldn’t do that!” The beauty is that they are my rules, I can bend them, never break them, but I did set them in the first place! For example if I have a good reason why my character can’t travel over water, then I’d better not put them on a boat in chapter seven unless I’ve invented a solution in chapter six.
The benefits are that if I want to conjure something dramatic up that is beyond the bounds of reality, I can, however I also work in an historical setting and so I have to weave this into a realistic fantasy world without actually changing history!

Brotherhood of Shades seems to have an historical fiction aspect to it as well. How did you research the book?

I have a great passion for history and have grown up in an area rich with history stemming all the way back to the Roman occupation of Britain. I was taken to castles and ancient sites right from babyhood and it has stuck with me.

My job title at St Albans Cathedral was research assistant and I helped to write and research educational material for children (as well as running workshops dressed as a Benedictine monk!) and so I honed research skills there. It is part of a successful librarian’s job to know how to conduct research and to know how effective research is carried out and to impart that knowledge to others, and so I’ve had a lot of practice.

What do you think attracts readers to fantasy, to other-worldly scenarios, to super-human elements in stories?

I’m not a huge fan of sword and sorcery type fantasy and so that does baffle me a bit (I always forget who everyone is with all the mad names!). Personally I prefer to read and write about the world out of the corner of your eye – the secret world that might exist without us knowing about it.

I think that younger readers are drawn to these stories because they still believe in a world where anything is possible. Even when they feel quite grown-up they still have a glimmering little part of their mind where something magical could happen. I think a lot of us grown-ups have that too.

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a dystopian teen book with a co-author, but I can’t say much about that at the moment as our agent has us under a strict shush-code! I’m also working on the last bit of the sequel to Brotherhood. It is set on a remote Scottish island and has a distinctly Steampunk feel to it. I have always wanted to write something featuring glorious Victorian engineering but with a macabre twist, and so that is at the core of Brotherhood 2.

I’m hoping to be doing a lot of lovely festivals and school visits in the coming year and am currently in the process of confirming the first of those.