Living History

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

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

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

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

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

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

GET REAL!

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

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

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

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Graham Taylor’s stunning grooved ware pots

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

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

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

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

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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)