Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Why I grew up hating Books! And why librarians matter!

I felt very honoured to be invited to speak at the Federation of Children's Book Groups conference in Bury St Edmunds. For those of you who don't know, the FCBG is a federation made up of librarians, parents, teachers, book bloggers, booksellers and anyone else with a passion for children's books and a desire to encourage young people to pick up books and develop a life-long love of reading.

So I agreed and then sat drumming my fingers wondering what on earth I could talk about to a group of people who have probably read enough children's books to reach the moon and back three times.

It was Michael Gove's announcement of proposed changes to the national curriculum, which made me reflect upon my own childhood relationship with books. The Education Secretary thinks it would be a good idea to drop environmental studies in primary schools to give way for rote learning maths and English. After all, with more of us living in towns and cities, maybe environmental studies are not relevant to our children? And why not push children as young as four and five to learn spellings and phonics. And why stop there?  Why not start at three, or two, or one? Why not start before a child is born? Maybe Mr Gove would propose ultrasonic phonics for the womb!

Well, there are many reasons why not to all those things.

I think rote learning and setting reading targets sets many children up for failure.

It put me off.

I grew up hating books.

When I went to school, I didn't find reading easy. Words were spoon fed like cod-liver oil. I was told they were good for me, but I didn’t like them at all. I wanted to spit them back out. The school followed a reading scheme whereby children had to progress through a series of books. Once you reached the end of the scheme you were rewarded with a copy of the book, The Little Wooden Horse. It was presented as an award of achievement during school assemblies. I was one of the many children who never reached the end of the scheme. I didn’t qualify. I wasn’t good enough. I saw other children with their noses in books, and I knew there was some kind of magic within the pages. But when I tried to read, the books were just full of dry words and letters. I couldn’t find the magic at all.

So I turned my back on books. If I wasn’t good enough for them, they weren't good enough for me. I would have given up on books altogether, if it hadn’t been for one person…the school librarian. I didn’t have to pass any tests to take books from her library. I could explore books in my own time. She helped me to find the magic within the book.

You may have noticed the shameless plug for my next book, Moon Bear. The bear in the animation is an Asiatic Black Bear, more commonly known as a Moon Bear, distinctive by the crescent shaped strip of white fur on its chest.

In fact the story carries the theme of the conference; The Power of the Page.
Words, whether written or spoken have great power. They have the power to make great changes. They have the power to change hearts and minds. One voice alone can make a difference. One voice becomes two, two voices become four and the words spread outwards like a huge wave, gathering momentum, gathering power.

This is especially true of the environmental issues surrounding the books I have written.

White Dolphin is a story about the conservation of the oceans. Some of you may have followed Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight, campaigning to reduce discards and develop Marine Protected Zones around the UK. Many people have signed the petition that has helped to initiate changes in the Common Fisheries Policy. 

Sky Hawk follows the journey of the osprey across its route of migration. The survival of the osprey depends not only upon its safety both in Scotland and Africa, but also along the corridor of its migration. The Rutland Osprey Project has linked with schools in Gambia and Spain to increase shared knowledge of the osprey between children in these countries. 

Moon Bear was inspired by the work carried out by the charity Animals Asia. Jill Robinson founded Animals Asia to stop bear bile farming, create sanctuaries for rescued bears and reduce the demand for bile. Through awareness campaigns, education and celebrity endorsement, people in countries around the world have been demanding an end to bear bile farming.

Learning about the environment is fundamental for developing respect and responsibility for our natural world. Stories need to be shared for us to develop understanding, knowledge and empathy. We want children to be able to question the world around them and expand their horizons of learning and not narrow them by overzealous rote learning.  Our natural world provides us with the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. It gives us the resources for our material wealth and the inspiration for our spiritual health. 

To create readers, we should not spoon-feed words to children, but we must tell them great stories, show them other worlds and other landscapes, take them on adventures beyond their wildest dreams. Only then, by inspiring them with great stories will we inspire them to read. 


Zoe said...

Gill, your video at conference was one of my absolute highlights (and that's saying something as there were so many great speakers). But your video moved me to tears in the best possible way. Thank you so much for sharing it!

Fiona Trott said...

Gill, I have to agree with Zoe, that your talk, animation and video was one of the highlights of an amazing weekend! It was my first conference, but thanks to you and the other amazing authors, I am sure it wont be the last. Thank you for writing such fabulous books. I hope Moon Bear is equally successful.

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