Writing is a funny kind of profession. It’s lonely, insecure, there’s no pension, and you never know if the next book will be taken on – but, being so unpredictable, it does produce its golden moments.
It was a real treat, winning the award. I got a certificate, a fountain pen, letters from the child judges. Best of all, I was invited to the presentation ceremony to meet some of the participating children. I heard what they thought about Wolfie, read their reviews, was stunned by their wonderful Wolfie board games and illustrations, signed their books and led a workshop brainstorming magic animal stories. (I’m tempted to steal some of their brilliant ideas!)
|Celebrating the award!|
So, at this point, you’re probably wondering what this all has to do with the title – Emma supports School Library Services because they gave her a nice day out?
No, no, and no. Encouraging authors, nice though it is, is only a side effect of what School Library Services (SLSs) do. First of all, the point of regional book awards, like the Fantastic Book Award (FBA), is not really about the prize. It’s about the process. And that means the children reading, discussing – enjoying – the books. It’s all about bringing books and children together. And that is what every School Libraries Service aims to do.
|My winning book!|
- most primary schools don’t have a librarian
- most primary schools have limited space for a library, and limited stock
- most primary school teachers are not experts in children’s literature, and so primary schools rarely have someone who can choose stock and advise children on which book to read.
I know these things because I regularly visit primary schools, and have encountered many “libraries” that consist of little more than a handful of Roald Dahls and Dick King Smiths. I do meet teachers and teaching assistant who are passionate about children’s books and reading – but it is through their own personal interest. Wide knowledge of children’s books does not seem to be considered a key part of the job or its training. (I don’t blame hard-pressed teachers – I do blame an education system which has given so little priority to encouraging children’s reading.)
It’s the children that suffer. Here are some of the things that I have witnessed first hand, the result of primary schools without librarians:
- a Year 3 child struggling and failing to read an ancient copy of Thackeray’s The Rose and The Ring from the school library. Nobody was aware that this was not in fact a young child’s read.
- a boy giving up on a non-fiction book in disgust because its classifications of dinosaurs was decades out of date.
- a school library that was revamped by parent volunteers, but where there was no library time, and no chance for children to borrow books, because there was no staff member to oversee this.
- a school which was over 60% non-white, but where none of the books on the shelves had characters of the same ethnicity/religion as these pupils.
Here, by contrast, are some of the things I’ve seen with a designated school librarian:
- children’s reading being guided in a good way – e.g. if you like this, then perhaps you’ll like that: if you like The Rainbow Fairies, maybe you’ll like these books by Emily Rodda (also about fairies but more challenging).
- children able to say “I’m interested in Monet/dinosaurs/space/Greek Myths” and immediately being given something age appropriate that reflects their interest.
- regular library times, for quiet reading, but also finding out what library does and how to use it.
- a wide range of stock which does not rely completely on just a few well established authors, and which reflects all ages, abilities and interests.
It’s hard for individual schools to tackle these issues alone. The Society of Authors has been campaigning for every school to have a librarian, a campaign I HUGELY support, but the truth is it’s not going to happen any time soon.
Meanwhile School Library Services (SLSs) provide back up. They are the infrastructure on which individual schools can rely.
What does that mean in practice? Well, the first thing I saw when I visited my local SLS in Leeds was a huge warehouse full of books. There were shelves and shelves in all kinds of categories – and all of these books are available to, and regularly sent out by the box load, to the schools that subscribe to the service.
(A bad back must be an occupational hazard in a SLS!)
A school could phone up and say, “we’re doing a project on transport for Year 4” or “we’re struggling to find books for reluctant readers” or “we need books with Muslim characters” and the SLS would help. SLS staff know the stock. They can advise schools on how to access it, how to create a better school library, and how to create a reading culture in schools. They also organize author visits – so that children can meet authors face to face, and teachers can hear about new books too.
They also organize regional book prizes – like the Fantastic Book Award (FBA). For the schools and children involved, the FBA meant a chance to:
- meet in a weekly group to read and chat about the shortlisted books (chosen to reflect a range of abilities and interests)
- read purely for pleasure and to do other fun things, like post reviews online
- spread the word about the books in school
- let teachers know which new books are out there, and which their pupils enjoy
- engage in activities like drawing the characters in the books, designing board games and eating chocolate muffins at lunch time! All these things help make reading “cool”.
- correspond with authors and meet them in person.
After the event, I was sent feedback from the children. Here’s a couple of quotes:
This morning was brilliant. Especially when we made the story with Emma Barnes, it was fantastic!
I think today was probably the best day in my life because I saw a real life author!
Unfortunately, School Library Services are closing. Schools have to subscribe to their services – if they don’t subscribe, the service closes. Many parents don’t know what an SLS is or does, so won't protest – which must make them a soft target for cuts. In my own area, Bradford SLS closed in 2012, and North Yorkshire SLS is to close next year. Who will step into the gap? Public libraries? They may try (I recently did a wonderful schools’ event organized by Oldham Libraries) but public libraries are also subject to deep cuts.
At a time when the value of reading for pleasure is being recognized and acknowledged – the research evidence for its benefits keeps mounting – it's bitterly ironic that the services needed to support it are being reduced. I just hope that the politicians and public see what's happening before it's too late.
Emma's new series for 8+ Wild Thing about the naughtiest little sister ever (and her bottom-biting ways) is out now from Scholastic. The second in the series, Wild Thing Gets A Dog is out in July.
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman
Wolfie is published by Strident. Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf.
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps
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