Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Julia Donaldson stirs things up

From yesterday's Herald: Children's author Julia Donaldson has blamed bureaucratic jargon in Scotland's new school curriculum for making teaching difficult.

What Julia is complaining about is an aspect of Curriculum for Excellence whereby teachers allegedly can't state what a child has achieved, but are expected to link it to the four underlying principles: that pupils be successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. She also goes on to criticise the pendulum in methods for teaching reading which swings to and from phonics, whereas she is more in favour of blended techniques and, in this context, mentions a new series of plays she has launched to encourage group reading. As a non-teacher, I wouldn't dream of entering either of these arguments, but it reminded me of an article that I read before Christmas and had forgotten to write about.

Glasgow's Westender Magazine (scroll to the December / January edition) also interviewed Julia and she spoke to them about her plays too (Bug Club Plays To Read, a series of 36 published by Pearson - a few are shown below). As she said to the Herald "Reading a play is a way of involving everyone and it is brilliant because it means the children can all take part and can have roles which reflect their reading abilities." It can also help reluctant readers by making reading more fun and improve shyer children's self-confidence. Her new website, Picture Book Plays, has been set up to help teachers dramatise stories themselves. So Julia might be stirring things up, but it sounds as though it could be to good effect!

Monday, 21 January 2013

Support Seven Stories

Seven Stories is an amazing place for anyone interested in children's books and I've written about it several times before, most recently a couple of months ago when it was awarded the right to call itself "National". It's based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a city which has become notorious for its proposals to withdraw all the funding it gives to cultural organisations. You can find details on the Seven Stories site about how this will affect the Centre along with an email address and a suggested text for responding to the Council's consultation exercise - this ends on 1st February, so there's not much time left. Newcastle is also proposing to close several of its branch libraries, including the one I used when I was growing up, so I've written today about both things. If you are interested, you can read my letter with my reasons for protesting over on my library blog.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Anne Shirley: my continuing obsession

Since I first read Anne of Green Gables I have wanted to visit Prince Edward Island, home of both L M Montgomery and her much-loved characters. Last summer, I wrote here about achieving that ambition. I said then that I wanted to re-read all the books in the series - and now I have! There are 8 books directly about Anne and her family, plus two Chronicles which are essentially short stories about other people in which Anne occasionally appears. In order, they are:

Anne of Green Gables
Anne of Avonlea
Chronicles of Avonlea
Anne of the Island
Further Chronicles of Avonlea
Anne of Windy Willows (sometimes called Windy Poplars)
Anne's House of Dreams
Anne of Ingleside
Rainbow Valley
Rilla of Ingleside 

Some I borrowed from the library, most were available as free ebooks and a few I had to pay a small amount to download. So what did I think? I was a little disappointed. I love Anne of Green Gables. It's a strong story, the three main characters are believable and lovable and the relationships between them beautifully drawn. If you're reading this, you probably know the story already, so I won't go over it here, but I will say the other books can't match it. Anne grows up, goes to college, becomes a teacher, marries Gilbert Blythe, her sort-of-childhood-sweetheart, and has a large family. It's all a bit ordinary. After Anne's House of Dreams, the books are really about her children anyway, and Anne retreats into the background as an idealised mother figure.

This is not to say I didn't enjoy the books - I did, but there was an element of perseverance to reading them, each one striking me as dull to start with so that I had to struggle to get into them. I could always have told you the plot of Green Gables, but the sequels had left very little impression. Some examples: I had totally forgotten how pious the language was - perhaps, as a daughter of the manse myself, this hadn't struck me quite so forcibly as a child as it does now. However, as the manse I grew up in was Methodist, I'm amazed I didn't remember the strong anti-Methodist prejudice of Miss Cornelia who appears in the later books. I was fairly sure during Anne's first pregnancy that it ended badly, and the sadness of little Joyce's death confirmed this. In the same book, House of Dreams, there was a sub-plot which I vaguely remembered about a young woman whose husband had come home from sea brain-damaged, but I wasn't at all prepared for the dramatic denouement. The things I did remember vividly were often small ones such as the phrase "crossing the bar" for the death of an old sea-captain and Anne's preference for the word "dusk" rather than "twilight"', which I didn't agree with at the time but do now.

I though the best sequel was the last one. In Rilla of Ingleside, which concentrates on Anne's youngest daughter, we again have a single protagonist with real personality. Rilla is also more dramatic because it's set against the background of World War 1 with unbearable tension as all the young men volunteer to fight for the mother-country. I just knew they couldn't all come back, but didn't know which one/s would be lost. Another strong point of the book is that Susan - housekeeper for most of Anne's marriage - comes into her own. Always a faintly comic figure, she adds to this both fierce patriotism and an unsuspected talent as a military tactician. If only the generals could have listened to her!

I'm glad I undertook this project, but feel I've exhausted the obsession for the meantime and Anne can go back on her shelf until I need her again. However, it has started me thinking about other places I have visited because of a character in a book. My first trip to the US included a visit to Provincetown, original home of Dicey Tillerman, another spirited heroine from a series by Cynthia Voigt. I have the first book (Homecoming) on my shelves and might just start there!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Patrons of Reading

If you are a School Librarian or teacher, you might be interested in the Patrons of Reading scheme which aims to match up authors and schools to work with each other and promote reading for pleasure. The first partnership started in Wales between Helen Pielichaty and Ysgol Esgob Morgan and the first Scottish Patron was Nicola Morgan who is now working with Larbert High School. There's a list of authors still available, including two in Scotland: Joan Lennon, based in Fife, and Lynne Rickards of Glasgow.

While we're on the subject of promoting reading, there are more ideas from the winners of the Siobhan O'Dowd Trust's competition last year to promote the joy of reading. As with the Patrons of Reading scheme, both primary and secondary age-groups are covered.

So, short and to the point - this is the first post of 2013. I'll try to write more next time and in the meantime, as the graphic says, Happy New Year!