Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Football, brains and books – the answer to England’s woes

If you’re a football fan like me, especially one who watches international tournaments, you may have noticed this strange phenomenon: when the players are interviewed after an England game the foreign players are usually far more articulate and in some cases speak better English. It’s a touchy subject to write about for various reasons but there has long been an unspoken recognition that many British footballers are, well, let’s say unlikely to pick up a Nobel prize in a second career.

Belgium's Vincent Kompany: incisive, smart, lucid

Right now in England there is considerable despondency and soul-searching over shexit as I call it: the national side’s latest abject performance in a tournament (in this case being knocked out of Euro 2016 by Iceland, the smallest country every to qualify for the finals of a competition) and people are offering all sorts of explanations and possible solutions. I have my own and it’s certainly different…

In the early part of Euro 2016 I was listening to former Germany and Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann being interviewed on BBC 5Live. He was talking about the Germans’ chances of success in the tournament initially (high, as ever) and then was asked about England. At this point I could feel that he was choosing his words very carefully – in excellent English of course – while at the same time wanting to express what all the other European football setups seem to understand but we can’t grasp. To paraphrase:

            “I can’t see England being successful. It’s about tactical intelligence – the players are good footballers but they never do well in competitions because they don’t have the understanding to be able to change a game or adapt to the opposition’s approach to each match.
            “In Germany we have a totally different system when it comes to education of young players. We think learning is important and in our nation every young footballer must go to school and be given a full education because we know the value of learning and how it can help a player in many ways.
“In England the best young players are taken out of the education system and given extra coaching with just a few hours schooling. They are missing out on the important mental development which helps them to think and develop tactical intelligence as players. In Germany young footballers are expected to get a full set of qualifications and pass exams – in the UK it is so different and I think this in many ways explains why you never win anything.”

Boof. Straight-talking, insightful and very interesting. And his theory is borne out by those interviews: the England players muttering and stuttering in front of the cameras (despite their expensive media training) and so often falling back on comically meaningless phrases like ‘to be fair’.

The thing is we don’t seem to care or mind in this country. We smile or giggle maybe and say, “Well, it’s about pride or hunger or courage (sorry, ‘bottle’) – it doesn’t matter if they’re a bit dim.” The few articulate, highly intelligent players that the country has produced in recent decades have also at times found themselves mocked and abused for example for reading The Guardian instead of The Sun, or for having a more informed opinion about politics or gay sportsmen and women. Graeme Le Saux springs to mind. And when we do come across a professional with a degree it’s often commented on like some kind of weird aberration.

So, can this ever change? Should we change the system and make young footballers stay on at school? I think the problem is that most would hate and resent it even if it did happen and they would probably learn next to nothing because of their attitude. They would see famous professionals walking round with their headphones and driving their fast cars and think, ‘I don’t need school’.

But wait, don’t despair, there is an answer. Have you ever noticed that bright people tend to read a lot? Those who are smart, those who do have qualifications are often to be found with a book.

But do footballers read? Not really – like many young people they tend to spend their time staring at screens: phone, console, TV, tablet etc. (It’s amazing how many of them go onto write a book ; ).

Young people who do read often catch the bug early: they are encouraged at home or at school or are taken to the library or given books as gifts or have stories read to them regularly. In the case of boys who are very sporty it’s books about sport – usually non-fiction – which have the greatest appeal. Soccer annuals, biogs of their favourite player or profiles of the team they support can get them reading. Sometimes it’s football fiction – the right author at the right time.

These kids can also be hooked by other types of books: humour, joke books, funny facts, Guinness World Records, miscellanies, ‘How to’ books, TV-tie ins. These are the types of books I write so I know them well. Yet in schools boys are often pushed towards novels which they find dull and unappealing. As an author who specialises in promoting reading for pleasure (especially with reluctant boys) I visit over 50 schools a year and meet thousands of kids who just don’t read but could become readers if they were encouraged by being given the right types of books. As I tell kids I meet: reading makes you clever. Those who get hooked on reading tend to do well at school and go on to academic success.

So, there we are FA, England can win the 2030 World Cup with a group of players who possess tactical intelligence – eleven men found reading on the team bus because someone gave them a brilliant, fun and relevant book when they were a kid.

Friday, 27 May 2016

At the Royal Society

The Royal Society is the world-famous and historical organisation which promotes science in the UK. Its past presidents include such great figures as Wren, Pepys and Isaac Newton.

The society has an excellent book prize to promote science books for children and this year I was invited to be one of the judges to draw up a shortlist of six titles which will then be voted on by panels of kids from 150 schools. Being part of The 2016 Young People's Book Award was a terrific experience and I really enjoyed the whole process.

At the start I was sent two big boxes of 45 science books to read. Wow, there are some wonderful non-fiction authors and illustrators out there! It was tremendously hard trying to pick the best but I found three that I thought were really outstanding.

After that it was down to London to the amazing home of The Royal Society, just off The Mall, where I met the other four judges to select the six books to go onto the 2016 Book Prize shortlist.

There was a lively debate but overall quite a lot of agreement. I was especially pleased to meet fellow judge Zoe Toft who is a book blogger, reviewer and fantastic fan of children's non-fiction. The other judges all had science backgrounds and they were awesome too. He we are relaxing after the big decision:

That's Zoe, second from left next to me

Here are the final six shortlisted books - all excellent - and I'm delighted to say that my three favourites made it onto the list: YAY! I won't say which they are just yet....

The photographer then asked me to be my normal self...

I really enjoyed the day and was delighted to do something to promote #CNFbooks (children's non-fiction). Do try and get hold of the books on the shortlist - they are wowsome.
And as for picking the overall winner (the author/illustrator get £10,000!) - that's up to those kids on the judging panels. They are in for a TREAT.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Another African Adventure

I was very excited to be invited back to The Children's International School in Lagos, Nigeria, this month after spending a few days there in 2015. This time I went with three other authors from the UK including my old friend Adisa the Verbalizer from London (who at six five is one of the few authors around taller than me). The week-long visit included doing all sorts of talks and workshops with children from Y1 to Y9!

The amazing library team at CIS

We were greeted by the amazingly enthusiastic library team at the school led by the inimitable Keji - and we were astonished to see them wearing T-shirts with our pictures on, made specially for the visit.! The school also produced huge banners and loads of great displays - here I am alongside some other writer called Shakespeare...

A lot of the week was spent signing T-shirts, books, and autograph collections - we were all issued with Sharpies and timetables and sent out to work with the children who are mainly Nigerian but include others from several nations (with English spoken everywhere - phew). The 35-degree heat was interrupted by odd bouts of thunder and rain but mostly it was just wonderful to be warm.

One of our jobs was to judge the fancy dress parade (an Elizabethan/Shakespeare theme)

We went on a couple of trips across Lagos and saw some of the city (which is built on a series of coastal islands) including the amazing Makoko shanty town built on stilts in one of the lagoons.

We also had a memorable evening at the Shrine of African music where we met Femi Kuti, Afrobeat musician and son of the legendary outspoken Fela Kuti. It was good to hear songs about human rights and campaigning against corruption.

This was certainly no ordinary school visit! Thanks so much to the team at CIS and to Adisa, Cat and Ifeoma who were such good company during the week and to Authors Aloud who organised everything superbly.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

A Little Tour of Wales

Well World Book Day has come and gone and, as always, the past few weeks have been a hectic rush from school to school doing fun author visits and inspiring children to read. I didn't win the Blue Peter Book Award this time but was very happy to have been shortlisted and, well, two on the spin would have been greedy!

It has been a real treat seeing children's faces this year as they have enjoyed listening to stories, hearing jokes, learning amazing facts and watching their friends have a go at my fun word challenges.

Glendale Infants enjoying a chuckly tale
One of the highlights of the last few weeks was a mini-tour of schools in the Vale of Glamorgan, organised by fab teacher Laura Sheldon of Sully Primary (she's also a writer, I might add. No, I will add!). Sully Y5s voted in last year's Blue Peter Book Awards and so they knew my Silly Book well - it was also rather excellent that Sully is Sili in Welsh!

I also visited the delightful Victoria Primary, Cogan Primary and Ysgol Y Draig (School of the Dragon) where all of the children were marvellously enthusiastic about books and reading for pleasure.

Other recent visits have included Mill Hill, Skipton Academy, Cundall Manor, Overdale Primary, Churchfield Primary, Clifton Green, Gillamoor, Streethouse Primary, Grewelthorpe, Osbaldwick, Hempland, Wheatcroft, St Aloysius, Heather Garth (my Patron of Reading school, yay!), East Ayton, Filey Infants, Lakeside (York) and Fishergate, also in York where I spent a memorable World Book Day. It was great to be in all of these places.

Next it's Elvington, Bolton, Scotland and then Nigeria!

Friday, 8 January 2016

2016: The Year of Children's Non-Fiction?

Well, goodbye 2015, it was nice knowing you. We had some good times together - we laughed, we cried, we ate too much cheese (again...) and we really enjoyed being on Blue Peter.

But now you've gone. You've ceased to be: you're history, an ex-year, and we must look ahead and see what kind of journey round the Sun lies ahead. Will 2016 be kind? Will it rain on our plans or shower us with unexpected gifts?

I know one thing I'd like to see. I'd like to see more people waking up to children's non-fiction. The thing is, that in the world of publishing, everyone says they like non-fiction, everyone will tell you how much they value it, admire it, enjoy reading it and so on. And yet it remains so much the poor relation, fobbed off and told to do the washing up while stories go to the ball.

I've been thinking about this for a while but it was the LISTS that prompted me to pen a ranty post. What lists you say? Oh you know, those lists that people like to bandy about at the end of December:

  • My Favourite Books of the Year
  • Best Children's Reads of 2015
  • Top 10 Titles for 8-12s
  • Essential Reading for Kids
That kind of thing. I often don't look at them because I find them too depressing. Yes, the books on them are good; yes they are well-written; of course they should be recommended and celebrated. But they are always fiction.

Now I'm as big a fiction fan as anybody else. I read a LOT of novels, both adult titles and kids' but if I am compiling a list of books for children I do tend to think about children themselves. Kids come in all shapes, sizes, flavours - and the sad truth is that lots of them don't read. They don't choose to read, anyway. I hear this more and more, especially from teachers but from parents and others too.

Yet, many of us involved in publishing (and I'm guilty of it too) spend so much time celebrating the types of books that are only read by kids who already read for pleasure. I know this is a bit of a generalisation and there are always exceptions but it's one of those ugly truths we prefer not to confront. We all do it: authors, publishers, bloggers, illustrators, agents, reviewers, festival organisers, award givers and more. We love the challenging, sophisticated, deep, issue-raising, unflinching novels in which the UK in particular excels. We have so many superb writers.

A book for a knave?

But what about the kids. What about that boy of 9 I was talking to this week from the Barnsley estate? He had a lovely smile and a dirty white T-shirt. He was pale, keen and probably bookless at home (although you never know). Would those long, challenging novels get him reading? Do fat pages of text appeal to him?

We rightly celebrate these books because their quality is admirable but why don't we celebrate other types of books that are good in other ways? What about books of interesting facts, or books of humorous true stories or collections of wordplay or wacky poetry or quirky miscellanies? These are the types of books that get the Boy from Barnsley smiling, laughing, wanting more, even asking where you can buy these books. 

But how often do we celebrate them? How many times have you seen a children's book award given to a book of funny poems or a miscellany of appealing facts? When do we see these books on lists of recommended titles or round-ups of 'The Best Books for Children?' Sometimes the odd one is tacked on to the end. And to give credit it where it's due, there is increasing recognition of some beautifully presented and illustrated larger-format non-fiction books from publishers like Flying Eye. Lots of people have admired the wonderful Shackleton's Journey. But is anyone shouting up for the best activity books, joke books, biogs, puzzle books?

A few weeks ago I looked at the children's programme of a major UK book festival. It boasted about 15 exciting events with great authors and illustrators. All of them were fiction writers/artists (I include picture books here). Not a solitary non-fiction writer was invited to put on an event for that - really quite considerable - portion of the younger population that prefers facts to stories. No poets either - another poor relation that children love. It's the same elsewhere and it's time for change.

Anyone else with me? I'm not saying less fiction. I'm not saying dumb-down or celebrate the mediocre. I'm not saying aim lower. I'm saying lets give recognition to the best of non fiction books that many children prefer - the books that get them reading and laughing and going to the library. And not the just books that we want them to like.

Could 2016 be the year that popular, funny, interesting kids' non-fiction is allowed to go to the ball?

PS Let's find a new name for it too: 'non-fiction' is such an ugly, un-child-friendly term. And please don't say 'fact' books because not all non-fiction is that. I will award a wonderful prize to the best idea.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Best Book with Facts?

Last week brought some very exciting news: The Silly Book of Weird and Wacky Words has been shortlisted for the 2016 Blue Peter Book Award (Best Book with Facts). It is one of three books in the running for this fantastic non-fiction prize which I won this year with The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff.

Could this be another winner?
The news came right out of the blue and I am thrilled to be going for the 'double'. Could it be another Blue Peter badge (my third!)...? Well, the competition is tough but children are voting for the winner and I know that they'll enjoy TSBOWAWW's blend of jokes, wordplay, lists, amazing words, poems, tongue-twisters and more. The results are announced on World Book Day: March 3rd 2016.

You can read some reviews of the book here. and see some excerpts here.

Books on Tyne

I had a wonderful time at the Books on Tyne Festival in Newcastle. I spent the day at the amazing Lit and Phil Library, the largest private library outside London. The building is wonderful:

The company was wonderful too: I was speaking alongside Anne Fine, David Almond and Robin Stevens, all of whom gave insightful talks. I was grateful too for the festival arranging some photos of me in this beautiful library among the books:

In other news I've finished writing the first draft of Prankenstein on Tour, Book 3 in the series about pranks, comedy, Estonian twins and hairy monsters. It will be unleashed in Spring 2016.

Friday, 30 October 2015

A trip to Russia

I was very excited to be invited to visit the International School Moscow in late October 2015 for a week. I've never been to Russia before and it was a great chance to see a bit of this vast and amazing country as well as to to take part in a long and action packed author visit working with ages 6-13.

I went along with fellow UK children's writer Margaret Bateson-Hill and although we worked at different venues each day it was fun to compare our school experiences at the end of each day and to walk into the city with someone friendly!

ISM is large and a typical international school - full of kids from many backgrounds around the world including many Russian students, of course. They are very bright, responsive and keen to learn as well as enthusiastic readers: a bit of a dream combo for a visiting author... The staff are also fantastic - so much enthusiasm, humour, diversity and talent. Again, it was great to see people from many countries working together.

One of ISM's many buildings across Moscow

The school is unusual being across three sites in different parts of the city and Moscow is one of the largest cities on earth so there was quite a bit of travelling by taxi involved (an hour a journey each way most days) and every trip was a mini-adventure. For a start the city is dominated by traffic and huge wide highways, some of them 14 lanes in total. Yes, fourteen:

Good luck trying to cross this road on foot...

Very few of the yellow cab drivers speak any English so journeys were on the silent side until we started to get near to our destination each time when the drivers would start firing questions about the exact location of the school. My Russian is limited to about 5 words but it was evident that none of them knew where to find the destination. Lots of stopping and asking and getting lost was involved - quite comical at times, especially when one taxi owner stopped for a pee behind a road sign!

But there was lots to look at - it's a city of 10,000 tower blocks, wide roads and polite people. There are Red Squares, blue skies and black cars. Oh they love their big Mercedes alright, as long as they are black and huge and intimidating. The other thing I noticed when in the taxis was that it appears to be an offence not to use a mobile phone when driving..

The city is vast and many parts do represent the grey-grim spawn of mankind's love affair with concrete but amongst the  tarmac, cold steel and cracked verges are magnificent feats of engineering, stylish buildings and startling expositions of technology.

The twisted skyscaper was among my favourite buildings

One of Stalin's impressive 'Seven Sisters' from the 1950s

There are more golden domes around than expected: the lovely Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
 Margaret and I made sure we got to Red Square one evening and stood for the obligatory tourist pose in front of the fairytale St Basil's Cathedral, although I did spice this one up with a KGB hat purchased at the excellent Soviet goodie shop down the Arbat. The Kremlin was lit up and all the more imposing, but the giant square itself is wonderfully attractive. There's a real feeling of East-meets-West here. The night was also enlivened when a couple of vodka-happy Chechnyans insisted on borrowing the hat for their own selfies but couldn't quite manage the phone coordination.

The truly wonderful St Basil's

 Of course, no trip like this is without hitches and there were delayed flights, long waits at passport control (a Russian Visa is not something you can buy in Tescos...) and the struggles of lugging round brick-heavy suitcases of books because shipping them there is a nightmare. Some kids missed out on a signed book at the school because I couldn't take enough but we're still working on sorting that one out.

Then, finally there was the Russian guy in the hotel in the room next to mine who got locked out in his undies when placing his finished room service tray in the corridor. There was a very humorous few minutes where he knocked on my door and with frantic sign language tried to explain his predicament and pointed into my room, clearly anxious to borrow the phone and call for rescue. Alas his glasses were also locked in his room. What a lark.