Posted in Competition, general and welcome, literacy

Pottertastic – celebrating 20 years of Harry Potter!

Every year at St Michael’s Primary School in Oxford, where I am the Librarian, we run a fun summer challenge based on books and reading. In previous years, we’ve had Cakespeare (make/decorate a cake based on something from Shakespeare), Supertato veggie/fruit villains and heroes, and the Strangest Place to Read.

Since this year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we decided to base our competition on J.K. Rowling’s publishing phenomenon. I called it ‘Pottertastic’ and the challenge was for pupils in Key Stage 1 to colour in a picture from either Harry Potter or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Children in Key Stage 2 were encouraged to create a new character, object (eg wand, horcrux), Petronus, shop, etc, that could fit in nicely with the books.

With two weeks to do their best, the children set about their work, while my daughter Holly helped me design the background for the display, together with the help of Bloomsbury Kids UK, who sent me some decorations.

The display awaiting the children’s artwork

When the deadline arrived, I was amazed by the results. Two classes – Reception and Year 1, had embraced the competition and decided to use it as a prompt for their Big Write or class artwork. Therefore, I had pictures of Fantastic Beasts from every one of the children in both classes, with the children in Year 1 also writing amazing descriptions of what their beasts were and what they could do.

nagini.jpg   Gwen.jpgdishor.jpg   dave the monster.jpg

Some of the writing was very impressive indeed, and we gave special writing awards to two children for their efforts. See, for example, Lucy (below) who wrote about her beast, Diamond, of whom she is very fond:


Three children in the school created models of their entries.

sapphire bird.jpg
Sapphire Bird (this has feathers on the underside – hopefully I will be able to hang it up!)
Voldemort’s Spirit (another horcrux) lies inside this green tub and flashes! Under no circumstances must you open it. This handy map also gives you further information.
This is a fish but with a  human head. It can move on both land and water!

Interestingly, the children in Key Stage 2 based their creations on potential family members from the past and future. We have:

  • Valdi – Voldemort’s son who is 12 and really wants to be good but his father won’t allow it
  • Harry’s twin sister, Ellie – who was trapped in a crystal
  • Emily Potter – Harry’s long-lost sister!
  • Emma Upton – who escaped from Voldemort’s attack, although she has the same scar as her brother
  • Dobby’s family – both his mum and dad seem to love socks!

As you can imagine, judging the competition was extremely hard. Holly and Carl (my husband) went through all 75 entries and narrowed them down to 17 (I didn’t get involved to ensure neutrality!).

On Monday of this week, a good friend of mine, children’s/YA author Angela Kecojevic, came into school to help announce the winners. She treated the children to some slimy character creations based on her Hobbledown books and theme park and they all squealed with delight at her descriptions of her characters, especially when fellow pupils had to act them out in front of the assembly.

It always delights and inspires me when the children, families and staff enter into the spirit of these competitions, and we are incredibly fortunate to be supported in the activities we run to promote reading for enjoyment. Our library is an amazing resource but it wouldn’t be the place it is without the support, love and enthusiasm of everyone who uses it. Pottertastic was a huge success and it’s all down to everyone who supported it!

I’d like to thank Bloomsbury Kids UK for their generosity in sending us bunting, posters, bookmarks and other items to help with our display. I’d also like to thank Carl and Holly for their time in helping me with the competition – especially Holly, who designed the display board! And finally, a huge thank you to everyone in Year 1 and Reception for devoting so much time to supporting this competition.





Posted in literacy

Is IT the new ‘it’ for reluctant readers?

Tick, tock, tick, tock… It’s the 21st of December and tonight’s topic is about screen reading.

A short article in the Guardian online by Anna Baddeley featured E-books and their potential to encourage boys, in particular, to read. This is one of the aims of the new and huge ‘Read On. Get On’ campaign, backed by such charities as Save the Children and The National Literacy Trust to address the alarming statistic that 40% of the poorest children in the UK leave school without the vital literacy skills they need to live a successful and healthy life – something that everyone deserves, surely?

Boys have always been the bane of reading activists. Statistically they are less inclined to read, preferring more active pastimes to the sedentary and often solitary habit of reading a book. However, recent research published by the National Literacy Trust and Pearson publishers points to the possibility that E-books hold the key to engaging or re-engaging reluctant male readers, especially those who belong to low-income families. The attraction, it appears, is the more engaging nature of E-books, particularly in the three- to five-year-old age group.

Unfortunately Ms Baddeley did not expand on the reasons why this might be so, so it’s something I want to look into in further detail. I was surprised to read these stats as, in my experience, children who are so young tend to respond very well to actual books – it’s when they get older that they are more drawn to technology. Certainly in recent months in a primary school library, I have seen four- and five-year-old boys eagerly listen to a story (often more quietly and attentively than the girls) and when it’s their turn to choose a book to take home, they all do so with little help or encouragement. The older boys show a little more reluctance, although generally most of our children enjoy reading something, be it comics, Beast Quest or non-fiction.

Perhaps children are becoming more drawn to technology because it is becoming such an integral part of their lives. I am constantly astounded at the skill shown by some children in operating tablets, iPads, mobile phones and other gadgets, while I fumble around uselessly. Perhaps technology is more interesting for reluctant readers because they feel they are doing something more practical. A tablet can be interactive too in a way that a book is not… although I would argue that books are interactive with the imagination, which takes a little more effort and work to engage.

Having originally disliked the idea of E-books (I like actually holding a book and flicking through the pages), I must say I like my Kindle app on my iPad. It’s particularly useful at night as I can read without disturbing my husband by keeping the lights on, and it saves bulk, weight and space when travelling. However, picture books tend not to reproduce so well on a tablet, unless they have been specifically designed for that purpose, and formatting can often be an issue.

Holly now wants a Kindle and, since she has been going through a reading ‘lull’ at the moment, we are hoping this might help re-engage her. I will be sure to report back on this if and when she gets one.

If E-books are the answer to motivating children to read, then this surely must be a good thing. However, I would urge adults not to turn their backs on physical books. In my experience, often what puts children off reading is more than just preference for technology. It’s lack of experience with books at home, it’s lack of confidence in reading generally, and more often than not, it’s not having found the book that sparks their imagination and compels them to read further. I firmly believe that once children have found what fascinates them, they will read. One boy I worked with couldn’t put down a collection of poetry by Ogden Nash. Two dyslexic boys I used to work with adored The Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business. A young Holly, aged six, hated reading on her own until she discovered Enid Blyton, having previously been drip-fed Biff and Chip at school. Everyone has a book with their name on it… they just need some help sometimes finding it.


Posted in general and welcome, literacy

Recommending books, by Holly

I have a friend who doesn’t really like reading and I managed to find a book  she really likes. If you want to recommend a book to someone who doesn’t really like reading this what you have to do.

  • ask them what kind of movies they like
  • then find a book that is like what they said they like in a movie
  • show them a selection of books
  • let them choose one
  • then lend them the book and see if they like it

So now you know how to recommend a book.

Image courtesy of

Posted in general and welcome, literacy

The Rights of the Reader, and why I’m a fan of Daniel Pennac

For a long time I’ve been wanting to write this post about one of my favourite all-time books that can be enjoyed both by adults and children: The Rights of the Reader, written by Daniel Pennac.

Image courtesy of

You can see from the image above that it has been illustrated by the wonderful Quentin Blake, and is translated from the French by Sarah Adams. She’s done a fantastic job. I translate occasionally and know how hard it is to produce something that flows fluently, not just linguistically but also personally – by that I mean the voice of the author comes out vividly and fluently. Often translations are riddled with bizarre English that just doesn’t capture the spirit of a piece well but Sarah pulls it off here. And for this book it is so important that Mr Pennac’s message comes across loud, clear and effectively.

Who is Daniel Pennac?

I wonder if you’ve heard of Daniel Pennac? If so, you might be as big a fan as I am. If not, let me give you a very brief summary.

Pennac is a much praised educationalist and writer in his native France, where he has written more than 30 books for adults and children and has also penned quite a few academic essays. His work has earned him major prizes and he’s widely translated – into 30 languages, no less. So you’d be forgiven for doubting my next revelation: that as a child he struggled academically, and that it took him an entire year to learn the letter ‘A’ at school. His teachers had given up on him, and declared he was just stupid. In a fascinating interview in the Independent, he reveals he spent his schooldays in shame and ‘fear of the question I was going to be asked, that I wouldn’t be able to answer.’

Pennac just didn’t get schooling at first. He struggled to the point that people wrote him off as a dunce, as a hopeless case… until he discovered the joy of reading, which lifted him out of the educational quagmire and into a wonderful world of escape. He attributes authors such as Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and Alexander Dumas with luring him into the world of reading and keeping him hooked enough to want to know more.


It was his very demoralizing experience at school that inspired Pennac to train to become a teacher himself, and to help countless other children who just didn’t get academia in the same way as he didn’t. As he says in the Independent’s feature: ‘The teacher’s job… is to take up these stunned creatures, to locate some spark of life and nurse them out of their educational comas; to find some kind of access-point to each student.’

It is this way of thinking that sparked Pennac’s much-praised book The Rights of the Reader. Rather than taking an officious approach to reading, saying that children must read X amount of minutes or hours a day to develop their literacy skills, he argues for a child’s right not to read. He has ten main ‘rules’ that would attract any reluctant reader to pick up this very book and start thumbing through the pages. You can read them on this lovely PDF  (or you can see it below) which has been illustrated by Quentin Blake. Perhaps put them up at home and see what your child thinks of:

  1. The right not to read.
  2. The right to skip.
  3. The right not to finish a book.
  4. The right to read it again.
  5. The right to read anything.
  6. The right to mistake a book for real life.
  7. The right to read anywhere.
  8. The right to dip in.
  9. The right to read out loud.
  10. The right to be quiet.

And there is a warning at the end to not make fun of people who cannot read… or they never will.

Kids love it

When I was working with children with literacy problems, I told them all about this book. Their eyes nearly popped out their heads. Not read something all the way through? Skip pages? Not finish a book? These children had been forced to read dull Biff and Chip books in a desperate attempt to boost their reading age but all this had done was make their loathing of the written word even worse. Not only were they visibly behind their peers, they also were being fed garbage that was of no interest to them whatsoever.

What would tickle their fancy? I tried poetry with one child (who loved Ogden Nash and wouldn’t put the book down at the end of the session). I tried song lyrics with a fan of One Direction, and let her follow to the music. With two dyslexic boys, I used a picture book The Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business, which went down a storm and immediately became their favourite book. This was thanks to the writings of Daniel Pennac who says:

‘He won’t learn English the usual way? You try nursery rhymes, or nonsense verse, quotes from Woody Allen or Churchill, or get him acting out scenes in a play or singing Beatles songs. The good teacher, faced with a “dunce” – a pupil failing to engage with learning, a stunned sparrow – has a passion for finding these points of access, will try as many as it takes. Also, good teachers go to bed early.’

I fail on this last point.

Please do read The Rights of the Reader and, if your children show an interest, give them a copy too. It’s not a beefy piece of academia. It’s a short text, with short chapters and very funny writing. And let me know if you too become a fan of Monsieur Pennac. I think there are many of us out there.

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Posted in general and welcome, literacy, parents' and adults' corner

It’s a boy thing…

News is out today that boys are still lagging behind girls in reading. While this may seem like old news, perhaps newer to us is the recognition that there is no official strategy to deal with it.

To be honest, we probably all knew this anyway. Schools put a lot of effort into trying to encourage boys to read but, for myriad reasons, some are not engaging. Sensibly, the report, compiled by the National Literacy Trust for the Boys’ Reading Commission, states that there is no clear way of tackling this educational issue, instead suggesting that effort must take place both inside and outside school.

Why boys may not read as much as girls (or at least succeed in it)

Some of the reasons the report cited included:

  • Lack of suitable material – some boys do want to read but just don’t have enough books to choose from of interest to them.
  • Lack of awareness about what boys like reading – this ties in with the point above: teachers and other staff often might not be aware of what it is that could motivate disengaged male readers. One of the reasons for this is because primary school staff are predominantly female.
  • Lack of male role models. Boys often see reading as something ‘nerdy’ to do, or something that only girls really participate in. A good, popular, male role model from the celeb world could help drive things forward. Equally, it tends to be mothers who read at home, rather than fathers. If dads could get involved more, it might help show their sons that reading matters.

What boys apparently like reading

When I read with my boys from school, there is huge agreement on what is cool for them to be seen with. There are two clear winners:

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney

  • Mr Gum, by Andy Stanton

They love the craziness of it all, the evilness of Mr Gum and the wimpiness (is that a word?) of the Wimpy Kid. These are quite interesting opposites, actually: evil versus powerlessness. Is it that they kind of admire one and empathise with the other?

One boy I introduced Mr Gum to hooted with laughter because of the writing style, particularly the heroine Polly, who uses double negatives and all sorts of grammatically incorrect language. ‘But the author is writing stuff that is wrong!’ he exclaimed to me, eyes shining happily. ‘That’s because after you’ve learned the rules of grammar and writing, you can break them,’ I explained, hastily adding, ‘When you’ve grown up.’

What about the classics?

I picked up a book in a second-hand shop the other day entitled Classic Boy Stories, chosen by Michael Morpurgo.

What I found interesting was that all of the stories had a male as the central character: Flat Stanley, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Jungle Book, Beowulf, Oliver Twist, Treasure Island, etc. It would seem to be a logical assumption to make that boys will identify best with male characters in stories, as in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid BUT although  Mr Gum is the star of the Mr Gum series (obviously!) his arch-enemy (and the one you root for really) is a girl. Equally, in David Walliams’ popular novel Mr Stink, Chloe is the heroine. Perhaps for boys there has to be an equally strong male counterpart in any story rather than just a girl calling the shots.

Burps, toilets, farts and non-fiction

The other day Holly and I were talking about the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and other, supposedly, boy-oriented books. I said that because we were writing a blog on children’s books we ought to review some that are aimed at the opposite sex.

‘No,’ she flatly refused.

‘Why?’ I asked her.

‘Because they’re always about burps, or toilets, or farts, or wimpy kids,’ she replied, disdainfully. ‘I do NOT want to read about toilets! That’s disgusting!’

Holly’s preference is for strong characters and great adventures and this ties in with the NLT’s report’s findings:

  • Girls are more likely to read adventures, ghost/horror stories, romance and relationships and animal tales.
  • Boys are more likely to read sci/fi, fantasy, sports and war/spy novels.

I was a little surprised that boys aren’t into adventure more and wondered if reading choices had changed. What about the old Biggles books? Treasure Island and Kidnapped? Don’t boys now read their modern equivalents, if not the old classics?

Moving forward

The report makes interesting recommendations on how we can possibly move forward to encourage more boys to engage with reading. Some of these include:

  • Schools need to have a framework that supports them in how to encourage boys to read, rather than feeling their way around in the dark.
  • Every child should be supported in their reading journey – and a crucial part of this is to foster an enjoyment of reading. Currently, while the systemic phonics system helps young children decode words well (boys particularly) it doesn’t help them necessarily understand what they are reading, and if they struggle with that, then it’s no wonder they turn away from books.
  • Every teacher should know what sort of books can help motivate disengaged male readers. And if not, they should have access to a school librarian who could advise. (This latter point is difficult in an age where schools are lucky to have libraries, never mind a dedicated staff member.)
  • More inter-agency work should be done to identify children who are least likely to be read with at home – libraries could work with children’s centres, for example.
  • Social marketing could be used to encourage parents to help with their child’s literacy.
  • Every boy should have a male role model who reads with them weekly.

I think the last point is crucial. Boys are influenced greatly by their peers and look up to older boys so if some sort of book buddy scheme could be implemented, where slightly older boys read with younger ones, real differences might be seen.

However, as Michael Morpurgo is quoted as saying, any of these will not produce overnight successes. It could take a while for boys to start tuning into books again.

Over to you:

Are you the parent of boys? Do they like reading and, if so, what is it that they choose? Do you work with boys who resist reading? I would love to hear your views.