Red Line Book Festival here I come

I’m looking forward to appearing at the Red Line Book Festival next week. Apart from the fact it is being held in one of the greatest cities in the world – Dublin – and hosted by the greatest people in the world – librarians – I get to meet two authors for the first time. I’m appearing on a panel with Ger Siggins and Alan Nolan. We’ll be talking about our sports-themed books; Alan’s focus on hurling and Ger’s on rugby.  You know what mine are all about, right?

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BAME Characters in Children’s Books

My bestselling title ‘Clubbing Together’ reflects the study’s findings on lack of BAME main characters in books

A recent study called ‘Reflecting Realities’ by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) found that of all the children’s books published last year in the UK (9,115), only 4% featured characters from a BAME (Black or minority ethnic) background.

This is a remarkably low figure, given that the report also states that 32% of children of school age are from  ethnic minority backgrounds.

What’s going on?  And why is this a cause for concern? After all, some might argue that the traditional demographic of the UK is white and so it’s only natural that children’s books have mainly white characters written by mainly white authors. They might also argue that stories are ‘colour blind’ and it doesn’t matter what colour or ethnicity the characters are as long as the story is well-written and kids enjoy reading it.

However, if characters from BAME backgrounds are not featured, what message does this send out?  That only white characters are significant?  Let’s hope not.  No surprise then, that many authors and publishers have voiced their dismay at the findings, such as this blog from Tiny Owl which hits the nail on the head here:‘Children see themselves as the images they see in books and on TV. They will get a wrong image of themselves if they are not represented realistically in the books that they read. In their heads, they will find themselves looking differently, or they see themselves labelled as they are in the books. When you realise as a child that you look different to the main characters, you start to feel that something is wrong with you, or that that must be the ideal type and you aren’t the same as them. It can even make them lose confidence.’ 

Nobody wants children to lose confidence – writers, publishers, teachers, parents, librarians – no-one.

 

Audit

The findings led me to ‘audit’ my own writing to analyse how often I have included BAME characters.

I have been a published author for 20 years and of the 34 books I’ve had published (32 fiction, 2 non-fiction) I can report that:

  • 31 contain at least one BAME character (90%)
  • 7 contain BAME main characters.
  • 6 of the 7 are fiction titles: Accidental Friends (YA), Can’t I just Kick It? (Girls FC) Has Anyone Seen Our Striker? (Girls FC) Stinky Street, Blue Bog Baby, We’re the Dream Team, Right? (Girls FC) and the 7th is my black baby version of Baby Football Fan baby record book.

 

Baby Football Fan – My First Year

How much or little my audit represents other white authors who’ve had a similar number of books out I don’t know.

Characters in my Girls FC series embrace diversity. Illustration by Sonia Leong

I don’t think 90% is bad, although it still means that the majority of my books feature white characters as the main protagonists. It still means most of my BAME characters only play ‘walk on’ parts in the story.

I’m not sure what I can do to change that or, indeed, if I should try. When a character comes to me they come ‘ready-made’ – skin tone and all. Most of my characters are white. Some are from different countries such as Poland or Ukraine but they are still white. Is that because I am white? Probably.  Should I start ensuring I have more BAME character as main characters?  I admit I’m conflicted. I feel it would be wrong to include BAME characters artificially as I think that’s patronising and counter-productive BUT because I mainly write contemporary books in familiar settings, I feel the children in the classroom settings I give them should reflect today’s society. That’s a no-brainer.

There’s a school of thought that says white writers shouldn’t include any BAME characters in their books. That white writers can’t understand or share the black experience. I’m not sure about that. Writing is about using our imagination, isn’t it?  For sure, white writers should avoid stereotyping and tropes,  (eg: the black kid always being good at sport/dancing ) and BAME writers should do the same (eg: white kids as the racist/bullies) but writing is about freedom of expression. Let’s not limit anyone’s creativity.

However, I am aware that it’s harder for BAME authors to get published by mainstream publishers, and that might account for the low % of BAME characters in books so I welcome initiatives such as this from Random House. More BAME authors would lead to truly authentic tales of the BAME experience and that needs encouraging.

Who’s Getting it Right?

‘You’re Safe With Me’ picture book

In my opinion? Writers like Malorie Blackman and Catherine Johnson and Narinder Dharmi who feature POC (people of colour) characters in a natural way. In Blackman’s Pig Heart Boy, Cameron needs a heart operation. Should he accept a pig’s heart? That’s the focus. That’s the issue. Cameron is black. That’s not the focus. That’s not the  issue. Tom Palmer’s Football Academy series gets it right, too. The boys in the team all come from different backgrounds. James is black. His story ‘Free Kick’ is about football, not his colour. These writers illustrate that diversity does not come at the expense of good story telling (why would it?). It enhances it.

Many picture books are on the case, too. Nick Sharratt and Pippa Goodhart’s ‘You Choose’ series reflects all children. Read Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pëna. Laugh with 15 things Not to do with a Granny by Margaret McAllister & Holly Sterling and buy the absolutely astoundingly illustrated ‘You’re Safe With Me’ by Chitra Soundar & Poonam Mistry (Lantana Publications). These are just a few examples of books by BAME writers/illustrators or that feature BAME characters as a ‘given’ (as opposed to a racial issues-based story).  For more go to the trailblazing Letterbox Library.

 

 

 

 

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Great School Libraries Campaign

We didn’t have a school library at my junior school. We had teachers who read to us (Stig of the Dump, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe being two books I vividly remember) but  actual books that I could take home to read came from across the road at Garforth Library. We’re not talking about anything grand here – Garforth Library was a long rectangular room within the drab and functional Council Offices; Carnegie- inspired it was not, yet its small children’s section in the corner was enough to keep me going and turn me into a reader for the rest of my life. Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Frances Hodgson Burnett (we’re talking the early 1960s here) kept me riveted throughout my junior school years. When I was 11, we moved away and I lost that special connection with that particular library but I never lost the memory of visiting it, of choosing books by myself and for myself, of discovering new authors and of the sheer joy of handing over my little beige library tickets to the librarian so that she could stamp out my books.

Garforth c 1960

But what if my school hadn’t had a public library across the road? What then? Where would I have found my books ? There was no bookshop in Garforth and even if there had been my parents couldn’t have bought me one a week, let alone the six I was allowed to borrow from the library  – they simply didn’t have the income.  There were no charity shops back then full of second hand books either, and jumble sales were full of real jumble – mainly old bobbly cardigans and bric-a-brac. So I don’t know what I would have done to feed my reading habit. True, there were comics. Comics were cheap and cheerful and we used to have bundles of Victors, Beanos and Dandys passed down to us from our cousins in Leeds. But comics could only take my imagination so far. I preferred the printed page full of text so that I could insert my own images of what the characters looked like and conjure up my own pictures of the landscapes in which the heroes fought dragons and thwarted witches. So, while I’m eternally grateful to my teachers for reading stories to me, and to comics for entertaining me, it was a public library that led me to becoming an independent reader.

Forward fifty years. What’s different now?  Although there’s still no bookshop (it had one for about 20 years until recently but it’s now closed) there’s a new ‘library’ at the bottom of Lidgett Lane not far from the original. Sadly, it’s not called a library but a ‘One Stop Centre’ (Link: Garforth One Stop Centre) which makes it sound more like a bus station than a library but I have been inside and it does still have the look and feel of a library and is still run by the council. I hope it is staffed by librarians rather than being purely volunteer-run but I’d need to check that.

What I presume is that, unlike my junior school,  each of the 5 primary schools in Garforth today has a school library.  I don’t know if they have, though. You’d think I’d be able to put ‘and each school has its own library’ automatically but I can’t.  School libraries are not mandatory in the UK’s state schools. I find that odd.  How can a library not be part of an educational establishment? It’s like having a restaurant without a kitchen or a car without an engine or a football match without a football. Every primary and secondary school should have a proper library, right?  Especially when public libraries are closing on an unprecedented scale.

That’s why I’m totally behind the #GreatSchoolLibraries campaign being promoted by library campaigners such as Dawn Finch . Not only do we need school libraries we need GREAT school libraries. Anyone asking why can download this pdf from the Literacy Trust on how important they are.

To be fair,  most schools do have school libraries but a lot don’t meet my definition of a library. A bookcase in a corner full of dictionaries with one row of tatty paperbacks is not a library. A library area kids can’t access because it’s used for teachers’ meetings/ counselling/ drama rehearsals etc is not a library. A ‘library’ left to its own devices because it doesn’t have a librarian or even a parent volunteer in charge of it, is not a library, it’s a room full of messy books or, as I like to call it, a crime scene. 

 

 

And don’t even get me started on schools that have opted out of their local Schools Library Service because ‘it’s too expensive.’ Is it? Is it really? Aren’t these schools concerned about raising attainment levels at all?  Money is tight, I know, but the main job of a school is to educate. How can you educate without up-to-date books? How can you foster reading for pleasure if the books are so old they’ve got ‘Long Live Queen Victoria’ bookplates inside?  And don’t say ‘Google’ because, for a start, pupils need to search for information without the distraction of 500 pop-ups per page.

The trouble is, once too many schools opt out, the schools library service becomes underused and then dismantled. The newest region to lose this vital resource is Derbyshire. That means goodbye age appropriate topic books for your next project, Derbyshire pupils and students, goodbye experienced librarians helping schools set up an effective lending system with a wide variety of stock, Derbyshire teachers. It also means no more free school events such as visits from amazing authors. Nooooooooooooooooo!

What’s ridiculous is that if this trend continues, children, especially those from low income families like mine, will have less opportunity to read real books than I did half a century ago. That’s plainly wrong.  How can we stop the rot? By getting behind the #GreatSchoolLibraries campaign. By shouting about the good service that still exists up and down the country. By convincing schools that they need a librarian, not a leaflet from companies selling pile-’em-high books at a quid each, to help choose new stock. Let’s make sure this generation – and the next – are given chance to meet books face-to-face and make friends for life.

 

 

 

 

 

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News just in: Top Retailer Stocks Book by Top Author

So there I was looking for a new kettle in Sainsbury’s when guess what? I only spotted ‘Do Goalkeepers Wear Tiaras? on a World Cup book display (I think such displays are called ‘dump bins’ – I don’t know why – it’s not like the books are just dumped there, right?). Anyway, I’m over the moon* Sainsbury’s  included one of my Girls FC titles, thank you, you super little supermarket you. The book’s almost half price, too – £3.49 instead of £5.99. Plus Nectar Points. Bargain. I bought a kettle for half price, too – win-win.

  • Over the moon is football speak for delighted, thrilled, made up, chuffed and cheered.

 

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World Cup 2018

It’s here! The 2018 World Cup! Did you see the Portugal v Spain match? Wasn’t it amazing – a ‘classic clash’ as the Guardian called it.

Tonight England play their first qualifying match against Tunisia. There’s lots of talk about how sad it is there won’t be many England fans in the stadium to cheer the team on. Well, I guess if supporters are repeatedly told to stay away in case they’re targeted by Russian thugs, that’s the result.  It’s much safer (& cheaper) watching at home, although nothing like the experience of being at the real event.  I’m preparing for the match by visiting Y5 Hightown Junior, Infant & Nursery School today to kick off their Sports Week.  Hello Y5!  I trust you’ve got the red carpet Hoovered for me?

Apart from watching the matches on TV there are so many World Cup activities for everyone to participate in. For example, Tom Palmer is doing his World Cup day-by-day story in association with the Literacy Trust called ‘Defenders’. Get downloading – it’s free and a creative way to follow the footy.  Check out your local library or bookshop to see if they’ve got anything lined up, too.

I keep seeing reading lists about football various  publishers and websites have compiled. It’s great many lists, such as this one by TeachWire, include my Girls FC series, too. Thank you!

So, enjoy the football. Enjoy reading about football. And if you don’t like football, there’s so much else out there, such as this Tolkien exhibition in Oxford or the Mischief Makers Summer Reading Challenge.  Now, where’s my rattle…

 

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Record crowd at Women’s FA Cup Final 2018

Here Come the Girls! Gives a brief history of the women’s game age 9+

It was great to see the attendance at the Women’s FA Cup Final on 5th May was a record-breaking 45,423. That’s a massive achievement considering attendance had slumped to 4,988 in 2013.Someone on Twitter sneered that he didn’t see what all the fuss was about – Wembley was still only half full and the FA had sold tickets for only £15 to adults and free to children.So what? Like many who criticize women’s football that isn’t the point. It is vastly unfair to compare the crowds at a men’s final. The women’s game doesn’t have the same strength in numbers in their fan bases and probably never will have. Many of those at Wembley were ‘neutrals’ – there to enjoy the spectacle rather than rooting for either side in particular.

The good news is that since 2013 crowds at the FA Cup Finals have risen – last year was over 30,000 – thanks to better coverage and sponsorship. Many forget that the Women’s Super League only began in 2010 and only has two divisions. In addition, only a few of the top players get paid – most are semi-professional or amateur. And the pay structure is nothing like the men’s. Footballer Neymar gets more in a year than the entire salaries of the France, Germany, US, England, Mexico, Sweden and Australia national women’s teams combined!

What I watched on TV was a match full of excitement against two top women’s teams – Chelsea Ladies and Arsenal. I saw two super goals from Ramona Bachmann for Chelsea Ladies and when Vivienne Miedema scored for Arsenal Women in the 70th minute it was game-on. Fran Kirby’s strike three minutes later ensured Chelsea lifted the cup but it was a great match – the standard of play is rising – there’s no doubt about that – and both clubs were a credit to the game. There was no talk of the Women’s Cup Final ‘losing its magic’ as there is for the men’s game. For many children attending their first event at Wembley the cup match would have been a memorable, inspiring occasion.

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Dear Millicent Fawcett (Suffragist)

Dear Millicent Fawcett,

First of all, huge congratulations on becoming a statue! And in Parliament Square, of all places. How does it feel to be immortalized in bronze? You were on a postage stamp once, too, but a statue – well, that’s a real mark of recognition, isn’t it? It took long enough – I mean, you’ve been dead since 1929 – but better late than never. Kudos to Caroline Criado Perez for campaigning so long to get the statue commissioned and three cheers to sculptor Gillian Wearing for her inspiring design.

I thought you might like to know about my book character, Megan Fawcett, as I named her after you. Megan is strong, brave and determined – just like you. When she couldn’t get into the school football team she set up her own girls’ team.  Although she doesn’t realize it, Megan is a natural leader. She fair-minded, doesn’t judge others and sticks up to what she thinks is right.  She really cares about her teammates. When Holly (Who Ate All the Pies?) is feeling upset because girls on the opposite team have made fun of her size, Megan comforts her and apologises for not being a better captain. When Jenny Jane steals from the women’s changing rooms, Megan tackles her (literally) but comes to see that this angry, sullen little girl hasn’t had the same opportunities she had had and can be helped through sport and friendship. Megan learns the value of patience (Is and Own Goal Bad? & Do Shinpads Come in Pink? ) and how to make difficult decisions (Here We Go). Best of all she stands up for what she believes in and isn’t afraid to tackle sexism head-on, even if that means confronting adults (Do Goalkeepers Wear Tiaras?) – which is pretty brave for a nine-year-old. All in all I think you’d like Megan Fawcett as much as I do.

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Patron of Reading 6 years on

May saw the 6th anniversary of the Patron of Reading initiative.  Of all the reading ventures and ideas around, Patron of Reading has to be one of the easiest, cheapest and most rewarding to initiate. The genius idea of headteacher Tim Redgrave of teaming up a school with its own author has grown and grown. There are now over 200 patrons placed in schools throughout the UK and many more on the waiting list. Yes – waiting list. How can there be such a thing? Any teachers reading this need to snap up the likes of Josh Lacey and Miriam Moss right now.

My time as patron at Ysgol Esgob Morgan Church of Wales School was one of sheer joy. The buzz around books it created and the link it forged with the pupils, staff and local librarians was one I’ll always cherish. Children’s authors aren’t all famous. They can’t all be on the best seller list or have their books made into films. However, every children’s author I know has something special to offer to schools, whether it’s their inside knowledge of how a book is written, their experience of running workshops or that extra spark that can ignite that one child who, so far, has not found reading a pleasure at all. Tim recognised this and that’s why he approached me with the idea first; he’d seen me perform at St Asaph Library and knew I’d be a good ‘fit’ with his school. And guess what – he was right!  I can’t tell you the boost it gave me.

I used to love writing my termly newsletter to each class and reading their comments they left on their bespoke section of my website – these kept the momentum going between visits. I was lucky, too, in that Tim’s staff were such a keen and friendly bunch. The school already had links with the local public library and participated in schemes such as the Summer Reading Challenge and the North Wales Book Quiz. Their library is at the heart of the school, too – a sure sign that books mattered to them. They even extended it in size during my time there.  Best of all the staff were receptive to trying out new ideas and they were avid readers, too. My heart sinks when I hear teachers say they ‘don’t have time’ to read and make it obvious that they haven’t visited a bookshop or library in years.  How can such teachers pass on a love of reading if they don’t have one themselves?  Having said that, the National Curriculum has a lot to answer for in terms of thwarting teachers’ creativity and I applaud the work Professor Teresa Cremin and her team is doing with her Teachers as Readers programme. More of this kind of thing, please!

So huge congratulations to Tim Redgrave for initiating such a great idea, huge congratulations to headteacher Jon Biddle who undertakes  the admin, website and Twitter feed to keep spreading the word and huge congratulations to all teachers, authors, illustrators, poets and playwrights who make it happen. Here’s to the next 6 years and more.

 

 

 

 

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Bookshop signing Saturday May 26th

Bookshops come in many shapes and sizes. Some are vast, ultra modern spaces covering several floors, others are small and quirky with fusty smelling rooms and books piled waist-high in random places. There’s one in Retford, Nottinghamshire, that’s a wee bit different from all the rest. Called the Barrister’s Book Chamber, it is run by Angela Rowntree, a former barrister who simply loves books. The stock is mainly second-hand with a mixture of rare hardbacks and quality fiction, non-fiction and children’s titles, all housed in a quirky old building off Church Gate. Decorated like a cosy Victorian parlour, the original shop is now going to become a small flat rented out to Airbnb customers. The bedroom’s still going to be full of books so you’re guaranteed an interesting stay.

On Saturday May 26th, the bookshop itself moves to new ‘chambers’ nearby and I’m going to be there signing books alongside crime writer Stephen Booth. Come along from 12.00 onwards, say hello and have a browse. If you’ve got time, go round St Swithun’s Church, too. Retford also has another bookshop – Bookworm – on Spa Street and a public library – the Denham Library – tucked away off Church Gate.  I’m visiting Carr Hill Primary on Thursday 24th to tell them all about my books and the signing. I bet they’re already bookworms – they’re bound to be, living in a town with such an abundance of places to find good books, right?

The Barrister’s Book Chamber, Retford – a bookshop with a difference, m’lud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Match of the Day

I was so chuffed to find ‘Do Goalkeepers Wear Tiaras?’ featured in last week’s issue (8-14th May) of Match of the Day magazine.  I’m in at number 5 of ‘the best new swag’ for that week. It’s great to see what is traditionally a boys’ magazine featuring a book with a girl as the main character. I like the caption, too – ‘awesome book series… great to look at, even better to read.’ Go MOTD!  Captain Meggo would be over the moon.

 

 

 

Thank you to Jim Sells at Literacy Trust for spotting it.

 

 

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