Friday, 26 September 2014

Interview with librarian at OLA school, Abingdon

School librarians have a critical role in nurturing children's reading - they often to know the children as well as they know the books.

Yet we don't hear from them very often - we are more used to hearing about the decline in numbers of school librarians.

In the first of a new series where we ask school librarians about the books that most inspired them and their thoughts on the future of libraries in schools - and what's great and what's challenging about their job. 

We talked to Barbara Hickford from OLA school in Abingdon during her annual Festival of Reading she organises for the school.

What was your favourite children's book as a child? 

​It has to be an Enid Blyton. The Faraway Tree series with those amazing characters Moon-Face, Silky, the Saucepan Man, Dame Washalot, Mr. Watzisname and the Angry Pixie.  Later the Famous Five took me into an exciting world of adventure. At primary school library time was on a Friday afternoon, and I remember starting to read the book at school, continuing at home, and finishing it in bed, if my parents forgot to tell me to turn off the light!

Barbara at a school event with author Michelle Paver (centre) and bookseller Mark from Mostly Books

What is your favourite children's book as an adult?

Ooh, this is difficult! Reading can be like music; your response can depend on your mood at the time. And there are so many children's authors writing excellent books, this on top of all the classics.  I've admired Michael Morpurgo for a long time. His writing can reach adults as well as children. I recently re-read 'Private Peaceful', and found it as moving as when I first read it 10 years ago. As we are commemorating 100 years since the start of World War One, I'd say this is a book worthy of a place on everyone's bookshelf.
What do you think makes children's books so inspirational?
Since I've worked in schools I've met several children's authors and I know they spend a great deal of time crafting their work, researching, drafting and re-writing their books. 

The elements of a successful book for children are the same as for adults:
  • a good plot: you have to want to turn the page
  • characters that you care about: you want to know what happens to them, usually the goodies, but sometimes the baddies
  • well written, so the story will flow
  • a feeling of satisfaction at the end, sometimes because you've had a fictional experience of something you will never encounter in real life.
Now if that sounds familiar it's because I realise I've instinctively listed the criteria for the prestigious children’s book award, the Carnegie Medal.

Why did you become a librarian? 

I know I have an innate curiosity, always wanting to find out, and this characteristic was apparent when I was a student and using the library to find extended material to prepare a dissertation. I enjoyed the research and finding out (more than the writing up) and realised this could be an interesting avenue to pursue. Up until then I thought I would go into administration, but running a library is also about organisation. 
I spent the year after I graduated at the Bodleian Library on a special scheme which gave me a taste of different aspects of library work, which included helping readers in the Reading Room (enjoyable), cataloguing books in the back room (too quiet for me) and working with some of their special collections (a privilege).  
Not many people know that professional library work is a graduate career. I spent another year at University College London studying for a Diploma and MA in Library and Information Studies.  
What I found I enjoyed most was reference work, that's helping people find out, and my first job was at the BBC as an Enquiry Assistant. After a few years I moved on, to run the library for a publishing company. I came to school libraries after a career break and have thoroughly enjoyed helping students and supporting teachers in their learning and teaching as well as encouraging a love of reading.
What is the best thing about the job? And the worst?

The most satisfying part of my job centres around helping people.  When I’ve helped someone find what they’re looking for – whether I’ve pointed them in the right direction or given precise help to find information, or suggested a good read which comes back with a request for another recommendation. 

I also enjoy organising author visits and have a week-long Festival of Reading each year. And unpacking new books and having to look at them!

Some people, who haven’t experienced a good library, may think my job is simply about stamping a book or sitting in a quiet room, so may be slightly dismissive. But that’s a challenge for me and I just look for an opportunity where I can help them and change their opinion.

What is your vision of what a children’s/school library will look like in 10 years’ time?

I have no doubt that words on paper will still be at the core of reading in a school library.

The colourful world of children’s books is continuing to produce stories by great artists and writers. First books need to be read and re-read, and the pleasure of handling a board book and learning to turn the pages is essential to cultivate the joy of reading for pleasure through childhood and beyond. 

I’m sure that there will also be a place for colourful information books too. After all, many children enjoy non-fiction for pleasure too.

Changes are happening, e-books, e-journals, databases of information to interrogate.  Of course the library will need to continue to respond to the technical advances of the digital age and the expectations of tech-savvy users.

So there will be resources in all formats, including newspapers and journals, and a variety of ICT equipment, whatever is current. As learning and teaching are the core activities of a school, so a school library is more than just about the resources in it. 

The school library also needs to continue to be a comfortable and welcoming place for students to browse, to read for pleasure and to discover. It’s essential it remains a hub of the school.  

There will still be a need for someone - a librarian - to manage the resources and organise them, know what’s in the collection and what’s needed to be purchased, someone who will give recommendations, who can run reading clubs and organise visits by writers, help students develop their skills to find their way around the information overload and support teachers through a range of initiatives.

There will always be concerns over funding of school libraries but their value is highlighted in many national and international studies which give evidence of links between student attainment and good school libraries.  

A recent report (July 2014) on school libraries by the All Party Parliamentary Group is entitled ‘The Beating Heart of the School’, the title itself eliciting the group's positive view of school libraries and librarians. The future looks positive. 
I have many posters in my school library but I particularly like the one quoting President Obama who calls a school library ‘a magic threshold’. Long may it be so!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Mutant City - 3D Review - Steve Feasey - Author Interview

What was your favourite children’s book as a child?

There are two or three books that really stick in my mind as having a profound effect on me. The first would be The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall. Westall is a wonderful storyteller, and the book is, in my opinion, his best work. The main protagonist, Chas McGill, appealed to me in a way few others had until that point, and I strongly connected with the children in the book, all of whom because of the war are largely forced to live independently of the adults around them. The other two books that really stick out in my mind as firm favourites were The Hobbit by Tolkien and Call of the Wild by Jack London.

What is your favourite children’s book as an adult?

I love To Kill a Mockingbird, but I don’t really consider that to be a children’s book, despite the fact that it appeals to children every bit as much as adults. I think the children’s book I most admire as an adult is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak – it’s perfectly written and perfectly illustrated, and you can’t help but love it.

What do you think makes children’s books so inspirational?

The books we read as children and young adults often stick with us throughout life in a way adult books don’t. They help us to shape the way we see things, allow us to experience things we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, and they can help us to decide how we might react in similar situations to the characters that we have invested in.

Why did you start writing for children?

For all of the reasons I’ve listed in the previous qy local library’s ‘Fantasy and Sci-Fi’ section. Books by Moorcock, Harrison, Eddings and Asimov appealed to me like no other, and it created a love of science in me that’s stuck with me throughout my life.

After the Changeling books, I wanted to write something that reflected my early love of this genre (or genres – some sci-fi fans don’t appreciate fantasy being lumped in with their works), so I set about writing a book that had both strong sci-fi and fantasy elements.

What is your favourite aspect of writing for children?

The enthusiasm that readers show for your work. Even when the writing process isn’t going so well, you can be lifted by a review or an email from a young reader saying how much they loved your books. I also love their honesty – if something doesn’t work for them, they’re not afraid to let you know!

What made you want to write this book?

As a teenager I devoured everything I could get my hands on from my local library’s ‘Fantasy and Sci-Fi’ section. Books by Moorcock, Harrison, Eddings and Asimov appealed to me like no other, and it created a love of science in me that’s stuck with me throughout my life.

After the Changeling books, I wanted to write something that reflected my early love of this genre (or genres – some sci-fi fans don’t appreciate fantasy being lumped in with their works), so I set about writing a book that had both strong sci-fi and fantasy elements. 

There is a lot of world building in Mutant City, was this challenging to get right?

It was. The problem with writing a book in which you’re creating an alternative view of the world is that it can very quickly become ‘unwieldy’. You want to let the reader experience exactly what it is to live in this new place: the environment, the socioeconomics, the ethics, the power balance etc., but you have to be aware that you’re not writing an epic like Game of Thrones. Giving enough for the reader’s imagination to get a hold of, but not becoming too wordy is a tricky balancing act.

Book two, Mutant Rising, is due for publication next year, can you give us some hints as what to expect?

The children with the superpowers have become rebels; seen as terrorists by the Pure living in the Cities. There’s a price on their heads, and they have to hide from those sent out to capture them. Meanwhile, President Melk’s rise to power has made him unstable, and his ideas on how to solve the ‘mutant problem’ are becoming more and more extreme. Things come to a head when the children accidentally discover what his latest plan is, and decide they must put a stop to it. (No spoilers there.)

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Mutant City - 3D Review - Reviews - Steve Feasey

Adult Review

Book covers, are so tricky to get right, but the acid green cover of Mutant City is a perfect fit for the book, and attract the target readers, let me tell you how I know this…

Imagine me (somewhat older than the target readership) reading the book whilst in the waiting room at the local gymnastic academy waiting for my son to finish his training when, I get the eerie feeling I’m being watched. I look up to see too 12/13 year old boys staring at me, I look behind me and there’s no one there, so it must be me that has caught their attention, so I smile.

“What’s that book?” asks one. So I tell them the pitch, and they both consider this for a moment and then ask more and more questions, only stopping when the trainer called them back to training.

This is the FIRST time I have ever had teenage boys enquire about what I’m reading. And I think this is a real testament to both the illustrator and book designers.

Now, the story between the cover is also very very good. The pitch gives you a real indication of what to expect: Mad Max meets X-Men! Like both this books hits the ground running and doesn’t let up the pace until you’ve finished.

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic word, in the aftermath of war that has created a two tear society, the humans that sheltered away from the radioactive battles, and the post-human mutants that were genetically altered by it. The human’s live in civilised comfort within walled city’s, built to keep the mutants out. The mutants live on the fringes in poverty within the wasteland or the sprawling shanty towns.

It starts with five children being rescued from a genetic research facility called The Farm, and then fast forward thirteen years to the five experiments, not pure human, not total mutants as their shelter words unravel, as their creator and Burnt Earths ruler Principal Melk, discovers they are still alive and try to recapture them.

The book is fast paced with action throughout as it follows all five, the healer, The shape-shifter, the decelerator, the mind-controller and the telekinetic, as they journey to the capital City Four to reconvene. The characters are all well realised and has a force of personality which makes them sympathetic and strong, with enough flaws to make them believable. The settings are all well envisioned with an authentic Science Fiction feel.

Like all good books, especially of the Science Fiction genre Mutant City pays homage to what has come before with recognisable elements of films and literature going back to the Grandfather of Sci-Fi, HG Well, making the book richer.

Mutant City is a gripping read, making you feel like you’re on a wild ride yet not at the expense of plot; it is intelligent, absorbing, and entertaining. This does what every science fiction book should, takes you to another world.

Teenager Review by Jack aged 13

"Mutant City" written by Steve Feasey, describes a society that was destroyed by chemical warfare 50 years ago. The aftermath left two societies: mutants and the pure.

The story starts with a raid on a top-secret experimentation facility where five "mutants" with special powers are rescued and are taken in by separate people. The story picks up 13 years later when in a dream one of the mutants is told to make his way to city four. The story describes the events and discoveries he makes along his way.

The book is fun and fast paced and packed with lots of adventure and reasonably believable characters that you would like to root for, they are quite confusing at the start of the book but the book is gripping once you get into it.

I found the book is very descriptive, particularly during any action. The book ended on a frustrating but great cliff-hanger that has set up the next book in the series very well.

This book is for anyone around the age of 12 years old that likes likes well written science-fiction with lots of adventure.


Friday, 5 September 2014

Look ahead to Guardian Children's Fiction prize

With the Guardian children’s fiction prize shortlist due to be announced any day soon, I am jumping in with a review of one of the longlisted titles. Otherwise I might lose an excuse to tell you about it (as I am frankly terrible at predicting what’s going to win prizes) and it was too good an opportunity to miss telling you just how good this book is

Firstly, the longlist. (The winner will be announced on November 13.)

The longlist was selected from 169 books submitted for the award, and is the only award judged by fellow children’s authors, which is probably what makes it my personal favourite award - I think authors perhaps have a different appreciation of craftsmanship and general quality and inventiveness in storytelling and look for something different in the way they judge books.

The judges themselves have been specific about what they were looking for - the books have been selected as ones that have made ‘make believe seem real’.

Judge Frank Cottrell Boyce, a former winner of the prize, said that while many of the books on this year's longlist "tackle dark themes, they do so in bold,  unexpected ways that take us way beyond the confines of the current fad for teenage misery lit".

This year he is joined on the panel by the Waterstones award-winning author Katherine Rundell, who said: "The longlist has wit and heart and bite; taken together, the books show how intimidatingly good are the children's writers working today," said Rundell.

Here it is: the Guardian children's fiction prize longlist:

The Diaries of Bluebell Gadsby: Flora in Love by Natasha Farrant (Faber)
Phoenix by SF Said (David Fickling)
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo (Walker)
The Dark Wild by Piers Torday (Quercus)
Shine by Candy Gourlay (David Fickling)
We Were Liars by E Lockhart (Hot Key Books)
She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick (Orion)
The Lost Gods by Francesca Simon (Faber)

We’re going to be doing our annual round-up of books shortlisted for the prize soon, but I wanted to get with a review of ‘She Is not Invisible’ - so here it is.

She is Not Invisible is a thriller – thus a bit of a departure for author Marcus Sedgwick in that most of his books are historical, and often historical with a fantasy twist.

But this is a straightforward contemporary thriller (in as much as anything that Marcus Sedgwick writes could ever be described as ‘straightforward’).

The story starts when Laureth suspects her dad is in trouble, but she can't get anyone to believe her. When Laureth gets an unexpected clue that Dad is in New York and in trouble, Laureth and her younger brother, Benjamin, put into action a plan to sneak onto a plane to go and find him.

As they struggle to follow Dad's weird clues about where he might be, they must stay one step ahead of the law and the baddies who have possibly kidnapped Dad.  But this is more than just a straightforward missing-parent or road-trip thriller.

It’s probably a bit of a plot spoiler (although not much of one as you do find out fairly early on), but the main character is blind. Marcus Sedgwick is brilliant at weaving this disability subtly into the story – and people’s reactions to it.

All the description is done through Laureth’s eyes, so although you can easily conjure up mental pictures of where they are – none if it is done through visual clues. Noise, touch feel are the senses that Laureth gets a sense of her surroundings.

And she has also learned that people will make big deal of her being blind, so she has learned to conceal it. Taking note of little details such as always looking towards a person when they are speaking to you. And note the reaction of the boy Laureth is getting on so well with when she confesses she can’t see. It’s this sort of detail that lifts this story into something else.

As an adult, I read plenty of children’s books as we do a lot of recommending in my shop (and I have to keep up otherwise all my customers would be way ahead of me). But there are a few authors whose books are just so enjoyable even for an adult to read in their own right. And I think it probably comes down to layers – I really enjoy those books which are about more than just the plot that you can read on a surface level.

This is a book I’ve recommended plenty of times and have found it a very successful choice for ‘disaffected’ readers – people in their early teens who used to be big readers, but haven’t found much to inspire them of late. I put this down to the fact that Laureth is no trained ninja warrior, she has no hidden magical past and powers that will come to her rescue – in fact she has a great big disability. But she also has her own guts and her own brains and her bravery to keep her from harm and I think she’s a brilliant character people can relate to.

I won’t even get started on the whole coincidence theme and the numbers that are all part of the clues Laureth has to solve. Novelist Dad is obsessed with coincidence and unravelling the clues takes the reader into unexpected territory as you follow Laureth into the scientific thinking of Jung and some number puzzles. It all make this a highly original and thought-provoking read.

If you care to look, Marcus Sedgwick has used the number that Laureth’s dad is obsessed with repeatedly throughout the novel. For anyone with geek tendencies – try to spot things like the chapter numbering and length. I love the fact that he’s so confident in his writing that he can be so playful with it, but in a subtle way that doesn't detract at all from the plot - more of an in joke. The way the author presents ideas to children through impeccable story telling is truly impressive.

This book works on just so many levels it will be a crime if it doesn’t win some sort of major award this year. But that is out of my hands. But I can at least urge you to read it.