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Ways into Reading: Oxford Children’s Book Group Conference 2013

Oxford University Press

image from Wikipedia

I am sitting here with about eight A4 pages covered in notes from the Oxford Children’s Book Group conference, wondering how to even start writing it all up. In summary: it was excellent. All of the speakers were interesting and informative and everything ran smoothly. The conference was held at the Oxford University Press offices, which was the perfect venue.

The day was split into ninety minute sections for the speakers. There were drinks and pastries on arrival, the same at mid-morning break and then a delicious buffet lunch. The OUP museum was also open for viewing, which I managed briefly after lunch, and Mostly Books were supporting with their travelling bookstall of relevant books.

My camera battery died at lunchtime so I have limited pictures but I spent more time making notes than taking pictures because the talks were so informative. All the talks were on the theme “Ways into Reading”, and the different methods available to encourage and support children to become readers.

The first speaker was Victor Watson, a retired lecturer and current author. His interest was in series fiction, which a child had described to him as entering a “room full of friends”. Series fiction is comforting to readers, you are returning to characters and places that you’re familiar with and you want to know more. He talked about how series fiction is often sidelined as being worthless, but argued against this premise. The series fiction author must provide a story that regular readers want, but make it different each time. He described the difference between progressive and successive series and the effect that time had on series written over long periods – for example the effect of the second world war and the sixties on series started in 1940’s and completed in 1970’s – and how different authors approached these changes. It was a fascinating talk, and I’ve requested his book Reading Series Fiction: From Arthur Ransome to Gene Kemp from the library.

Oxford Children's Book Group Conference 2013

Victor Watson, Caro Fickling, Tracey Corderoy, and some props!

Andrea Quincey from Oxford University Press talked about the perception of reading schemes and the aims of the Project X scheme. This was a great continuation from the theme of series fiction because reading schemes are series, however Andrea pointed out that becoming too attached to one series can have a negative effect so the aim is to create an interest in all kinds of reading. For some children, reading schemes are the only books that they come across in their lives so it was important to create something that will hold interest. Research states that the clearest indicator for a child’s future success is not economic status, family background or other social indicators but their ability to read. The details behind creating a 21st century reading scheme to hook children and the challenges faced in ensuring that the series can be read in any order but still make sense was fascinating.

As a picture book aficionado, Tracey Corderoy was my most anticipated speaker, and she didn’t disappoint. With a suitcase packed with props she exuded enthusiasm and wit. She talked about her childhood growing up in what she described as a grey and smoky Welsh town, in a school that was often closed due to chemical spills, and a childhood with few books. But being unconventional she turned into a literature student, a teacher, a parent and an author with 38 published books in three years. Tracey’s talk was all about setting children’s  “senses on fire” – using colour, props, crafts and singing to pull out a story and make it an experience. She talked about how she tells children that if they write stories then they are writers just like she is; this particularly spoke to me because it’s something that I do with my children. Tracey was incredibly inspirational, and a very humourous speaker. This was the highlight of an amazing day.

Tom and Caro Fickling talked about comics, and specifically The Phoenix. Tom talked about how comics are a way into reading that works because the child ‘owns’ the books by discovering themselves. As adults we’re allowed to look at pictures but children are expected to dump pictures at a certain age. Caro wondered whether declines in literacy were correlated to the lack of decent children’s comics in the last few decades and about how today’s ‘comics’ are thinly veiled marketing devices based on characters with printed matter not designed to stand up on its own and are thrown with relief into the recycle bin – I could completely relate to this having small children who are only interested in the plastic tat attached to the front! They talked about the medium of telling stories visually and how positioning and page turns affect how a story is read. Another fascinating insight.

Oxford University Press Museum

Oxford University Press Museum

Vineeta Gupta from Open University Press talked about the Oxford Children’s Corpus. This is not a term I’d actually come across before but with a background in analysis I now want to work for them! The Corpus is an enormous database of words used in writing for children and, more interestingly, in writing by children. The writing by children was collected in collaboration with Radio 2’s 500 words competition which gave them access to 160,000 samples of writing and over seventy million words to analyse. The Corpus is used to create dictionaries full of words that children actually come across in daily life, and to give real-life examples. Analysis of connections between words (for example, how often a word is used ‘near’ another word) means that, for example, ‘zoom’ can be illustrated by Harry Potter zooming around a Quidditch pitch making dictionaries relevant for today’s children.

Andy Mulligan only just arrived in time for his talk, having a journey cursed by public transport problems (Trains? Today? Of course they’re not running…) His theme was dangerous books and contemplating at what point children go from wanting to read “Shadow the Sheepdog” (Enid Blyton) to “The Fault in Our Stars”, and is something like The Fault in Our Stars a children’s book? Should children read books that don’t offer them reassurance that everything is going to end well? His talk was fascinating and engaging and covered a range of experiences. I now have all his books on my wish list too, especially The Boy with Two Heads and Trash. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, do go.

Finally the day was rounded off with Bill Laar, educational consultant, whose passion for sharing books and words spun into the room of fairly tired attendees. It is quite lovely as a ‘grown-up’ to have picture books and poetry read to you by such an enthusiastic reader. The perfect end to a packed day!

Thanks must go to everyone at Oxford Children’s Book Group who put together such a smooth-running and informative event whilst keeping costs low; and to all the speakers and publishers who provided their services, especially Oxford University Press. I had an amazing day, got to meet up with some people I usually only know on Twitter, and learnt so much.

Red House Children’s Book Award Ceremony 2013

RHCBA13_01

On Saturday I was delighted to go to the Red House Children’s Book Award Ceremony for the first time, representing Oxford Children’s Book Group. I joined the group (and committee) thanks to the encouragement of Zoe from Playing by the Book and Mélanie from Library Mice who are both on the national executive of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups. This is a personal account of MG and my experience of the day, 23rd February 2013.

The Red House Children’s Book Award is owned and coordinated by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups and is the only award where all the books are nominated and voted for by children. This blog was part of this year’s blog tour, hosting Caryl Hart who I’ve got to know on Twitter as a wonderful person as well as talented author so MG and I were beyond happy to be sitting on her table for lunch.

I didn’t realise that we’d get to have lunch as well as go to the awards, so that was an added bonus to a wonderful experience. Originally I was taking both MG and DG but was then advised that the day was really for children aged seven and up. MG is a bright and (generally) patient child so the fact it was one day after her sixth birthday wasn’t a problem but I am glad I didn’t take DG because she would have been bored and grotty as there was a lot of waiting around which MG only just managed.

RHCBA13_04

A trip to London is a special treat for MG and something we’d only done once before. I’m glad we had that trip because we went to South Bank which is where the Awards were based so we were both familiar with how to get there. On arriving, my anxiety hit because my phone decided to stop working. I have a basic android smart phone but I rely on it far too much it seems: it is my clock, my alarm, my communication, my train timetable… Without it I felt somewhat lost, because I didn’t even know what the time was. Plucking up courage, I asked several people and managed to end up in the right place at the right time and once in the building at 11am knowing the time didn’t matter because everything was run beautifully.

I spied Caryl fairly quickly and we made our way to say hello. MG was instantly smitten, and Caryl is as lovely in real life as she appears. Despite her nerves, she treated us like old friends and during dinner she was sat next to MG engaging with her. Thank-you, Caryl! In the pre-dinner reception we also found Zoe and Mélanie to talk to, despite them both also being incredibly busy. Before the meal all the authors and illustrators were pulled off to signing tables and the children from around the country were excitedly meeting their heroes and getting books signed. It was a lovely sight to see. I would have loved to have brought my copy of A Monster Calls and met Patrick Ness in person but the day was about the children, so we bought new copies of Can You See Sassoon? and Spooky, Spooky House and lined up to get those signed along with the copy of Welcome to Alien School that we already owned.

Sam Usher signing

I love Dog Loves Drawing, but it wasn’t such a hit with my daughters sadly, so we didn’t buy that one or get it signed. To be honest, by the second queue MG was fed up and wanted to sit down again but I was a mean mummy and we lined up to meet the authors and illustrators for the three books we’d chosen. Sam Usher and Louise Yates had the longest queues because they drew fairly complex doodles in each book they signed and therefore took longer for each book. I hadn’t been sent with any requests from my group so we just had books signed for us, but some people had four or five copies of each book. All the authors and illustrators were fantastic for the time they put in, not to mention the organisers!

There were two authors missing. Pittacus Lore, on account of being an alien on the run, and David Walliams, on account of being a ‘sleb. David Walliams did turn up to the ceremony for his part of the awards and I’m glad to see the behind-the-scenes pictures on the FCBG website where the children who should have presented to him during the dinner did get to meet him and present his portfolio in person.

Caryl Hart and Ed Eaves recieving portfolios

Before the meal, every author and illustrator was presented with a portfolio of drawings and writing from various school children. MG got to sneakily look through Caryl Hart’s because she was sitting next to her! I thought this was a lovely thing, and really added to the child-centred aim of the awards. Every child who was attending from a local book group was involved in the ceremony in some way. Groups of three or four children presented the portfolios at the meal, and groups of children also presented the awards for each category. As MG was the only person for Oxford, she ended up with a different surprise…

Welcome to Alien School portfolio

The meal was very well organised. Every table had at least one author or illustrator plus representatives from FCBG, Red House, or a publisher as well as the adults and children from local book groups. Every child got a teddy and a goody bag with things to keep them amused like book samples and colouring. The event was all about the children and they could all happily mill with the authors and illustrators, chat and get books signed. Being at the younger end, MG stuck with me, but the delight on the faces of children meeting their favourite authors and illustrators was lovely to see. The food itself came in child-sized portions served on long wooden trays for everyone to help themselves. This was an excellent idea, as the food just kept coming so the adults could eat whatever they needed and the children had a good choice from a healthy and varied selection including the ever-popular mini burgers and ice cream cones!

After the meal, we went into the venue for the ceremony. The various VIPs from the meal (and their parents or carers in the case of the children) were in the front rows getting a great view of everything. The Awards were hosted by James Campbell who also hosts Red House’s Big Book Babble so he’s both very familiar with the authors and illustrators, and with keeping children amused. The event consisted of introductions, interviews, children from Stagecoach performing, and the winner announcements. I could write more, but there’s good write-ups at Red House and FCBG already!

Look at the crowds, no wonder MG was shy! Image (c) Dominic Turner from FCBG

From a personal viewpoint, the main part of the ceremony for us was during the interviews of the Younger Children shortlisted authors and illustrators where everyone was invited to try to find Sassoon under their seat. It was under MG’s seat. We’d actually had a bit of a head’s up on this and when I saw it was there when we sat down I talked to MG about going onto the stage and whether she wanted to do it. This is the girl who refused to have her picture taken at the table, but she said she would go up and when the time came she held up Sassoon, smiled excitedly and ran to the stage.

I found Sassoon! Image (c) Dominic Turner from FCBG

Image (c) Dominic Turner from FCBG

At this point, she realised how big the place was and how many people were there and became very, very shy. I probably should have gone down and held her hand but I was stuck to my seat with nerves too. Here James Campbell showed how good he is with children. He spoke to her on her own level at all times; he found her name tag so she didn’t have to say her name out loud; he tried to get a smile out of her; he didn’t force the Sassoon model on her (we got it after the ceremony!); and he carried her back to her seat! She was in tears so we had a huge snuggle and she asked to leave but she only cried for a minute because it was a huge thing for her and then she was happy again. She stole my camera and started to film the end of the ceremony, her favourite part being this tiny snippet where James Campbell asks after her:

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdCKYYoJ23I”]

Sadly we don’t have too much of the ceremony filmed, my camera stops filming at ten minutes so we completely missed the part where Patrick Ness repeatedly used the work b*ll**ks in order to avoid using the word b*ll**ks. I did find this amusing, especially when MG said to her dad: “I’ve learnt a new rude word. But it’s not from mummy, it’s from an author.” I have a different opinion on swear words than my husband 😉

Here is some near the end. Patrick Ness does say the b-word: it’s so noisy you don’t really hear it, but I feel I should add that warning! Bear in mind all of this was filmed by a newly minted six-year old, it isn’t great footage.

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRZuqo3mWVE”]

The memory card in the camera ran out too, and after I deleted some pictures to make space MG didn’t press the record button hard enough. But she loves the part she did record, and watches it to remind herself of the day out. As soon as the awards were finished, we rushed off to catch a train because MG was feeling very worn out by this point. Looking at the pictures on the FCBG site, it seems that most of the book group children got their pictures with Andrew Weale and Lee Wildish, the overall winners, but we didn’t stay to congratulate them sadly. MG did drag me to say goodbye to Caryl, who lifted her up for a big goodbye hug. We also went to ask for Sassoon but just missed Sam Usher to thank him in person.

In summary, it was a wonderful experience and MG enjoyed it thoroughly. It was a little too much for her at six but she did really well and I’ll hopefully take her again next year; and DG in a couple of years’ time. We may not be representing Oxford CBG for a few years, as other children will get a turn, but the ceremony alone was good fun too.

Both MG and DG chose Spooky, Spooky House as their first choice so they’re very happy about the winner. As I said in my summary review of the four picture books, it was so hard to choose between them myself but I had a feeling Spooky, Spooky House would at least win the Younger Children’s category given the reaction of the children we tested on locally. Congratulations Andrew and Lee, and to all the other winners, shortlisted authors and illustrators, organisers and children. Well done all.

Overall Winners, Andrew Weale and Lee Wildish. Image (c) Dominic Turner, from FCBG website

The top five photos and two video clips were taken by myself or MG; the bottom four photos are from FCBG, copyright Dominic Turner.