The Coventry Inspiration Book Awards (CIBA17) this week was a fantastic event. Organised by Coventry Schools Library and Resource Service, there were librarians, authors, rugby players (!), booksellers, and (most important of all) lots of fantastic readers from primary and secondary schools across Coventry.
I was proud that Boy X won its category, and loved watching the performances by the two schools that championed the book. Students from St Elizabeth’s Catholic Primary School took to the stage to tell everyone why they enjoyed the story, then students from President Kennedy School acted out scenes from Boy X, and finished off with an excellent – and very dramatic – video made in Minecraft!
Over the past few months, I’ve been to a few similar events, and I am quickly learning that if you want something organised, ask a school librarian to do it for you! They really are amazing people, and as well as all the other things they do, each one I’ve met works tirelessly to make their library an inviting, vibrant place where they can encourage students to read. And reading is SO important. Reading makes you smart, and it helps you to understand other people. If we want a smarter, more tolerant, more understanding world, we need to encourage more reading.
But I’m not talking about the kind of reading students do in lessons.
For as long as I can remember, we had books at home. My Mum and Dad read, and encouraged me to do the same. I was lucky – they let me read pretty much whatever I wanted. And that, I think, is the key to reading for pleasure; being able to read what you want to read, not what you’re told to read.
We had a small library at my first boarding school. Well, we called it ‘the library’ but it was actually Mr Whitney’s English classroom. I wasn’t a Mr Whitney fan. He was a stern, apparently humourless man, and I don’t remember being allowed to borrow books from that library. We didn’t have a librarian, and as far as I remember, Mr Whitney was the gatekeeper of that particular room.
We did have Mr Johnson, though, and once a month, Mr Johnson would set up a little bookstall in the library. He would sit there puffing on his pipe while the students were allowed to browse the new books. What a happy afternoon that always was! I used to love picking up the books and imagining the stories inside. And if there wasn’t anything that interested me, Mr Johnson would dig out a shiny, colourful catalogue of books and flick through the pages, recommending stories I might like.
Mr Johnson was doing what a good school librarian does. He had taken notice of which books I had chosen before, and what I said about them, and he was helping me to find something else that would appeal. You see, he recognised the importance of ‘Reading for Pleasure’. He wanted me to enjoy what I was reading.
‘Reading for Pleasure’ is a phrase I hear a lot when I visit schools, and in these times of constant assessments and grades and testing, it feels more important than ever before. I remember when I was at school, sitting in English lessons with a book in front of me, while each person in the class took their turn to read a couple of pages out loud. I remember studying books. I remember analysing every sentence, and often it was boring. It made books boring.
But books are not boring. Books are magic. They take us to new places, show us new things, open us to new ideas.
Reading for Pleasure is when you get three chapters in, decide you don’t like the book, put it down, and read something else. Reading for Pleasure is reading what you want to read. I understand that students have to sometimes read books they don’t want to read – life is full of having to do things we don’t want to do – but outside of the classroom, it’s important to encourage children to read what they want. To relish books. To lose themselves in stories. To let books speak to them.
That’s what school librarians do. They know the books. They treasure stories. They open new worlds to young readers. They organise events like CIBA17 to build excitement and interest in reading. They enthuse young minds.
Every school should have a library. And every library should have a librarian.
Last week I was at Norwood School in Lambeth for the Phoenix Book Awards 2017. The awards have been running for 10 years, with winners including Frank Cottrell-Boyce and David Walliams, so I was honoured to be included in the shortlist which was put together by young readers.
When I write a book, I write it for myself. After all, how boring would my profession be if I wrote stories that I didn’t enjoy? But I also write for a younger version of myself – I think back to the kind of thing I would have wanted to read when I was twelve/thirteen years old and I write something that would have entertained and inspired young Dan. And I write for someone else . . . for the young readers who are out there right now. So these kinds of awards are particularly special, because those young readers are the ones who choose the books, write the reviews, and vote for their favourite.
Katherine Woodfine (also shortlisted for the award) and I were made to feel very welcome at Norwood School and we enjoyed a fantastic morning during which several students took to the stage (some of them on their own) to tell the audience why they would vote for a particular book. It’s no small thing to do that in front of a large group of people you don’t know, and every one of them did an amazing job! There was also an interactive quiz, drama, films, and even the mayor of Lambeth came along to inspire the students and hand out prizes.
Sometimes being an author can be a lonely profession. There are occasions when I feel like I’m shouting into a deep dark hole, my own voice swallowed by all the other voices shouting into it, so I was thrilled when Boy X was announced as the winner. As a writer, I can think of nothing better than to know that young readers have been picking up my book and enjoying the adventure within its pages.
Thank you to everyone who organised the fantastic day, to all the students who took part, and to everyone who voted for BOY X!!
So. It looks like I’m going to have to stop saying I never win anything. Y’know . . . until recently it was true. But first there was the Coventry Inspiration Book Award and now BOY X has won the Essex Book Awards 2017!
Yesterday was a long and brilliant day in Chelmsford, at King Edward VI Grammar School, where students from 18 schools came along to listen to the shortlisted authors say something (brief) about their books. There must have been over 250 students, all of them awesome readers (of course!), and over the past few months they, along with other students from schools across Essex, they have been reading the shortlisted books, reviewing them, and voting for their favourite.
It was great to meet the other authors – Helen Dennis, Monica Vaughan, Robin Jarvis, and Hayley Long – but most of all it was fantastic to meet all the students who have been reading the books, and I even had the chance to give Olivia her award for the best review of BOY X.
The organisation was excellent, the staff were amazing, and the students were awesome!
Thank you so much to everyone who reviewed BOY X and voted for Ash’s jungle adventure. And to the student who apologised for not giving it a good review . . . well, that’s okay. If we all liked the same things, the world would be a very dull place.