Alice Is Coming Home

Good news for fans of the wonderful Inanimate Alice series. The long-awaited Episode 5 will be released on 1st December along with a newly re-vamped website, access to designer’s journals and a gallery of student-created content. If you haven’t met Alice before, now is the time to catch up!

alice

 

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Don’t Blame Boo Radley

To Kill a Mockingbird. Other great books are available.

To Kill a Mockingbird. Other great books are available.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book. It is one of many great books, and it happens to be written by an American. It is one of many great books written in the English language, and it happens to be written by an American, and it happens to be written by a woman. You see, great books are written in many languages, by writers male and female, of many nationalities. One of the key roles of teachers is to introduce young people to great books, at the appropriate times, and in accordance with their developing love of reading and awareness of the world. By now, I hope, you are all nodding in agreement.

So when an English Education Secretary says that young people are not reading enough, that they are not reading difficult enough books, and that he wants to make sure that they are reading ‘a wide range of texts’, what is there to disagree with? Well quite a lot , actually. Michael Gove’s announced changes to the literature requirement for GCSE English caused more than a little anger this week, with media channels, writers, bloggers and commentators rushing to proclaim that he had ‘banned’ American literature from English schools, including one or two which had become classroom staples for recent generations. (see To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men axed as Gove Orders More Brit Lit).

In reality, what he had actually done was to set out a minimum requirement for anyone studying GCSE Literature  – a Shakespeare play; poetry from 1789, including the Romantics; a 19th-century novel; and some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1914, to be precise. Besides believing that this would provide a much-needed injection of his favourite ingredient, ‘rigour’,  he further defended the changes by adding, “Beyond this, exam boards have the freedom to design specifications so that they are stretching and interesting (sic), and include any number of other texts from which teachers can then choose” and that teachers had welcomed a “specification that allows for Keats and Heaney, Shakespeare and Miller, the Brontes and Pinter.” (see Michael Gove Attacks ‘Fictitious’ Claims He Has Banned US Books From School).

The telling word in this statement is ‘allows’. Of course, the syllabus ‘allows’ for the reading and study of any other works of literature, but TIME doesn’t. In reality, overstretched teachers will stick to the texts which are guaranteed to come up in the exam, because they will ultimately be judged by their students’ results. I have written before about this effect (see Of Mice and Flies: Death by Examination), and how it leads to the demise of reading rather than its further development. Reading for pleasure and enlightenment gives way to learning how to write ‘critical’ essays and preparing for the test. Not that we in Scotland have anything to be complacent about here. Admittedly there are fewer restrictions on the choice of texts which young people can use in response to exam questions (see National 5 English Course Assessment Specifications) , but the introduction of a compulsory Scottish text in national courses recently was a mistake, and I say that as someone with a deep regard for Scottish culture and who has read, taught and enjoyed a considerable number of Scottish texts, both fiction and non-fiction. If this is indeed social engineering, as some would claim, then the fact that we are not quite in the Govean league of social engineering is nothing really to be proud of.

You see, there are two important principles at stake here. The first is that it is not the role of politicians to determine what young people read. If it was then we may as well make teachers redundant, send reading lists home to parents and their

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the film adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel.

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel.

kids, and let them get on with it. If Michael Gove had really wanted young people to read more widely, then what he should have done was to remove the specified texts completely from the exam requirements, then teachers (and students) would truly have to argue the merits of their chosen texts. Nor should it be the role of examination boards to determine what young people read. As I said earlier, that belongs to the trained professional, the teacher. And that is the second important principle.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Postscript: Michael Gove’s announcement had two immediate effects. Three of the four main examining bodies in England immediately removed the aforementioned American authors from their list of specified texts, and sales of To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon increased significantly.

E-Books and Beyond: The Future of Children’s Literature.

Alice in Australia Story Six – Game Play

Last week I had the pleasure of introducing Inanimate Alice to the 12th Annual E-Books Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland’s ‘largest annual ebooks discussion for librarians’, a presentation which I began by pointing out that IA is not in fact an e-book, in the sense that it is not an existing product which has been digitised for reading from a screen, but that it is a born-digital, transmedia text for younger readers, combining conventional written text with images, sound and games. Incidentally, one of the amusing aspects of the conference was the ongoing discussion about whether the term ‘e-books’ should have a hyphen or not, a debate which to my knowledge has not yet been resolved! The distinction between the e-book and the digital narrative is an important one to make, not least because of the implications for the development of literacy skills, where traditionally we have focused on reading (words) or reading (pictures) as separate entities, rather than developing a proper understanding of their interconnectedness.

For those of you who have not yet met Inanimate Alice, please visit the website and explore its many possibilities for use in the classroom. If you are already an IA fan, you will be excited by the latest developments, which include a mini-series set in Australia between Episodes 1 and 2. As the first story begins, Alice has moved to Melbourne with her parents and is having to adjust to living in yet another new country. Brad – her beloved digital friend – has gone missing from her device (she thinks perhaps she left him behind in China!), and the buzzing beehive in the neighbour’s garden is making her very nervous. Has Brad disappeared for good? And will those bees escape?!

Alice in Australia Story Two – Buried Treasure

Alice in Australia introduces a young audience to whole new levels of inventiveness, with stories by award-winning writer Kate Pullinger, stunning imagery by the pioneering digital artist Chris Joseph, and the whole thing brought to life by creative developer Andy Campbell. Uniquely as far as I can tell (please correct me if I’m wrong) the series offers teachers and students the digital assets from each of the episodes, completely free, which allows them to re-create the narratives with strikingly professional results. The stories can be downloaded as comic books, with ‘words only’ allowing readers to create their own images, or as picture stories to which dialogue can be added by the student. Add in the fact that the soundtrack and sound effects are also downloadable as MP3 files, and you have a complete set of materials with which to introduce young learners to the world of digital narrative and transmedia storytelling, where the only limits are the limits of their imagination.

The Power of Fiction and The Storytelling Animal

As a former English teacher, I have often argued on the blog and elsewhere that the English curriculum in schools offers a distorted syllabus, in which non-fiction is heavily outweighed by fiction texts – no doubt reflecting the fact that most practitioners have degrees in English Literature – and that there needs to be a re-balancing to reflect more accurately the texts with which we are surrounded in daily life. Time and again however, my attention is drawn to the importance of storytelling and the need to understand ourselves and the world through the medium of story.

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall of Washington and Jefferson College in the USA, explains how stories shape and define us as human beings, arguing that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems, just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. The theory is that storytelling has evolved, like other behaviours, to ensure our survival.

“The constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skilful negotiation of life’s problems. From this point of view, we are attracted to fiction, not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice (sic) reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”

But isn’t fiction our ‘escapism’, you might argue. Surely it’s in fiction, whether it be in a good novel or the latest Dr Who series, that we find our escape from the problems of everyday life? Well yes, and no. According to Gottschall the nature of the stories we tell betrays their true purpose.

“There is a paradox in fiction that was first noticed by Aristotle in The Poetics. We are drawn to fiction because fiction gives us pleasure. But most of what is in fiction is deeply unpleasant: threat, death, despair, anxiety, Sturm and Drang. Take a look at the carnage on the fiction bestseller lists – the massacres, murders, and rapes. Look at classic literature: Oedipus stabbing out his eyes in disgust; Medea slaughtering her children; Shakespeare’s stage strewn with runny corpses. Heavy stuff. But even the lighter stuff is organised around problems, and readers are riveted by their concern over how it will all turn out.”

On the morality of stories, or whether stories have a moral purpose, Gottschall is adamant. When addressing the dire warnings of social commentators from Plato onwards that fiction corrodes

The good guy usually wins

morality, especially in the young, his conviction is that they were entirely wrong, and he prefers to accept that, with some exceptions, the most popular story forms are still structured around ‘poetic justice’: the good guy usually does win out in the end.

“As with sacred myths, ordinary stories – from TV shows to fairy tales – steep us all in the same powerful norms and values. They relentlessly stigmatise antisocial behaviour and just as relentlessly celebrate prosocial behaviour. We learn by association that if we are more like protagonists, we will be more apt to reap the typical rewards of protagonists (for instance, love, social advancement, and other happy endings) and less likely to reap the rewards of antagonists (for instance, death and disastrous loss of social standing). Humans live great chunks of their lives inside fictional stories – in worlds where goodness is generally endorsed and rewarded and badness is condemned and punished. These patterns don’t just reflect a moralistic bias in human psychology, they seem to reinforce it.”

Developing this theme, Gottschall cites the Dutch scholar Jemeljan Hakemulder, who in his book The Moral Laboratory, reviewed dozens of scientific studies which indicated that fiction has positive effects on the reader’s moral development and sense of empathy. Other studies show that fiction reinforces our belief that life rewards the virtuous and punishes the vicious. Even though this is patently not the case, for a society to function at all it is necessary for people to believe in justice.

The notion of empathy, a core feature of works of fiction, is taken up in this TED talk by Jessica Wise, who argues that the importance of fiction is that it has the power ‘to change a person’s point of view’. I think the short film would make a perfect starter for discussion in any English classroom.

The Amulet of Samarkand

I am increasingly intrigued by, and attracted to, the range of graphic novels now available on the market, so when a new one comes along – OK, when a publisher sends me a copy and asks me to review it – how can I resist? Fortunately, in this case, what I can say is welcome to the colourful world of Nathaniel, Bartimaeus and The Amulet of Samarkand. Unaware of the original Bartimaeus trilogy of Jonathan Stroud, and approaching the text with an in-built wariness towards yet another story about a  smart kid with magical powers, I was quite prepared to dislike this book, but by the end of its 144 pages (compared with the original novel’s 500) I was kind of hoping there might be more.

This is a novel aimed at young readers, but one which will be enjoyed especially by those sophisticated enough to appreciate the humour which binds the young Nathaniel (apprentice magician, more able than he is given credit for by a bullying master), Bartimaeus (the 5000-year-old djinni whom he conjures up to assist in reclaiming the said amulet) and the reader, in what is really a conspiracy against the pesky adults who tend to control things and generally make a mess of it. In this case, in a clever reversal of the traditional magical fantasy tale, the demon is the ‘good guy’ and the baddies are the tightly-knit, elitist group of ruthless magicians who run the country from Westminster (sound familiar?)

Set in what is described on page one as ‘London. Now’, the backdrop to the story is actually a dystopian future London which looks a bit like the the London of the middle of last century. And when I say looks like, I mean is stunningly drawn and coloured to look like. This book is first and foremost an absolute visual delight. I particularly liked the depiction of rural England, where Nathaniel and Bartimaeus take a trip to a government conference at Heddleham Hall, organised by the arch-criminal and Junior Minister for Trade, Simon Lovelace. In the words of the ancient spirit with the 21st Century sense of humour, ‘It felt good to be free of the city and surrounded by the natural contours of the trees and crops. I perked up a bit.’ Earlier, he had spoken of escaping London’s congested streets, feeling ‘groggy with motion sickness and the terrible stench of technology.’

The novel comes alive in graphic form. Text copyright Jonathan Stroud 2010. Illustrations copyright Lee Sullivan 2010

It isn’t hard to tell where the author’s sympathies lie. When Nathaniel and Bartimaeus find themselves in a deserted building in the centre of London, having narrowly escaped another attempt on their lives by the villainous Lovelace, the latter muses, ‘What was this place, do you think? A library? Don’t suppose the commoners are encouraged to read much anymore, are they? That’s usually the way it goes.’ So there you have it. It isn’t really about the theft of a precious bracelet at all. It’s about the theft of our intellectual freedom. Read books, be clever, or this is the kind of pickle you will find yourself in. And so say all of us!

Language purists may well pick up on the fact that the novel contains American spellings (such as ‘theater’ and ‘fulfill’), which is strange for a book by an English author, but it was developed and published by Stroud’s American publishers Hyperion in the first instance, before reaching the UK market. A minor irritation for this reader, but I suspect not even that for enthusiasts.

The Amulet of Samarkand is adapted from the original novel by Jonathan Stroud with the help of Andrew Donkin, himself the author of more than sixty books for children and adults. It is beautifully drawn by Lee Sullivan (Transformers, Judge Dredd, Doctor Who) and the amazing colouration is by Nicolas Chapuis (Elephantmen, The Wheel of Time). It is also available from Amazon for less than a fiver, which is a far bigger crime than the theft of a precious brooch.

Click here for a complete list of recommended comic books and graphic novels.

Reading By Numbers

The English Education Secretary Michael Gove caused huge controversy this week (not for the first time) when he boldly proclaimed that every 11 year-old should be reading 50 books a year. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume he meant ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if all 11 year-olds read 50 books a year’. The problem is that he has no idea how to bring that about, or even how to begin to encourage such a scenario, and being part of a government determined to close public libraries certainly isn’t going to help. The clue to his thinking is in the word ‘should’ and in the arbitrary choice of 50 as a target number of books. Is it based on the notion of one book per week with two weeks off for good behaviour? The ‘should’ of course is based on a model of education which is centred on instruction, telling young people what is good for them, rather than fostering a real love of reading, which takes time, dedication, a fairly detailed knowledge of the individual child’s likes and needs, and a love of reading on the part of the teacher.

If anyone with access to Mr Gove happens to read this post, perhaps next time you see him you could lean over and whisper in his ear the title of The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. Were he to add this to his reading list – assuming he himself reads at least 50 books a year – he might begin to understand the effort and dedication it takes on the part of those teachers who are already developing young readers and pay them a bit more respect. However, if he is determined to turn young people off reading for life simply by imposing targets, here are a few more pieces of advice he might give any teacher trying to create reluctant readers:-

•Don’t ever talk about books
•Keep books out of sight to prevent theft
•Make sure books are well-worn and unattractive (see above)
•Never read aloud to children
•Make sure the furniture is hard and uncomfortable and all fluorescent lights are on
•Always have the class reading the same book at the same pace
•Make it clear that comics and graphic novels are not ‘proper reading’
•Prepare plenty of worksheets and insist that they write a book review every time they finish a book
•Never ask kids about their hobbies and interests
•Don’t allow them to bring their own books to school
See also Kenny Pieper’s excellent blogpost Things To Do In Ten Minutes

Reading Alive

The Kindle from Amazon

Despite reports of its imminent demise, it would appear that reading is very much alive as we prepare to exit the first decade of the twenty-first century. While the advent of electronic ‘readers’ has been cursed by some as the end of books – and in a few extreme cases, civilisation – the reality is that the new reading platforms may in fact be the re-launch that many books have been waiting for.

With sales of the Amazon Kindle and Apple’s iPad each sitting around the ten million mark already, it seems that more people than ever are reading books – including classic literary texts, most of which are out of copyright and therefore free to download – bringing many texts, which would otherwise be collecting dust, to a whole new readership. English professor John Sutherland of University College London describes the phenomenon as ‘creating an immense public library without walls’, adding that ebook readers are ‘the saviour of book reading, not its death.’

Apple's iPad and Bookstore

The trend is only likely to increase in 2011 as Google brings its eBooks to the UK. Already operating in the US, Google eBooks will work in tandem with the new Google eBookstore which has more than 3 million books available. Uniquely, it would seem, Google eBooks are designed to be ‘open’, meaning that they are compatible with a range of devices from netbooks to smartphones to tablets and e-readers. You can buy, store and read Google eBooks in the cloud. Which means you can access your ebooks like you would messages in Gmail or photos in Picasa – using a free, password-protected Google account.

A Poetry Book

Personally, I don’t own an e-reader yet, but I’m guessing it’s just a matter of time. I do know someone, however, who needs to read like most of us need to breathe, and her relationship with her new iPad has been a revelation over the past few months. Already they are inseparable. Apart from the obvious advantage of all her books in one place, the sharpness of the text, the clean lines of the device and the built-in dictionary are all part of the general appeal. She did appreciate though, on Christmas morning, a beautifully wrapped, crisply-new, paper and card, touchy-feely copy of Seamus Heaney’s  Human Chain. Books aren’t dead. We’re only discovering new ways to deliver them.