As authors of books for children and young adults we are in a very privileged position. Our work brings enjoyment to many young people. We entertain and amuse; provide excitement, fun and information, and we stimulate thought. The privilege, however, comes with considerable responsibility in that we are able to influence young people and, hopefully, contribute positively to them realising their potential in life. And, as long as we keep writing we are likely to influence generation after generation. Along the way it is probable that some of those we influence will join us and succeed us as writers. And so the cycle will continue.
I’d like to illustrate this through my own experience, many years ago, as a nine-year old primary school pupil, when a specific period of thirteen weeks really did change the course of my life. I’ll say more about that in a little while but I must add that I have seen my own experience repeated in the lives of many young people. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked in primary school education for twenty-five years – fourteen of those years as a Headteacher. My school is in an area with considerable social deprivation, yet I have seen many young people achieve success in their lives. Nothing gives me a bigger thrill than to be approached by adult ex pupils who smile and laugh and take great joy in recounting memories of particular projects, books and events. Recently I was in the city centre and was approached by a young man out shopping with his wife and children. He shook my hand vigorously and talked about the time I read ‘Danny, Champion of the World’ to the class under an oak tree in the playground. He then chuckled and re-called the great fun we’d had in re-writing well-known fairy tales and nursery rhymes in the style of a football commentator, a policeman or a high-court judge!
In my opinion the main ingredients for success in learning are ‘interest’ and ‘motivation.’ Good and enthusiastic teachers are, of course, the main factors in successful learning, but we shouldn’t underestimate the role that authors play in providing interest, information and motivation. Authors are able to stimulate the imagination of young people; take them into worlds of fascinating information, set them off on exciting investigations and hurl them into realms of fantasy, suspense and adventure. Good teachers and good authors have a knack of being able to get into the mindset of children and young people; taking time to listen to children and to understand what motivates and interests them. Also, authors of books for young people can play a huge part in motivating teachers. A good class book or novel is often the starting point of a whole term’s cross-curricular topic in Foundation and Primary schools. Secondary schools also use selected novels for theme and course work.
In Welsh schools we have Y Cwricwlwm Cymraeg, and the work of Welsh authors plays a huge part in bringing all aspects of the culture, heritage, nature and dynamism of Wales, traditional and modern, to young people in Wales and across the world.
The thirteen weeks that changed my life were back in 1964. Our regular teacher disappeared; we weren’t told why but the following term she brought a new baby in to show us! In the meantime we had a supply teacher called Miss Hughes, and this was where my life started to change. Until then my main motivation for going to school was my determination to prove that I could be a better footballer than ‘Lefty’ Price, who was universally acknowledged as the best footballer in the school!
All that was about to change. Miss Hughes immediately captured my interest, and Lefty’s interest come to that. She didn’t just read Treasure Island to us; she walked around the room acting out all the parts, often with a dodgy but totally spellbinding Bristol accent! I can remember the silence and tension in the classroom as she crept around, whispering menacingly, looking for a recipient for the dreaded ‘black spot’ as we all tried our best to avoid eye contact with her.
Miss Hughes read Oliver Twist to the class in a similar manner; I joined a public library for the first time in my life and devoured everything by Dickens that I could find. There were hard words and Miss Hughes suggested I keep a little notebook for the new words and phrases I discovered. I still keep notebooks and children in my school follow my example because, despite the wide range of multi-media entertainment devices on offer to young people, they still love to have books.
We weren’t simply told about The Romans by Miss Hughes, we re-arranged classroom furniture, re-enacted the battle on the bridge over the River Tiber with Romulus and Remus, and played out Julius Caesar’s expeditions to Britain. We used all sorts of materials to build a model of a Roman fort and I went back to the library and found everything I could on the Romans! Back in class I found I was able to contribute, confidently, to a visual timeline and talk about causes and consequences of historical events.
During my visits to the library I found the most brilliant book on The American Civil War and Miss Hughes encouraged me to carry out a research project, at home, on the subject. This was long before the National Curriculum came into being, but looking back I can see the key skills that Miss Hughes was helping us develop – literacy, communication, mathematical awareness, working with others, evaluating our work, investigation, problem solving and, in everything we did, thinking skills. Miss Hughes was teaching us how to learn; how to become interested, motivated and independent learners.
Well, Lefty retained his status as the best footballer in the school, but forty-six years on I have a degree in history, I’m a headteacher of a primary school, an American Civil War re-enactor and a published author. And, I have no doubt that it is all down to those thirteen weeks with Miss Hughes, Treasure Island, Oliver Twist and all the other gems I uncovered in the public library. I was motivated and inspired by a great teacher and by books, and as teachers and authors we have the power to do the same for many children and young people across our country and across the world.