Show Hide image

Out of the toy cupboard

Children’s authors are rarely asked for their opinion on how to get children reading. Why not?

People who write for children are people. There are occasions when this can be a hard position to sustain because there are some who think that children aren't people, so people who write for children must be children, too. Because we are people, we come in many different forms. The great comedian Joyce Grenfell was quite entitled to do a monologue in which the children's writer is a patronising, fey, untruthful, money-grubbing person with a particular passion for writing about middle-class children who clamber on cliffs.

I think taxi drivers are entitled to ask me if I have the mind of a child. I can even put up with the Daily Mail "journalist" who rang me up several times to challenge me quite aggressively for earning part of my living by doing performances and workshops in schools. He seemed to think that a book that costs £6 would earn me £6 and was surprised when I told him that it earned me 15p. Perhaps his main source of information about children's writers was Joyce Grenfell. Of course, I was glad to upgrade his knowledge base, along with reminding him that the conversation we were having at that very moment - along with the many other long conversations I have with salaried journalists writing articles about children's books - was earning me nothing.

So when and why are children's authors taken out of the toy cupboard and given an airing? Your rough guide to likely reasons goes like this: 1) The author of a brand-new children's book about some characters called Wifflies is a celebrity once seen in a jungle, on ice or in Buckingham Palace. 2) The author sold a billion books last week. 3) The author's writing has been described by a bishop, Tory MP or private-school head teacher as obscene, left-wing, miserable, atheistic, horrific, violent, gay or feminist. 4) A publishing company has republished an old family favourite but edited out nice old family-favourite expressions such as "nigger". 5) The author is dead, English and classic but (it has just been discovered) had a very, very small penis, was hated by his grandchildren, had an affair with Trotsky and told lies about his incarcerated younger sister "Giddyboots".

Writing for children is looked at regularly, thoughtfully and seriously in the Guardian, the Observer, their websites and the Sunday Times, but irregularly on BBC Radio 2, 3 and 4, and only sporadically (usually as special features) on television. Oddly, bafflingly, absurdly, there never has been any part of any TV programme, daytime or evening, that regularly and often helps parents, carers, relatives and teachers choose books for children of all ages.

But if you fancy being really baffled by attitudes to writing for children, then the world of education is the place to go. As a writer for children, you cannot escape the politics of literacy. Your books enter the politicised worlds of how children learn to read, what kinds of texts pupils read throughout school, what pupils are asked to do with those texts, who is responsible (if anyone) for reading out of school, library provision, and what role writers have (if any) in education. For some of us - especially if we have children of our own - this also draws us into debates about what state education should be and what childhood is.

When my first book for children came out, in 1974, I should have had every reason to know what I was doing. Both my parents were by then teacher-trainers, writers of books for teachers about children's talk and writing, with decades of experience of engaging pupils from four to 18 in literature. In fact, I was surprised by the way in which I was welcomed into the intersecting worlds of children's literature: schools, libraries, children's book groups, publishers' and editors' conferences, teacher-training courses, teachers' conferences and, on occasions, radio and TV appearances. At that very moment, policies on literacy were being thrashed out by people such as my parents alongside teachers in their professional organisations and local-authority advisers and inspectors. This was supported by a massive body of theory based on close observation of how children learn and teachers teach.

It's important here to remember that all this work was rubbished, mocked and caricatured by Tory grandees such as the singularly un-shy Kenneth Baker and then, ten years later, in one fell swoop thrown off the stage by New Labour. Literacy from three to 18 has been put through several ideological mills, which I would typify like this: 1) Mechanistic: children are like pieces of metal on a car production line. You apply short, sharp actions to them. These cause change. The changes are continued until the finished child is produced. 2) Business: teachers' input (the short, sharp actions) can be measured in terms of pupils' output (as represented by test scores). 3) Structuralist: all texts belong to a particular genre and in that genre they have a particular structure. Teaching literacy is about teaching the structure of the genre. 4) Chauvinist: English literature is the greatest in the world and pupils must be taught "major" or "key" representatives of that tradition.

We writers are drawn into this nexus. At arms' length, it might be because our books are reviewed or recommended in teachers' or librarians' journals. At close quarters, it might be because we find ourselves in a classroom or a school hall reading, talking, performing our work. But why? Across the nearly 40 years of my doing this almost every week of those years, I can see that the answer to that question has twisted and turned many times. Or put another way, in some places and in some periods, I - and writers like me - have been welcome and in other places and times we haven't been.

Scene 1 (five years ago). I've arrived in a school, invited by the head to do a performance of my poems to the whole school. In my mind, I think that doing this shows children several things at the same time: it is OK to express and relate personal experience; in sharing this collectively, orally, rhythmically and with participation we create in that moment a co-operating mini community of enjoyment; in being specific about my cultural origins, I invite everyone to be "inter-cultural"; by making the written word oral I offer a bridge to literacy that schools can carry on long after I've gone, through children's own reading and writing - for which I offer many cues and triggers.

However, as I'm walking with many children along the corridor to the hall, I overhear two teachers in front of me complaining: "We've got this poet now, haven't we? This is really interfering with my literacy hour." (Jargon alert: the "literacy hour" was the brainwave invention of the hacks who worked for New Labour, which determined what fragments of literacy (!) would be taught - and how - to every child in every state English primary school, in which year, which term and which week, and for how long.

It was "delivered" through diktat and document, policed by Ofsted, "Sats tests" and school league tables. It engaged the intellectual endeavour of thousands of advisers, inspectors, consultants and academics - many of whom did so against their own beliefs - and the whole blooming lot was junked in the last days of the New Labour regime.)

Scene 2 (three months ago). A teacher tells me that her head teacher has asked that all "real books" be removed from early years' classrooms. (Jargon alert: a "real book" is the kind of book that you see in a bookshop, like Where the Wild Things Are. The books that will be staying in the classrooms of these three-to-six-year-olds are booklets that teach children how to read through "synthetic phonics". When schools buy these schemes - so long as they are the government-approved ones - they will be given subsidies of up to £6,000 per school. Synthetic phonics is a system of teaching children to read using two methods: relating letters (and combinations of letters) to sounds; learning some whole words as whole words, for example "was" or "would", which are not "regular". Visual, contextual and semantic assistance is frowned on or banned. )

Scene 3 (a few weeks ago). I am at the Department for Education because the schools minister Nick Gibb wants to talk to me about "encouraging children to read books". He explains that he's nearly got the phonics in place everywhere. He accepts that we disagree about that, but he now wants to tackle the syndrome of "can read, won't read". My mind rocks back to a parallel universe where I sat in a room at the House of Commons trying but failing to convince a rather truculent Ed Balls and Jim Knight that if they really wanted to "lever up standards" then every piece of research from anywhere in the world points towards getting children to read independently, at home, widely, often and for pleasure (see, in particular, a more recent study: Mariah Evans's work from the University of Nevada, 2010).

Authors and illustrators for children are part of a long history of trying to engage children's interest in anything from factual, ideological, figurative and graphic traditions. Sometimes we separate ideas and feelings, sometimes we combine them. Sometimes we engage in argument and discussion, sometimes in suggestion and metaphor. Sometimes we are concerned with how cultures are represented, sometimes in how knowledge is.

I take all this to be kinds of wisdom. The makers of children's books are people who spend their lives trying to figure out ways to make this wisdom interesting and the results are there in anything from almost wordless board books through to the "young adult" books. In brief, we know what we're doing. What infuriates me - and virtually every other writer for children I meet - is that the past 30 years has seen successive governments waging war on the democratic sharing of this wisdom. One moment they've tried to control the selection, the next the pedagogy about it, the next its removal - whether by replacing it with barking at letters (phonics), an explosion of worksheets and tests based on excerpts (not whole books) or by closing libraries. This has gone on even as minister after minister has unconvincingly blethered on about this or that great author they once read or wished they had.

Sometimes you'll hear me, Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, Malorie Blackman, Beverley Naidoo, Bali Rai, Melvin Burgess, Anne Fine, Alan Gibbons and many other authors expressing their misgivings about some or all of this. Forgive my rather French use of the word, but I think that that's precisely what intellectuals should be doing.

That said, more often than not it's been the persistence, humanity and courage of classroom teachers and school librarians, and their professional organisations, that has held out against this philistinism - as exemplified by the NUT's magnificent "Reading for Pleasure" documents and conferences, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education's "Power of Reading" courses and materials, along with the work of Booktrust, National Literacy Trust, the Reading Agency, the United Kingdom Literacy Association, the English and Media Centre and many more. Writers for children work with all of them. I repeat: we know what we're doing.

Michael Rosen's most recent book is "Even My Ears Are Smiling" (Bloomsbury, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

It's time for the government to think again about Hinkley Point

The government's new nuclear power station is a white elephant that we simply don't need.

Today I will welcome Denis Baupin, Vice President of the French Assembly, to Hinkley.

His own choice to come and visit the site of the proposed new nuclear power station reflects his strong desire to prevent the UK disappearing up a dangerous dark alley in terms of energy policy. It also takes place as France takes a totally different path, with the French government recently adopting a law which will reduce nuclear energy in the country.

Greens have opposed Hinkley ever since the government announced its nuclear strategy. Hinkley, with its state aid and an agreed strike price of £92.50 per megawatt, has always been financially and legally suspect but it is now reaching the level of farce. So much so that George Osborne is required to be economical with the truth in front of a House of Lords committee because he cannot find anything honest to say about why this is a good deal for the British people.

Mr Baupin and I will join hundreds of protestors – and a white elephant – to stand in solidarity against this terrible project. The demonstration is taking place under a banner of the triple risks of Hinkley. 

First, there are the safety and technological risks. It is clear that the Pressurised Water nuclear reactor (EPR) – the design proposed for Hinkley C – simply does not work. France’s nuclear safety watchdog has found multiple malfunctioning valves that could cause meltdown, in a similar scenario to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US.  The steel reactor vessel, which houses the plant’s nuclear fuel and confines its radioactivity, was also found to have serious anomalies that increase the risk of it cracking. Apart from the obvious safety risks, the problems experienced by the EPR reactors being built at Flammanvile in France and Olkiluoto in Finland have pushed the projects years behind schedule.

Secondly, Hinkley poses risks to our energy security. Hinkley is supposed to produce 7% of the UK's energy. But we now know there will be no electricity from the new nuclear plant until at least 2023. This makes power blackouts over the next decade increasingly likely and the only way to avoid them is to rapidly invest in renewable energy, particularly onshore wind. Earlier this week Bloomberg produced a report showing that onshore wind is now the cheapest way to generate electricity in both the UK and Germany. But instead of supporting onshore wind this government is undermining it by attacking subsidies to renewables and destroying jobs in the sector. 

Thirdly, there is the risk of Chinese finance. In a globalised world we are expected to consider the option of allowing foreign companies and governments to control our essential infrastructure. But it is clear that in bequeathing our infrastructure we lose the political control that strengthens our security. The Chinese companies who will be part of the deal are part owned by the Chinese government and therefore controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. What a toppy-turvy world globalisation has created, where our Conservative British government is inviting the Chinese Communist party to control our energy infrastructure. It also seems that China National Nuclear Company is responsible for the manufacture of Chinese nuclear weapons.

Of course it is the Chinese people who suffer most, being at the hands of an oppressive government and uncontrolled companies which show little respect for employment rights or environmental standards. By offering money to such companies from British consumers through their energy bills our government is forcing us to collude in the low human rights and environmental standards seen in China.  

Research I commissioned earlier this year concluded we can transform the South West, not with nuclear, but with renewables. We can generate 100 per cent of our energy needs from renewables within the next 20-30 years and create 122,000 new quality jobs and boost the regional economy by over £4bn a year.

The white elephant of Hinkley looks increasingly shaky on its feet. Only the government’s deeply risky ideological crusade against renewables and in favour of nuclear keeps it standing. It’s time for it to fall and for communities in the South West to create in its place a renewable energy revolution, which will lead to our own Western Powerhouse. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.