How to make books a big, big turn-off

If we want children to be literate, we should uncork the bottles marked 'passion' and 'a cracking story', and mix the contents thoroughly. We shouldn't be fretting about things like tick-boxes.

If we want children to be literate, we should uncork the bottles marked 'passion' and 'a cracking story', and mix the contents thoroughly. We shouldn't be fretting about things like tick-boxes. Author Michael Morpurgo tells Steven Russell how we're stifling creativity. Plus: details of The Suffolk Young Poets Competition for 2006

SUMMERS at Bradwell-on-Sea are paradise for a lad on his school holidays. There's the shore of the River Blackwater to investigate, the marshes to explore, and a big family home in which to play with his brother.

Life, for the seven or eight or so years he lives there, is rich and colourful. There's an old lady living nearby in a former railway carriage, and a big hoo-hah brewing over plans for a Magnox nuclear reactor on the coast. Michael Morpurgo and his mother stand by a brazier during fruitless protests against the power station being built. It's the first time he witnesses adults arguing in such a heated way.

The advent of a new term always casts a dark shadow, however. Ten days or so before he's obliged to return to the classroom, his mother begins the lengthy job of packing his trunk. It leaves young Michael feeling physically sick, as he anticipates the journey back to prep school in Sussex, where he is a boarder.


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He's at his lowest when he glimpses a kaleidoscope of school caps milling around the concourse of Victoria station. Michael shuts himself in the train toilet during the journey, so his schoolmates do not see the tears of homesickness.

His ability at sport and singing helps him through the bad times. Fearful of the masters, and desperate not to utter something daft in front of his peers, he tries to blend into the background during lessons. He doesn't enjoy stories or poems read in class - awaiting his turn to read aloud is agonising - and there are many tests to endure.

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Which neatly brings us forward five decades: to a period when classroom life is again punctuated by tests and where there's limited time to arouse the imagination by spinning a yarn (as the beginning of this article attempts to do in some small way).

Asking Michael Morpurgo - now 63 - to comment on the state of UK literacy is like lighting the blue touch paper and waiting for the firework to go off. He cares passionately, having been a teacher for 10 years before becoming a children's author and writing more than 100 books. He served as the third Children's Laureate until last summer, explaining he wanted youngsters “to discover and rediscover the secret pleasure that is reading, and to begin to find their voice in their own writing”.

Instilling a love of words (which is his definition of being literate) ideally needs to begin in the cradle, with parent and child looking at and talking about books and pictures. “This has to come virtually with the mother's milk. You confirm in their heads that with a story is where they want to be.”

Fortunate children then have teachers who reflect, encourage and develop their passion for all things literary - and there are thousands of them about, he says. However, there are thousands more who don't read for pleasure, yet have the job of enthusing children about stories and poetry.

Another thing: we used to enjoy Listen with Mother and Jackanory. “It was part of the regular pattern of a child's day, but it all went.” The signal that sends is that literacy is not important, says Michael.

Similarly, closing libraries in order to save money - a dozen is shutting in Devon, where he lives - is a retrograde step. “Some people will be able to travel, but it's important that books are available to those on low incomes and those who don't have a car. A healthy library is a sign of a healthy society.”

Michael accepts the Government recognises the need for greater literacy levels, but it's not tackling the root of the problem. Schools' “literacy hour”, where bits of books might be read and analysed, is just a deathly concept, he says.

The author doesn't blame teachers. They should be helped to be enthusiastic about literature before they set foot in a classroom, he argues, but in practice they're often stretched, tired and lack the opportunities to recharge their creative batteries. The emphasis on testing and box-ticking creates an insidious fear, with teachers wary of straying from the established method of working.

Instead of children being obliged to do things like writing a story in 45 minutes, following little creative input, he'd grant them more time to dream - to gaze out of the window if necessary. You can't write effectively unless ideas have been worked out in your mind, he insists. It's the method he uses: committing a tale to paper only when the shape and voice of the story has been forged in his head.

“If you're doing something about whales, for example, you should immerse yourself in the subject: reading about whales, listening to whale music, talking about whales; watching Free Willy, even. Then you can give them two weeks, say, to produce a piece of work well or badly - but do give them the time and the space to think about it properly.”

Literacy, for Michael, is about humans connecting. “It is part philosophy, part exploration. It is very difficult to define, but that's how the thing works. It is all the things that make us the same and all the things that make us different.”

It is being able to read writings about wars, the environment and other fundamental issues, and consequently being able to make informed decisions. It is also about being excited and enthralled by story-telling - a key human need, he believes.

Britain ought to be lauding its literary heritage - an area in which it has excelled in - but we don't do it enough, he feels. Go to France and Russia and you'll see streets and squares named after the likes of Balzac, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Gosh. It's all a bit pessimistic when viewed in the context of a world that appears to value fast-moving TV images, computer graphics, text messaging and bullet points above considered and reflective writing.

“There's no cause to be depressed,” Michael suggests, “because as long as people like you and me are discussing it, it will be all right.

“The danger is that people hive themselves off into groups on their own - into the kinds of groups who go to po-etry festivals and read newspapers. Literacy, unfortunately, is still seen as a middle-class pastime.”

The basics:

Michael Morpurgo was born in St Albans

He was in the Army for a short time, but left following his marriage to Clare

In 1976 Michael and Clare started the charity Farms For City Children, which has given 50,000 children from urban areas a break on working farms in Devon, Wales and Gloucestershire

His books often tackle social issues

Out of the Ashes is about the foot and mouth crisis

Why the Whales Came was made into a film starring Helen Mirren

The Butterfly Lion, the 1996 Nestlé Smarties Book Prize Gold Award winner, makes use of his unhappy experi-ences at boarding school

Kensuke's Kingdom, about a boy who survives on an island after falling from his parents' boat, won the Chil-dren's Book Award in 2000

Private Peaceful, set during the 1939-45 war, was the Blue Peter Book of the Year

Michael says of reading: “The books that really give us satisfaction, which really do succeed, are the ones where you think 'That's new. That's different' and give you a new slant on how human beings behave or on some particular part of history or some place - about human nature more than anything else and how we interact. But it has to be at the same time entertaining. You need to turn the page, to want the story to move on”

Web link: www.michaelmorpurgo.org

Some biographical material for this article was drawn from Geoff Fox's book Dear Mr Morpingo, which gives details of Michael Morpurgo's life, the ideas behind his stories and how he writes. It's published by Wizard Books and costs £5.99. ISBN

1 84046 607 3

MICHAEL Morpurgo will be at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in November, presenting prizes to winners of the Suffolk Young Poets Competition 2006.

It's sponsored by the East Anglian Daily Times - for the 18th year! - and The Poetry Trust is now accepting entries. There are two age groups - 11 years and under, and 12-19 years, as at July 31 - and the contest is open to all young poets living in Suffolk or attending a school in the county during 2005-6.

Up to 15 £20 book tokens will be awarded, with the winners reading their work at the first event of the festival on November 3.

Full details can be found on The Poetry Trust's web site - www.aldeburghpoetryfestival.org - where last year's winning poems can also be read.

This year, the trust is also giving some handy advice for would-be writers:

How to write a good poem

Poems can be about anything - your brother, your pet hamster, going swimming - anything that matters to you. Things that happen in your life: special occasions or everyday events, a friendship, a smile, a broken window. Things that amuse or disappoint you, scare you or make you happy.

Use your senses - see, smell and hear the things in your poem and share them with your reader. Try thinking of yourself as a camera - show the reader in words the pictures you can see.

Build your poem with details and objects. Here are some examples of things from last year's winning poems: a hedgehog with a prickly coat scuffing for slugs, a washing-machine spinning, a battered black handbag with a stiff clasp and crumpled lining, beaters armed with stout sticks whacking tree trunks.

Use your favourite words, words you like to say. Poems don't need to rhyme or have special flowery language. Enjoy all the different sounds you can make. Have fun! Use comparisons, be inventive. Surprise yourself.

Read your poem out loud and see how it sounds. Which bits did you like best? Have you used the same word twice? Have you used two words where one will do? Can you find any better words? Is your poem too long? Is it in the right order? See if you can improve it.

Now try reading your poem to a friend. See what they make of it. Are there any boring bits? Do they understand what it's about? How could you make it clearer? Make changes.

Notes for teachers

The judges will be looking for crafted poems that have a shape that works - that develop from an engaging opening and reach a satisfying conclusion. Poems with lively and precise language.

Feel free to work on the poems with your pupils through discussion to find the best words and images. Encourage them to take a subject and make it personal, to see things with fresh eyes. Suggest making each line a unit of meaning and discuss with them how line endings can add to the impact of the writing.

“Send us your pupils' best poems,” says the trust. “They can have been written at any time in the current school year. So the key is to provide them with lots of opportunities to write different types of poems.

“If you've attended our free Teachers Workshops you'll be armed with a wide range of activities and structures to use with your classes. If you haven't, they take place each term - contact us for booking details on 01986 835950 or by email.” (info@thepoetrytrust.org)

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