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Book festivals can inspire reading & writing

The Appledore Book Festival, which takes place each autumn, has become a key fixture in local schools' calendar, with author events recognised as giving a huge boost to pupils' enthusiasm for reading and writing. Organisers Janet Fisher and Carol Smith tell us more!

Appledore Book Festival was started in 2006 by author Nick Arnold in order to save Appledore Library. The Schools Programme, which the festival sponsors, was previously held during the same week as the main Festival, at the end of September / beginning of October, but it has now been extended beyond those dates.

Schools taking part in the festival pay for each session, authors are paid a fee per day and together with the sponsorship from the main Appledore Book Festival, we are able to cover the cost of undertaking this programme. Carol Smith and I took over the running of the programme at the end of 2012; Carol has a background in education and mine is in school libraries so we made a good match!

For those who don't know North Devon, except as a holiday destination, it is a very rural area with a number of small primary schools feeding into the secondary schools (all of the latter have School Librarians). The main town is Barnstaple, and Appledore is along the coast from Bideford, with a heritage of ship building.

We made a decision early on to concentrate on early years as well as widening the coverage of the primary schools. Most of the secondary schools in the area had taken part before but this year we managed to include all of them, including two private schools. So last year we had 34 schools and playgroups taking part, this year we had 40! We had 18 authors going round these 40 schools with 75 events during five days between 15-19th September.

We chose our authors very carefully to try and present to children and young people the very best from British children's and YA literature and were extra specially lucky to have Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman accept our invitation to come and talk to Yr 9s from 14 secondary schools in the area and beyond!

For the pre-school groups and Reception and Year 1 we had Layn Marlow, Jan Dobbins, Tracey Corderoy, Kathryn White and Clare Beaton. For Junior Schools we had Philip Ardagh, Tracey Corderoy, C.J. Busby, Clare Barker, John Dougherty and poet Roger Stevens. For the secondary schools we had Sam Angus, Lucy Jones, Paul Dowswell, Christopher Edge, Gill Lewis, Jamie Thomson, Bali Rai, and of course Malorie Blackman. Seven of these authors were making their second visit to Appledore -- because many of our schools had not had the opportunity to see them last year.

We do pride ourselves that we look after our authors very well -- they are met at the station, stay in a beautiful hotel in Appledore, The Seagate, are driven round while they are with us -- this is partly because we know we would probably lose some of them in our Devon lanes! But it does mean they can concentrate on doing what they do best instead of worrying about navigation

Early in the year once the authors were agreed, Carol sent a letter out to all schools which had participated in 2013, and also to schools who had expressed interest before but not taken up the offer. Unsolicited, we then acquired a new secondary school in Ilfracombe and four primary schools. Carol went out to the local playgroups in Appledore to encourage them to take part again. We were able to sponsor their author visits thanks to sponsorship of the main festival, also covering a session in some of the primary schools in the more deprived parts of our area.

After this we held two meetings of teachers and librarians, one primary and one secondary, where we talked about the books, enabled those present to look at the books and begin to make their choice of authors. This took place in March and April and after choices have been made, Carol and I sat down to look at timetables! Because of the nature of the area with its schools widely scattered, this requires some time and causes many headaches as we have to make judgements on how long it takes to get to schools without breaking speed limits on our rural lanes, and frightening the authors! Normally we ask authors to do two sessions in the day but often they have preferred to do three and this does work although lunch is often a snatched sandwich!

We have very good relations with the Devon Library Service, particularly with Sharon Dixon, children's supervisor at Barnstaple Library, whose idea it was to have small schools visit the library in small groups and thus cutting the cost of an author visit. I am not sure that the staff and customers at Barnstaple Library will ever get over the visit by John Dougherty where he played his guitar and sang, particularly his rendition of 'I really need a wee!'

We sponsored Clare Beaton and Layn Marlow going to the Mother and Toddler Groups at Bideford and Barnstaple Library, thus including some more of the very small people!

All this takes much email traffic between us, the authors and the schools, matching expectations and requirements and making sure we have the right age group for the right author. We do try very hard not to have very large groups; we want to include as many children as possible, but also to make sure that the experience for the children is the best we can give them.

The week itself was truly marvellous, even though we say it ourselves! Our authors were real troupers! I saw Chris Edge talk to groups at Bideford College where he co-wrote with them a mystery story, - funny how the villain was often the Head Teacher! Gill Lewis had a life size model of an osprey and some wings to illustrate how one could fly -- I have to report that no-one actually did! Tracey Corderoy worked her magic on small and larger people in far flung schools -- she travels with an enormous bag of tricks! We have a music-based playgroup in Appledore where Jan Dobbins talents were put to good use, and Clare Beaton, who is completely unflappable, helped groups of youngsters make lovely collage pictures of their faces!

Philip Ardagh, who is larger than life, reduced his audiences to laughter so many times that he had to stop to let them recover while John Dougherty, in between the laughter, managed to talk seriously about reading, too.

We had a small World War I focus and Paul Dowswell talked about his novel Eleven Eleven to great effect. This was Paul's second visit to Appledore; last year he talked to a spellbound yr 6-7 transition audience about a painting of Nelson dying on the Victory. Sam Angus talked about her two books about the Great War and Roger Stevens used his book of war poetry to great effect.

North Devon does not have the same multi-cultural mix as a city would have, so it was very good for our yr 9s to meet Bali Rai whose books are set in inner city Leicester and reflect the Asian community there. He electrified and challenged them in equal measure and was so motivational about the importance of reading.

The finale of our week was the visit by Malorie Blackman on the Friday morning. We are very lucky in that one of our newer secondary schools, Bideford College has the most magnificent Devon Hall. We invited all the secondary schools in the area and some from outside the area. More than 400 of them came by minibus and coach to see her. They were not disappointed! Malorie inspired and motivated them and then signed books for two hours.

The value of an author visit is proved to us by the very fact that schools had more sessions this year than last. Two schools who took part in the library sessions last year to share the cost had their own author visits this year. The impact of an author visit to a small rural school where often all the children are involved is immense, helping with motivation for reading and writing. When children are engaged and prepared, it provides impetus for many weeks to come.

One or two authors do ask for the work they are going to talk about not to be read to the group, finding that a new work makes more impact upon the children, especially with early years. The head teacher and/or literacy co-ordinator's influence is crucial. Where the Head Teacher is engaged, comes to see the author, and generally takes part in the visit then there is more lasting influence. Where the literacy head /co-ordinator can find the money in her budget for a visit, then again preparation is done as well as follow up work. Authors get letters from children, art work is undertaken and so on.

Last year (2013), we had all but one of our local secondary schools involved, and have noticed that this year more sessions have been booked. It really helps that they all have school librarians, who meet regularly and really know their students and books. They are able to use the Schools Library Service well to make sure there are enough copies of books to read before the summer holidays, and that there are displays in the library, and together with the English department are able to engender real enthusiasm for the authors and their books. This year in fact the History department at one secondary school was so impressed by Paul Dowswell's talk on his book 'Eleven Eleven' that they have ordered two sets of his books. It is this work behind the scenes both by Carol Smith and the school librarians that make sure the author is talking to the right audience at the right level.

There is no doubt that the teachers' meeting, where they choose their authors, really helped this year, giving an opportunity to talk together about who they had last year, whether they engaged the children and inspired them to read and write, and as the programme progresses this network will surely build.

There is still work to do to make sure children get the very best out of author visits The timing presents problems for all the schools as it is so near the beginning of the Autumn term, but the link with the main Festival does need to be there With the primary schools there is often a change of the teacher we liaise with between the summer and the autumn terms, which does not help continuity, and with all schools there is a difficulty with getting books into children's hands before the visit.

Not all schools use the Schools Library Service, whose support helps with the many children from homes where there is not a book buying culture or enough money to buy books, and often of course the interest is during and after the event. But to provide a bookshop in every school for the visits is obviously not something we can do! Waterstones gave the schools a great deal for the buying of books beforehand and we hope more schools will take that up over the next few years. What we hope is that, as schools have more author visits and see the resulting interest in reading and writing, more work before and after will happen.

On the plus side, schools which last year took part in the library sessions to bring the cost down, this year had author visits of their own. There was great enthusiasm amongst teachers to attend the meetings in March/April and real excitement about the choice of authors. All the feedback has been very positive, particularly on the effect of the visits on children and young people, and their reading and writing, and this is why we do it!

Janet Fisher and Carol Smith

02/12/2014Book festivals can inspire reading & writing
  • Janet and Carol have done an amazing job with running the Appledore Schools Festival and helping to bring books alive for all who partook in events. We are still receiving such positive comments from children, parents and teachers who attended sessions here at Barnstaple library. It has been a pleasure working alongside two such dedicated and professional fellow book lovers.
    Sharon Dixon 03/12/2014
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