I remember the day clearly, even though it was a few years ago. I was invited to my local primary school by the head. ‘It’s the summer fair and we thought you might like to have a book stall and sign some books,’ she said on the phone. ‘The children would love to see you again.’
Of course I said yes, having had such a great relationship with the school over the previous year or two. In the event it was a blazing hot day and the hall where I sat with my pen and books was empty apart from me and two people running a cake stall. All the kids were rightly outside throwing wellies and soaking each other with sponges. I’d signed a few copies but overall felt disappointed.
But then a woman scurried by with raffle tickets. I smiled as she passed and she did a double take and stopped, coming back and scanning the stall.
‘Oh, you’re that author – the one that worked with Y4 last term.’
‘Yes, that’s me.’
‘You write those funny books, don’t you?’
Before I could answer, she put down her box of tickets.
‘I need to tell you something,’ she said. ‘My son got a signed copy of your book when you came in and he read it over and over. He loved it so much the pages are battered now. He even reads it to his little sister.’
I smiled. This was music to my ears. She continued.
‘He’s a reader now. I could never get him to read anything before – I tried all sorts. But now he reads all the time, loves it. I just want to say thank you.’
Needless to say I sailed home on cloud nine, even though I’d sat for several hours in a hot stuffy room and had only signed a few books. It was worth it. Looking back, I knew that as an author visiting schools I could encourage children to read but I had never fully appreciated the power of putting the right book into the hands of the right child at the right moment. I now call it a breakthrough book.
These days as an author who visits schools across the UK and abroad I focus nearly exclusively on capturing readers, like the boy above. The value of children reading for pleasure is widely recognised but it’s also, in my view, hugely undervalued. There is a great deal of research evidence to show that reading for pleasure not only boosts academic performance but changes lives.
Children who read for pleasure immerse themselves in language, they begin to get to grips with the way words work and they develop all of those wonderful extras: increased understanding and empathy; general knowledge; awareness of how the world works. Usually they have better concentration and motivation too, of course.
But you know all this! The problem is that many children don’t read and don’t want to read. They’d much rather stare at screens and do many of the other things that are available to kids these days. I meet these children all the time when I visit schools but they do not stand a chance with their reluctance because I arrive with a secret weapon…
Rather, I deploy two irresistible weapons. One is contagious enthusiasm. And the second is funny facts. As an author I write humorous non-fiction books and have developed a recipe that KS2 children really enjoy. Of course everyone loves a good story and I tell those too but many of the 7-11s who don’t read will read jokes and will lap up fun facts presented in bite-sized chunks. Wordplay is a winner and shows that books can be fun.
Funny and well-designed non-fiction books have a huge appeal to this age group and can change attitudes to reading. I’m amazed that schools don’t have more of these books in libraries and classrooms.
But if schools really want to get children reading for pleasure and reaping the rewards then what is called for is the most powerful force of all that can be deployed against the negative attitudes and lack of home support that hold back the reluctant reader: INSPIRATION.
I see children inspired to read all the time. They write to me. Their teachers write to me. Their parents do as well. Fun non-fiction is a great tool for capturing readers but to get children really excited these books need advocates. They need someone to stand up there and enthuse and reveal the treasures inside – and what better person than the author?
Author visits can change attitudes, inspire even the toughest customer and fire up a whole school with a buzz about reading. The best ones are full of interaction, great Q&As, juicy insights into how writers write, a sense of aspiration and most vital of all, fun.
So if you want reading to rock in your school, get some great humorous non-fiction in, let children choose, and invite an author. You can find out about my visits at www.andyseed.com (other authors are available!).