Top of the Class

Last Thursday was World Book Day, and so when daughter No 1 asked if I would like to come and talk to her class of five year olds about being a writer….how could I refuse?  Quite easily actually, because I don’t write children’s books, and with both my daughters now being in their twenties, I’ve long lost an affinity to all things child related.

However, budgets are tight at my daughter’s school, and it wasn’t so much an ask, as a plea, so of course I said yes. I’d love to come and talk about being an author and deliver a ‘workshop’ to the class on story writing, after all the principles of story writing are the same for adults as for children. All books have a beginning, middle, and an end, and invariably involve characters with a problem or dilemma to overcome.

It’s a long time since my children were in infants school, and as a dutiful Mum I always tried to do my bit when parental help was needed – but my daughters went to school in semi-rural Hampshire. My daughter teaches at an inner city school in North London. A completely different kettle of fish.

However, I accepted the challenge and decided to keep things simple and concentrate on “creating characters” rather than re-writing War and Peace. Find me some hats, I told my daughter, and we’ll go from there. She approved my hastily drawn up plan – because naturally I had no more than a few days’ notice (why would I need any more?) – and I hurriedly composed a short story to read at the end of the session, because there’s no point pretending to be a magnificent story-teller if you haven’t got a story to tell.  Children can be very astute.

The plan was for groups to work as a team to come up with a character who wore their hat and plot a very basic story outline. Naturally there were squabbles, because although the hats were randomly placed on each group’s table, not everyone was happy with their allocated headgear. I tried to encourage imagination, think outside the box, take your character on a journey – we had picture prompts, boats and trains and buses. We talked about how an ordinary walk to school can provide inspiration; how listening to grandparents’ talking of the good old days, an overheard conversation on a bus, a favourite pet, can all spark ideas for stories.

Although the teamwork aspect left a lot to be desired, overall, I was impressed with the variety of characters the children created. Naturally the fireman’s hat belonged to a fireman, but with a few prompts, a story developed of a team of firemen who lived in their fire-engine, sleeping in bunkbeds. We had a pilot who took his plane into the future and into the past – and to Jamaica so that he could have a McDonalds, and possibly a swim and sit on the beach. We had a giraffe who escaped from London zoo, and a far less charming and slightly alarming plotline from one child which could have come straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie.

My own story involved Buttons the Bear, who worried too much, unless he wore his grandma’s hat, which he subsequently lost.  The story seemed to go down very well with Year 1, but when I repeated the workshop to Year 2 – where flesh eating pizzas appeared on one group’s storyboard – they seemed slightly less enthralled. Sadly, Buttons is probably not going to be the next Gruffalo.

However, the staff were very grateful I had turned up. Visitors always go down well, something different to break the routine. Once, along ago, I mentioned to my mother I’d like to be a teacher. My mother – who was a teacher – promptly handed me a book entitled ‘Don’t Do It’ which had been given to her back in the 1950s when she first qualified.  It was always going to be a no-go area for me, but my daughter is a natural and I have every admiration for anyone who can stand up in a classroom of thirty children – of varying abilities and levels of engagement – and motivate them to be the best they can. After one morning in the classroom I was exhausted.

It was another journey out of my comfort zone; with no financial reward, or opportunity to self-promote, but this wasn’t about me.  This was about sharing my love of reading and writing and hopefully instilling a little of that passion in others.  And who knows, I could well have inspired a whole new generation of authors – because when I asked who wanted to be a writer when they grew up, thirty hands shot up in the air!

That’s the magic of books!

And in a post-script to my last post, over 900 people have now signed the petition at Lowford Library protesting against Hampshire’s plans to cut services. Fingers crossed the community will continue to have access to their local libary.

SOS – Save Our Services

Last week I received a plea for help from a lovely lady called  Eve. I first met Eve when I volunteered at my local community library in the village of Lowford in Hampshire.  Community libraries are run by the council’s library service, who provide the books and technical support, but don’t employ any full-time staff. Eve is one of a group of approximately 25 regular volunteers who keep this library open six days a week.

Hardworking volunteers give up their time to support the library service

Hampshire County Council have announced plans to reduce the library service in order to save £1.76 m from their budget.    The Council have issued a very bulky consultation document to argue their case for cutting these services (if there is one device guaranteed to deter the public from gleaning facts it’s a bulky consultation document). One option they are considering is to close ten Hampshire libraries completely, the other is for a reduction in hours across all libraries in the county. Plus they intend to withdraw support from the four community libraries in the county to save another £49,000, which would make a total of 14 libraries to close.

Eve asked if I could help raise awareness of the campaign against these cuts through my links on social media. Unfortunately, I don’t have as much clout on social media as Eve thinks I do but I promised to do my bit.  Several Hampshire authors  with far more influence than me, Neil Gaiman, Clare Fuller, David Nicholls to name three, have already taken up the fight and are shouting loud about the detrimental effects on local communities.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hampshire-51106608

One of my earliest childhood memories is the weekly visit to the village library. It was situated above a fire-station, and involved a climb up some very steep stairs. It wasn’t very big, and I grew up in a house where we already had plenty of books, but this weekly visit was a treat. It’s where I read my first Dr Seuss.

When I had my own children, I took them to the library too. My kids took part in story-time, craft sessions and summer reading challenges. A visit to the library was part and parcel of growing up. Give a child a book, and you give a child a window to a whole new world.

But that was back in the good old days, when public libraries were considered an essential part of a community, when cultural enlightenment and education were valued by the powers that be and readily available for all. Now in this affluent, progressive 21st century, these resources are being eroded. Why? What sort of society are we creating where these aspirations are given such little value?

The people of Lowford fought hard to establish their library.  After a somewhat shaky start due to an internal dispute in local politics, this library is essentially only in its third full year of operation. It is situated in a purpose built community centre and the library hosts several community groups – Knit and Natter, a book club, a creative writing group, a scrabble club, and there is the potential for more. Local pre-schools and nurseries make regular visits, as do the local Citizens Advice Bureau. There is a flourishing, independently run café upstairs in the same building, which again is just taking off. It’s the sort of facility a council should be proud of.


A show of support for Lowford Library – the Community has come together to support the campaign to save valuable library services in Hampshire

Thousands of new homes are currently being built across Hampshire, several hundred within a two mile radius of Lowford alone. An influx of population at the same time as proposed cuts to local services doesn’t make any sense at all.

Anyone who has ever visited a library will know that it is so much more than a place to come and simply borrow books.   I wonder how many of these councillors sat in their high castle at Winchester have ever been stuck at home with a fractious toddler, and thought, let’s take a walk to the library? How many of these decision-makers have spent a lonely, isolated, afternoon and decided to visit their local library just to get out of the house and seek a friendly face?

The Council argue ‘other libraries are available’, which they are – a car ride away. Don’t get me started on public transport services in rural communities…

They are suggesting if financial support for the community libraries is withdrawn volunteers could take on the ‘autonomous’ running of the facility. The volunteers at Lowford already give up their time freely to support the library, they don’t want to run it. There is a huge difference.

I no longer live close to Lowford, but I’ve signed their petition and I’ve completed the relevant sections on the consultation form regarding Hampshire’s plans. Contrary to all the normal library rules and regulations this is not the time to BE QUIET!

I don’t often get on my high horse, but I suppose the message I want to get across is if do you have a library in your community use it, because if you don’t it’ll be gone in a blink of an eye. And if you do live in Hampshire, please make your thoughts known at

https://www.hants.gov.uk/aboutthecouncil/haveyoursay/consultations/library-consultation

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