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Book day 'opens' prison door

Nationwide event will transport pupils to other worlds. Adi Bloom reports

Beverley Naidoo, the award-winning children's author, was a teenager in apartheid South Africa when peaceful demonstrators were shot and killed by police.

As a white pupil, she did not question the killings. Instead, she willingly believed rumours that the black demonstrators had been coming to attack white residents in Johannesburg.

"We can remain very blinkered in our own environment," said Ms Naidoo.

"It's important that we go beyond our own experiences and connect with other people. Ultimately, we're all human beings."

This is the lesson that she hopes pupils will take away from World Book Day, held on March 4. "Books are wonderful vehicles for carrying us into other worlds," she said. "Through a work of fiction, I can be taken into someone else's reality, opening doors into their innermost experiences.

Books expand our understanding of human beings."

Ms Naidoo has written a series of books depicting life in Africa. In 2001, she won the Carnegie Medal for The Other Side of Truth, a novel about two Nigerian refugee children. To mark World Book Day, she will conduct a question-and-answer session from Robben Island, the South African prison for anti-apartheid dissidents where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years. Via video conferencing, she will take Year 9 pupils at Ilfracombe community college, in Devon, on a guided tour of the island.

Abi Burley, 13, one of the pupils who will take part, said novels had provided her with essential background to the link-up. She said: "Books are a good way to educate yourself about other people's cultures. I don't know any coloured people, but when I meet them, I'll know about their history because of what I've read."

The Robben Island link-up is one of a range of events being held nationwide to mark World Book Day. Charity Book Aid International will be publishing a compilation of stories, poems and illustrations on March 4, including contributions from British, Ugandan and Ghanaian authors. An internet book festival will also be held throughout the day, offering online discussions with authors including Jacqueline Wilson and Nick Hornby.

The highlight of the festival will be a session in which questions from pupils will be posed to JK Rowling author of the Harry Potter books. World Book Day organisers are also encouraging schools to hold their own book-related events. Some schools have asked pupils to dress as their favourite characters, or have set aside part of the day for private reading.

In an attempt to persuade pupils that reading should not be limited to one day of the year, Longfield special-needs centre, in Guernsey, will be holding a school-based lie-in. Pupils, dressed in pyjamas, will bring duvets into school, curling up on the floor while pyjama-clad staff read to them.

Val Gilbert, Longfield head, said: "Nowadays, not many children have bedtime stories. They watch videos instead. But bedtime-reading is such a nice, cosy time. It helps speaking and reading. And just handling books is so important for children. We want to encourage pupils to ask for a story at bedtime."

Jo Howard, vice-chair of World Book Day, believes that it is vital that children are encouraged to take an interest in books.

She said: "A lot of children have very ordinary lives. But books can take you anywhere, opening up new possibilities. Reading can also inspire children to tap into their creativity. There are precious few opportunities for that in life."

Opinion 23

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