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Catalyst has S3s reading for fun

Pupils seem to lose their way to the library in secondary school but North Lanarkshire has found a way to keep them on track, writes Miranda Fettes

The room erupted with laughter as teenage fiction writer Tim Bowler accidentally merged the words "shiny" and "bright". Perhaps it was deliberate: 700 S3 and S4 pupils, teachers and librarians from 25 of North Lanarkshire's 26 secondary schools were responding with interest and enthusiasm to his 20-minute speech, rather than yawning, whispering and fidgeting.

Bowler was one of four authors speaking at the launch of the Catalyst Fiction newsletter in Airdrie town hall. Catalyst is the first newsletter of its kind in Scotland and the brainchild of Katie McGivern, the librarian at St Patrick's High in Coatbridge. Nine months ago, she set up the Catalyst Fiction Group, which is designed to promote fiction to pupils in S3 and S4 and their teachers, and from that spawned the idea of a newsletter.

"The group was established primarily due to concerns about the lack of reading by pupils of this age group," explains Miss McGivern. "A number of librarians felt all they needed was a catalyst.

"In S1 and S2, pupils use the library a lot, and then that totally drops off, and they come back in S5 and expect to read adult books."

Many pupils face problems when searching for appropriate texts for their personal literature study at Intermediate and Higher levels, Miss McGivern says.

"A recent study by the OECD (Reading for Change) showed a third of Scotland's teenagers don't read for pleasure and one in five thinks books are a waste of time. The Catalyst event brought authors and teenagers together in order to challenge this."

The aim of Catalyst, she says, is to show teenagers there is plenty of fiction that deals with many of the issues affecting them. "It's trying to raise excitement about teen fiction. We're trying to make it more funky and accessible."

Caldervale High's librarian, Susan Brownlie, believes it is not just positive but vital to encourage teenagers to read. "I think it's fundamental that we promote it. Third and fourth years aren't reading. When it comes to Higher, some are struggling," she says.

"There's some great teenage fiction out there, so they don't have to jump from children's books to adult books. The comments we get back from pupils, when they do read the books, are that they deal with teenage issues, nobody else was listening to what they were saying and that they see themselves in the books."

Miss McGivern believes Catalyst has been successful in changing the perception of reading. "Reading books is seen as not cool. There's no point in our standing here saying books are cool. It's got to come from the kids," she contends. Since a catalyst is something that causes, or speeds up the pace of, change, it seemed an appropriate name. "We wanted to get a reaction out of the kids," explains Mrs Brownlie.

Through the Catalyst group, pupils and their librarians will produce a termly newsletter with 30 brief book reviews of teen novels over eight pages, encouraging children to think about the novels they have read and giving them the chance to have their views published. The newsletter will be distributed to all secondary schools in North Lanarkshire three times a year and be available in public libraries.

At the launch with Tim Bowler were authors Bali Rai, Nicola Morgan and Catherine Forde, who had all been shortlisted by the Catalyst librarians for the inaugural annual Catalyst Book Award. Rai was announced as the winner for his first novel (Un)arranged Marriage, about a young man's fight to free himself from family expectations.

Leah Kurzepa, 15, and Declan Casey, 13, from St Ambrose High, are both involved with Catalyst. Leah, who wants to become an author, has two reviews in the inaugural newsletter and has written three more. "You need to pay attention and listen to what the author's saying," she says.

She was a keen reader before her involvement with Catalyst, but the group has inspired her to read other types of novels. "I always used to go for the same types of books," she says.

Lorna Innes and Sheree Chenh, S3 pupils at St Margaret's High, have each written two reviews for the next edition of the newsletter.

"I enjoy it because there are loads of books to choose from and they deal with teenage issues really well," says Sheree.

David Robertson, a third year pupil at Caldervale High and another Catalyst reviewer, says: "Meeting the authors has definitely encouraged me to read more of their books."

Every child should have the opportunity to meet an author, says Elaine Fulton, director of the Scottish Library and Information Council. She welcomes the initiative, saying "The best thing was seeing those kids engage."

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