Fiction that deals with real life

When I was doing my Postgraduate Certificate in Education, we were encouraged to use children's fiction to develop a series of cross-curricular lessons. It was always something I enjoyed doing, but I made a point of looking for less well-known titles. Not only was this more interesting for me, I also believed that it extended the reading habits of the pupils.

My favourite set of lessons revolved around What Difference Does It Make, Danny? by Helen Young. It is the story of a boy, Danny Blane, who suffers occasionally from epileptic fits. He is banned from his school's sporting activities by a PE teacher. Danny responds to this by causing trouble as he thinks that the ban is unfair, given his previous sporting record. Eventually, he saves a small child from drowning and the PE teacher is forced to acknowledge that Danny's handicap makes no difference at all.

I used this book with a class of nine and 10-year-olds. The story offered an excellent opportunity to tackle dealing with a disability and how children can overcome it. One of the book's major themes is the need to obtain facts before making judgments. This was highly relevant in the inner-city Glasgow school where I taught as more than 80 per cent of the youngsters were from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The book also gave us an opportunity to deal with justice from the child's perspective. It looked at antisocial behaviour from the viewpoint of a child who is dealt an unfair blow by those in authority.

Naturally, researching epilepsy developed the children's understanding of the brain and the nervous system. It also encouraged them to think about ways of representing a handicap in a positive fashion. I remember that children came up with imaginative slogans such as "Danny isn't epileptic - it's his fits that are" and "Epilepsy - nothing to get excited about."

We also heard first-hand accounts from both children and adults who suffered epileptic fits. We also learnt how to cope with someone who suffers a fit.

I deliberately kept work on this book until later in the school year when the children and I were working together in a secure and caring environment. Perhaps this book does not have the superficially amusing appeal of many children's titles. However, it repaid hard work as it provided a springboard for us to discuss society's attitude to people with disabilities.

More than anything else, this book demonstrated to me the need to challenge and confront primary children with complex and difficult issues. Recently, I re-read it and was again struck by its insights. It only served to remind me of that class of children and the depth and maturity of their response.

David Bell is chief education officer for Newcastle City Council. He was a teacher and headteacher in primary schools in Glasgow and Essex

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