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Tales to talk about

The online resources designed to coincide with the BBC's Big Read provide a wealth of ideas on how primary children and schools can delve into fiction. Michael Thorn reports

It may be absurdly reductionist to try and arrive at a single all-time favourite book title. You might ask, as Jeanette Winterson did at the outset of the BBC's The Big Read, "Why are we taking a world-class library and submitting it to the tactics of reality TV? You love Jane Eyre? Then vote her in. You hate Heathcliffe? Vote him out."

But the result is hardly important. As all who are involved in The Big Read are clearly aware, this is a marketing exercise and what is being promoted is reading and discussion about books. It's incidental that it's about ranking individual titles.

School communities should tap into this media cavalcade, particularly now that The Big Read is entering its final phase. The BBC would like schools to focus on its search for the nation's best-loved book during the first week of December in preparation for the final days of voting.

Don't be put off by the fact that most of the finalists are adult titles.

It is the adult interest that will energise children's own enthusiasm for whatever school-based activities you decide to organise.

Schools that did not discover or use the original online resources for The Top 100 could seek them out now by visiting the National Reading Campaign website, Read On. The downloads are ready for off-the-peg use or for adaptation. It does not really matter that many of the children's titles that were focused on have since been eliminated from the search.

The themed activity packs offer excellent cross-curricular ideas prepared by Sue Palmer, and are also still very much worth a look. They include themes such as friends, family and coming of age.

The new Top 21 resource packs for primary and secondary schools are understandably briefer in scope. The "10 ideas" in the primary pack tend to fall into the category of grand gesture, such as the one for "Have a 'drop everything and read' time". Consequently, Years 5 and 6 teachers could look at ideas in the secondary pack, particularly at the back-up materials provided for the suggested "balloon debate". (A hot-air balloon containing Big Read titles is losing height. A number of titles will have to be sacrificed in order that one or more can be saved. Can children argue the case to keep their own adopted titles?) Schools could establish their own Big Read lists. This could be done by paper vote or interactively on the school website. Either way, the vote should be open to the whole school community - children and adults. It can be restricted to children's books from the past and present, giving adults an opportunity to vote for favourites from their childhoods.

The Download Centre at the Reading Agency contains a rich list of Big Read related links that are well worth exploring. A paper called "Ideas for bringing The Big Read to life in libraries" makes the observation:

"Sometimes it's the books people hate most that create the best debates and encourage people to experiment with something different."

Primary teachers' natural inclination to be positive sometimes glosses over the fact that children are as widely differing in their tastes as adults, and an opportunity to nominate their most disappointing read could spur this kind of debate.

Few of the celebrities lined up as advocates for The Big Read Top 21 are likely to excite primary-aged children, but the notion of advocacy is a useful one to emulate in school. Depending on the age and confidence of the children, it could be either adults (teachers, governors, parents) or pupils, or a combination of both, who do the championing of their favourite titles.

For the chart-conscious, The Bookseller's website provides a Big Read "21" Top 30, updated weekly. This might provoke the query: how does a top 21 selection generate a list of 30 books? - providing a cue for a discussion about editions. In preparation for this, collect editions of the same title (hardback, re-jacketed paperback, reissue, and so on) and prompt children to discuss why they think the cover design has been altered. Which do they prefer? Can they spot a reason why the chart may be rather flattering to two of the children's titles: His Dark Materials and The Lord of the Rings.

Answer: these are both trilogies and the "units sold" have been accumulated from various ISBN numbers, whereas other data in the chart represents single ISBN sales.

Read On website: tbrindex.html

Sue Palmer's activity packs can be downloaded from: primary3.pdf and campaigntbrprimarypack2.pdf

The Reading Agency website: paper: "Ideas for bringing The Big Read to life in libraries" can be downloaded from The Bookseller Big Read 21 top 30:


* Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling

* His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

* The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis

* Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

* The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

* The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

* Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne

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