Art and writing brought to book

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Primary children in Coatbridge have produced and sold a high quality anthology of writing and artwork from the whole school, writes John Cairney.

Tolle Lege might sound like the name of a Norwegian ski-jumper, but to the pupils of a North Lanarkshire primary school it represents an impressive introduction to the glories of creative writing and illustration and the mysterious world of publishing.

If Edinburgh ever acquires its coveted City of Literature status, Coatbridge could be close behind, at least if the pupils of St Augustine's Primary have their way.

In what headteacher Jane McAleer describes as "a literary first but hopefully not the last", the school has produced a 150-page professional-looking book whose title not only reflects the school motto but also is an invitation: tolle lege means "pick up and read".

Ranging from the simplest of artwork by Primary 1 pupils to an impassioned plea for racial tolerance, world peace and the death penalty "for those who deserve it", the book is a world away from the standard practice of pinning a sheet of A4 to a classroom wall or in a school corridor.

It even boasts a foreword by award-winning novelist and playwright Des Dillon, himself a Coatbridge boy. In it he concedes to getting an insight into the "fears and concerns" of the young writers and praises the contributors for, above all, displaying imagination, because "writing without imagination is like going downhill on a skateboard with no wheels".

The book started as an enterprise project in January this year to give the children experience of running their own business. It developed into a showcase of the work produced in the school as part of a development in writing initiative. By the time it was completed in June, successful market research and publicity led to the first print-run of 500 copies being sold in four days.

The book was the brainchild of St Augustine's Primary teacher Francis O'Dowd, himself a published author, who praised the way in which the pupils quickly took ownership of the project. His suggestion of a book had initially seemed over-ambitious, but his own publishing experience, combined with the immediate enthusiasm and support of the staff, quickly persuaded the management team to give the project the go-ahead.

"Their enthusiasm soon had them working furiously at intervals, lunchtimes and in their own homes," he says, "and though many staff members gave generously of their time, it did not take long for the children to feel ownership and, as their confidence grew, so did their initiative.

The production costs of the book ran into thousands of pounds, so the pupils decided to run a pre-order campaign and to approach to local businesses, offering them advertising space. In all, 12 companies placed an advertisement, which brought in over pound;1,000. Another company donated a bike, which became a prize in a competition to design the book cover, and the Asda store in Coatbridge invited the children to hold a signing session, where they sold more than 100 books.

A representative from CPI, a leading European manufacturer of books, gave a presentation to the eight-pupil editorial team, which then marshalled the creative talents of almost 150 pupils into an intriguing anthology, encompassing themes such as happiness, sadness, shadows and animals.

Older writers were allowed free rein to extemporise on real and fictional characters. Cartoon character Bart Simpson is "a yellow summer morning" and "a bowl of jelly", while Celtic footballer Bobo Balde is "a fiery hot summer" and "a welcome bag of chips". Television quiz queen Anne Robinson is compared to "a boring grey sky" and "a big lump of porridge" in an eight-line ode.

Advances in computing technology meant the pupils were able to go through the same process as any major publishing company and create a book that was manufactured to a professional standard and to opt for paper and a style of binding superior to a standard paperback.

The book has received a great response from parents and the local community, and serves as a showcase for all the work done by pupils and staff throughout the school.

"We would like to be able to publish a new one every two years," says Mr O'Dowd. That could be bad news for Anne Robinson.

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