Critical genius at work

13th May 2005 at 01:00
Children can discover the wonder of books along with other skills in an award scheme, writes Eva John

You can't have this book back," said the Year 6 boy as he hugged a copy of Caroline Binch's Christy's Dream to his chest.

I was doing testing for the short-list of the Red House children's book award with gypsy children in a local school. The realism of the illustrations and the story content had struck a chord as it was about an Irish tinker boy whose greatest wish was to own a horse of his own.

Two very tough Y4 boys, when asked which picture book they had particularly liked, astonished both me and their teacher when they chose a whimsical mummy-and-baby bunny story because "it's a nice bedtime story". These are just two of many incidents that have occurred during book-testing sessions.

The great thing about the Red House awards is that it is the only one where the children are responsible for the short-list. It really is the children's choice - and they have been quite clear about what they like over the past few years.

The West Wales children's book group co-ordinates the testing in Pembrokeshire, which is one of 12 testing regions in the UK and the only one currently in Wales. The 12 regions are responsible for drawing up a short-list of 10 books from all the published children's fiction during the current year. The top 10 can then be voted on by under-18s throughout the UK, either online via the Red House website, through book groups or by post.

The huge benefit of testing is that children develop a greater critical awareness as they compare books. They know that their votes count so they consider elements such as plot and structure, characterisation, originality as opposed to predictability, use of humour, language features, illustration and font styles, use of colour, the marriage of illustration to text, and general production design.

And children can start to develop this critical awareness from a remarkably early age (in the nursery and early years), beginning to discuss their preferences and learning how to support their opinions.

The greater their awareness of these features when reading, the more likely it is that pupils will also develop and apply a more critical view with regard to their own writing. It has been fascinating to watch the engagement and enthusiasm of ultra-cool Y8s during a parenting project when asked to review picture books suitable for younger children.

They are keen to pass on their opinions to their peers and automatically read rhythmical and rhyming texts aloud. I particularly remember the year that Pants, by Giles Andreae and Nick Sharratt, was published. It was a very popular choice and was read aloud again and again. Teachers commented how they had never seen the pupils read so eagerly and remain on task with such absorption.

I think it is because they have a specific reason for reading. They can legitimately look at picture books (as well as novels) and judge whether they merit an A (brilliant), B (very good), C (pretty good), D (nothing special) or E (rubbish). No onerous written reviews are required but plenty of discussion, sometimes quite heated, is generated.

An added benefit is that both teachers and children are able to explore all the latest books, ranging from the banal to the positively illuminating, at no cost to the school. So teachers can assess which books are worth investing in and keep abreast of all the latest children's authors and illustrators. Lots of novel openings can be read aloud and the class can discuss which is the most appealing and why, and perhaps use it as the class reader.

I feel that picture books in particular offer so many teaching opportunities in terms of visual literacy - children often spot many subtleties that are overlooked by adults - and models for writing. They are also a wonderful resource to use with older children with special needs who can engage in testing without feeling patronised by the subject matter.

The final benefit is at the end of each testing year when the books are distributed between schools which have participated in the testing, as well as being donated to hospitals, surgeries, family centres and playgroups.

Testing is already underway in our region, but children throughout the country can take part. Details can be found at: www.redhousechildrensbookaward.co.uk where books can be ordered at a reduced price.

Final votes have to be in by May 23. Please give your children an opportunity to read for a purpose. They will gain enormously from the experience.

By the way, Christy's Dream was given to the boy who had gained so much from reading it.

Eva John is advisory teacher for literacy in Pembrokeshire

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