Crusader refuses to be hour's slave

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Geraldine Brennan meets the teacher who prefers to follow horror novelist Stephen King than the diktats of the literacy strategy.

ALAN Gibbons, the primary English co-ordinator who has written the page-turner Blue Peter viewers can not put down, thinks the National Literacy Strategy needs a touch of pulp fiction about it.

Stephen King, for example, has inspired many literacy hours at Prescot junior school near Liverpool. "The adverb will never be your friend," the horror maestro tells his disciples in his recent non-fiction bestseller, On Writing. Alan, whose 27th children's novel has just won the first Blue Peter "Books I Couldn't Put Down" award, is right behind him.

"King says you don't shut a door firmly - you slam it," he says. "That's where his writing gets its pace and energy. He explodes a lot of false orthodoxies about language. He favours simple, driven sentences.

"The literacy strategy at its worst is stuck in slavish attention to orthodoxies that belong in the period 1900 to 1940. Language has to operate at a tangent - grammar should be a loose framework within which you experiment."

At Prescot, the literacy hour is not followed slavishly. "The 20 minutes at the end does not allow for the development of writing stamina and we often do extended work," he says.

This year, the school's English results were among the best in the country. Overall, 86 per cent reached the required level in English and 65 per cent of boys and girls achieved the writing target, a score for boys that is 15 points above the national average.

Mr Gibbons keeps his current King paperback, or prhaps a children's novel by Philip Pullman, Robert Westall or Robert Swindells ("my heroes, the craftsmen I read to see how it's done"), on his desk in his Year 3 classroom.

"Part of a teacher's job is to do what you expect children to do, to read for pleasure and show them that you're a reader."

In his writing, he targets boys, mainly aged from around eight to early teens, who are reluctant to tackle fiction. "Girls read me too because they're more generous readers in what they'll attempt, but I'm on a crusade for boys' reading and always have been."

Alan's book, Shadow of the Minotaur, won the Blue Peter award, despite competition from

JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Michael Morpurgo's Kensuke's Kingdom among others.

Nine young judges aged between six and 13 made the decision alongside an adult panel.

Shadow of the Minotaur is the first book in a trilogy about the adventures of a boy called Phoenix whose father's work on "parallel universe" computer games propels him into the world of Greek myths.

The classic ripping yarn with a generous ration of gore and character-building predicaments alternates with a contemporary storyline in which Phoenix has to stand up to the school bully.

The Nestle Smarties Book Prize Gold Award winners - also announced this week - went to Max by Bob Graham (Walker Books) in the five and under age group, Lizzie Zipmouth by Jacqueline Wilson (Young Corgi) for six to eight-year-olds and The Wind Singer by William Nicholson (Mammoth) for nine to 11-year-olds. The winners shared a total prize-money of pound;13,500.

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