The Book Bus, which toured authors to remote schools, is on its last journeys, victim of a Scottish Arts Council cutback. Julie Morrice reports
It must have been born out of one of those "what if" conversations: a big yellow bus, touring Scotland delivering the magic of reading and writing to schoolchildren.
It caught the imagination not only of children and their teachers, but of whole communities. On Sanday, in Orkney, they will miss the Book Bus which is being taken off the road in September. "The bus and its crew brought a little touch of the big world here," says Jackie Story, headteacher of Sanday Junior High.
"They brought Edinburgh here for a day. There is no other way we could attract that quality of people. A lot of Arts Council mobile provision comes to remote areas, but to the population centres within those areas, like Kirkwall and Stromness. That's a long journey for us. What was so wonderful about the Book Bus was it came right to us."
The Book Bus, run by the Scottish Book Trust, visited Sanday last May, just after the school had completed its new library. "We'd just put up all the new shelves, and spent a lot of money on library books, and then suddenly we had a real author, and books with authors' signatures in the library, and a video-camera interview going on. It brought real buzz and kudos," says Story. "We don't have buses here, so it was really exciting for the kids. The whole school (P1 to S4) plus the nursery and the playgroup went through that bus."
Money, of course, is at the root of the Book Bus's demise. Having funded the project for almost five years, the Scottish Arts Council has decided it can no longer afford it.
"It was very expensive, the way it was funded with a driver, an author and an administrator," says the SAC's director of literature, Jenny Brown. The bus was originally Brown's idea, and one imagines she has not taken the decision lightly.
She emphasises that bringing writers and children together is still a priority for the SAC, and points out that children's writing is being given "a positive push", with increased numbers of writers' bursaries, a conference on children's writing last weekend, and the first SAC Children's Book Awards which will be announced next month.
The SAC has also made a 25 per cent funding increase for Writers in Scotland, the scheme which brings writers into classrooms for a flat rate, irrespective of the school's location. But the scheme is hugely oversubscribed, and Jackie Story doubts that Sanday would be able to persuade an author to make the trip. "It's a huge commitment to spend three days away from home just to visit a school for the day. We have the same problem with examiners. They all say, 'Yes, we'll come' until they discover how long it's going to take them."
The Book Bus tours were organised in conjunction with education departments or library services. "We gave priority to getting books and writers out of the central belt," says Janet Smyth, the Book Bus project manager. A visit to the Western Isles, for example, might cover nine schools in five days. "The kids there are used to being dragged off to bigger schools. It's really exciting when something turns up on their doorstep."
Both the Scottish Book Trust and the SAC hope that something will take the place of the Book Bus when it finally stops, but so far the ideas are sketchy. "It's very frustrating," says Janet Smyth, who has 160 writers on her database, and annual sponsorship of pound;15,000 from Scottish Friendly Assurance.
"The great thing," says Jackie Story, "was these outsiders on the bus coming and telling the children how lucky they were to live on Sanday. Most of these children will grow up and move away from here, thinking there's nothing worth staying for. It was a new idea for people to be envious of them, rather than the other way about."
Scottish Book Trust 0131 229 3663