Everybody loves a good story

12th February 2010 at 00:00
More than the library at Northfield Academy has been transformed - even reluctant readers are clamouring to get on to a comfortable sofa and dip into a book rather than going online

Jan Henderson writes the kind of thrillers that make you miss your stop on the bus. He's also an author whose personality lives up to his blurb.

His first thriller for the teenage market was the award-winning Bunker 10, which opens dramatically with an explosion at a military installation on Christmas Eve. "Inside Pinegrove were 185 male and female military personnel - a mixture of scientists and soldiers. There were also seven teenagers. This is the story of their last day."

Henderson is a boyish-looking 47-year-old, who's as entertaining as his thrillers and, fortunately, nothing as scary. He's at Northfield Academy in Aberdeen to launch its new reading area - a bright space in the school library, designed by pupils for relaxing with books and magazines on cosy sofas.

This Lottery-funded venture was what the school librarian describes as one of her "shower dreams" aimed at encouraging young readers. The pound;9,600 grant has transformed an old-fashioned school library into a bright and comfortable space with a broad range of reading material from football and games magazines to fast-paced thrillers like Bunker 10.

Reading abilities of children in the community are low - around 20 per cent of the S1 intake has a reading age of four or more years below their actual age. Some areas are ranked in the top 5 per cent of Scotland's most deprived.

Librarian Mandy Wilson is on a mission to turn this around, with a training session planned for teachers and parents to encourage reluctant readers. She says this face-lift has already worked a little magic. "It's a transformation. Before, when they came in, they would head straight for the computers. Now they grab a book, sit down, kick their shoes off and start reading.

"It's the loveliest thing in the world to see - 30 kids cuddled up on seats with their books, reading with their shoes off. Beautiful! And you turn round to the computers, no one's there.

Mrs Wilson's strategy to entice new readers is as imaginative as one of Henderson's plots. The library is called Frankie's Reading Room, after the man-sized, talking Frankenstein lookalike on the door. He's actually a butler Mrs Wilson bought from Asda at Halloween - and offers visitors a drinks tray, holding the book of the week.

"I think it is a battle between computers and reading. We have computers, we have television - all these things are battling for kids' time," says Mrs Wilson. She's not knocking technology, but she does not want reading relegated.

And she does not care what children read, so long as they read something. "They need reading for everyday life - so anything you can do to encourage their interest is important."

Henderson's books are another element in her arsenal: "Bunker 10 is out of this world - very scary with lots of blood and guts and dying people. Things that boys just adore," says Mrs Wilson. She's enlisted the Scottish writer to kick off a series of 12 more author visits for Northfield Academy and associated primaries.

Sixteen-year-old Rebecca Finnie (S5) must be one of Scotland's most stylish schoolgirls. She's customised her uniform black shirt and skirt with a purple belt and wears buckled black boots with dark wool tights and dangling guitar earrings. Her striped school tie is loosely knotted and she even wears her prefect's badge with style.

Becca needs no encouragement to read and has just finished Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones.

"The priority was to make this area comfortable. So now it looks warmer and more inviting - people are more likely to come in and enjoy themselves with their friends," says Becca, who is aiming for a joint honours degree before teacher training.

Another reading cheerleader is 13-year-old Daniel Robb, who enjoys crime fiction, particularly Ian Rankin. "I think this is good, compared to what it was," he says. "It's much more colourful and bright."

Headteacher Susan Muncer is thrilled with what has been achieved: "I think we're really lucky we've got a librarian who is amazing and looks for all sorts of innovative ways to try and encourage children to the library."

Just before the Lord Provost arrives, Jan Henderson talks about his childhood reading in Dundee. He read no children's fiction, which perhaps influenced his approach to writing for young people. "I wanted to write books that weren't like other children's books," he says. "I wanted to do adult themes, adult conversations, adult ideas and adult action and put it all into kids' books."

He wrote Bunker 10 three years ago, followed by Crash and Colony in a similarly dark vein. He's just finished a novel for adults: "The only difference is, I've got swearing in the adult one and I can take it as far as I want."

When he was a boy, Henderson chose books which cost 5 pence from the Woolworths bargain bin. "I bought whatever was in the bin and, because there were never any children's books, I took what I could.

"I even read Henry Miller's Nexus when I was nine - I didn't know what it was," he laughs apologetically. So when other kids were devouring Enid Blyton? "I was reading bad Westerns and trashy detective novels."

He dreamt up the idea for Bunker 10 when he was working as an Easter Bunny in a Texas shopping mall, three years before it was finally published. The manager told him to stop talking to the children, because he was frightening them with his Scottish accent.

During three weeks' enforced silence, he began devising his plot. "So, yes, I owe my writing career partly to being an Easter Bunny in Texas and not being able to talk."



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