Harpooned by cliffhangers on the coastline

5th September 2008 at 01:00
Two years ago, a few Aberdeenshire teachers set the waves in motion in an attempt to hook their pupils on reading. Jean McLeish reports

It started as a modest scheme by a group of Aberdeenshire teachers to encourage their pupils' interest in reading. Two years later, the inaugural Salt Festival by the Sea has attracted leading authors to take part in a packed programme of events.

This morning, Anne Park has gamely agreed to accompany some pupils to the coastline that inspired their festival. The headteacher at Fishermoss Primary in Portlethen is a newcomer to the demands of a festival publicity machine. She may well be wishing it had been called the Festival of Reading by a Roaring Fire. But it's too late for regrets.

Huge waves are crashing onto the rocky coastline that runs between this bay and Aberdeen. On warm days, teachers bring pupils here to explore the rock pools - today is not one of those days. Ms Park says: "This is the first time we have had a festival involving all of the schools in the network. But for the last two years at Fishermoss, we have run a book event at the beginning of the session. If we could enthuse children at the start of the school year, we could capitalise on it for the rest of the session.

"One of the problems is attracting a sufficiently wide range of authors, so it made sense that we share what we were doing and encourage the other schools to come on board."

The cluster of schools involved includes Newtonhill, Banchory-Devenick and Portlethen primaries. Funding for more than 40 events came from the schools' Parents Staff Associations, local businesses, the Scottish Book Trust and the Educational Institute of Scotland, which is sponsoring events promoting Scottish literature.

"Attainment in reading was good, but we thought it could be better. By having this wide-ranging programme, it is a stimulating and exciting way of hooking children into books," says Ms Park.

Until the end of October, the schools will be visited by authors such as Joan Lingard, Cathy Cassidy, Jonathan Meres and Keith Charters, who will also hold public sessions in the evenings.

SALT stands for Song, Art, Literature and Theatre, so the next three months will include visits from the National Theatre of Scotland and puppet theatre companies, as well as art and music events, workshops and a song-writing competition. "There are some children here who are naturally inclined to be readers and will continue to be hooked on books. But there is another group with which we will have to work harder to attract them into the enjoyment of reading, because of all the other calls on their time," says Ms Park.

Some of her readers have brought their books to the beach and are looking forward to the upcoming events. Cameron Bradford, 12, says: "Joan Lingard is a favourite and we're reading one in class called The Sign of the Black Dagger. She writes mystery stories that are fun and imaginative.

Mrithula Shivakumar, 11, is another Lingard fan and Jonathon McKechnie, 11, likes autobiographies about footballers. Eight-year-old Lucy Watson has chosen Goat and Donkey in Strawberry Sunglasses by Simon Puttock and Russell Julian to bring to the beach. Her favourite place for reading is "in my bedroom".

The festival also has cross-curricular applications, with art competitions to design book covers and a competition for children to write the lyrics for a piece of music written by one of the music teachers.

Significantly, this is also a festival for adults, and the teachers have included a book swap for parents' night to make sure the mums and dads are on message too. "Many of our events don't cost anything," says Ms Park, "so at each of the parents' evenings this year, as the children do an informal book swap, we will do one for adults, hammering home the message.

"If you're encouraging children to come to school to read and talk about books, we want the parents to do the same. It doesn't take much to get our parents to talk."

Several teachers at her school are members of book clubs and share her lifelong passion for reading: "Since about the age of seven I haven't gone to bed at night without reading. I'm probably very sad because I do tend to read the Times Ed on a Friday night but, by and large, I am a thriller person."

As a fine rain begins to blow off the sea, Anne Park herds her windswept pupils homeward: "We're delighted we have grown to this. We see potential for further growth, but we're still going through the angst of `Will people turn up?' But things look good so far. On Friday night we were delighted when people were queuing to come to the launch event with Stuart MacBride."

Festival box office

T: 01224 782277

And another thing .

Goat and Donkey in Sunglasses is one of the shortlisted books in this year's Royal Mail Scottish Children's Book Awards, organised by the Scottish Book Trust and sponsored by The TESS.

Further information about children's judging panels can be found on the Scottish Book Trust website

Votes must be submitted online by November 7

Deadline for entering the associated Gaelic creative writing competition: October 3

Deadline for entering the associated review competition: October 24



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