`I need my pupils - where else would I get my ideas?'

24th July 2015 at 01:00
Teacher-author Pamela Butchart on her educational `calling'

Pamela Butchart's stories take children into the kind of world where their headteacher is an alien and their best friend is frightened of peas. So it should come as no surprise that the author believes humour is the key to instilling a love of reading.

The philosophy teacher from Dundee, who recently won a Blue Peter Book Award for The Spy Who Loved School Dinners, acknowledges that it can be a challenge to get some boys to read. However, in an exclusive interview with TESS, she says: "Anything we can do to engage not just boys but children generally in reading is great.

"I think the key is to make books all about reading for pleasure: a fast plot, full of action, that has good heart in it. I have been positively surprised by how boys and girls have reacted to my books and see them as gender-neutral. That is not intended - that was just the story."

The 32-year-old - who attended St Vincent Primary and St Saviour's High in Dundee before going to Edinburgh and Dundee universities - started penning stories after she was given a guide to writing for her birthday in 2010. "People have always told me I should write," she says. "But it was just a wonderful hobby to begin with."

Introducing the Stinkysaurus

After creating a number of picture books, Ms Butchart decided to take her writing further. "As a teacher, I knew what the next step was - I knew that I needed some feedback," she says. So she decided to enter a writing competition and won. Through this, she met her agent and secured a publishing deal.

Her first picture book, Yikes, Stinkysaurus! was published in January 2014, quickly followed by her first effort for primary-aged readers, Baby Aliens Got My Teacher!

She now has eight successful books under her belt and, since winning the Blue Peter award, has been increasingly busy with publicity engagements and a book tour of schools in Cumbria. Combining a busy teaching job at Harris Academy with her writing career has become increasingly difficult, she admits.

"If I didn't love working as much as I do and if I didn't feel so passionate about it, it would be harder," she says. "It is about being very organised. In the same way that I would tell my students that sometimes it is not the best idea to study for eight hours, but to have one or two hours of concentrated study."

Despite having recently decided to reduce her teaching commitments by going part-time next year, she dismisses the idea of giving it up altogether. "Teaching is very much a calling," she insists. "I need to be around my pupils, or where would I get my ideas? I love my students."

Educational influences

Indeed, school life, especially in the younger years, features heavily in her work. Petunia Perry and the Curse of the Ugly Pigeon, published earlier this month, is her first book to be set in a high school, rather than a primary.

"It is not on purpose, it is just what I like writing about. I loved my time at primary school - it was wonderful and I had so much fun. I didn't realise how much I loved it until I started writing," she says. "I do love school and it is a really positive environment. I also had some not-so-positive experiences with the transition from primary to secondary school, and that is what my newest book is about."

Ms Butchart tells TESS that another strong influence on her writing is her home city of Dundee, with the historic ship RRS Discovery making an appearance. She likes the idea of children from the area reading her book and recognising a place they have visited.

It is "not always necessary" to include locations and experiences that young readers will have come across to ensure they can identify with a story, Ms Butchart says. "But if there is something in a book that makes it feel more relevant to them, that is great".

Read about the darker side of children's literature in the feature on pages 18-22

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