Let's get critical

13th July 2001 at 01:00
A group of voracious teenage readers who have handed out a literary mauling to some of the best children's authors around also make their own judgments on the prestigious Carnegie and Greenaway medals. On the day the official winners are announced, Elaine Williams meets the LitCritters

There should be a notice on the library door in Cramlington community high school: Beware! Book critics at large. If you fancy having your brain shredded by a bunch of rampant readers, mercilessly opinionated and frighteningly knowledgeable about literature for children and young adults, call in on a Tuesday lunchtime at this Northumbrian school. That's when the Cramlington LitCritters do their worst.

"Skinned, boned, filleted, fried and laid out to dry" is how author Melvin Burgess, hardly a shrinking violet, described how he felt after giving a talk about his novel Bloodtide to these piranhas among page-turners.

The LitCritters, a 20-strong group of 14 to 16-year-olds, like nothing better than taking a book apart, chewing over every detail from cover to climax. Authors' names trip casually from their tongues - David Almond, Aidan Chambers, Brian Keaney, John Gordon, Anne Fine, Jan Mark, Philip Pullman - the great and the good of children's literature who've been subjected, in person, to the Cramlington grilling. Melvin Burgess, now recovered from his ordeal, recently asked for their comments on his latest novel.

And the LitCritters are also a driving force in the school's involvement with the Library Association's shadowing scheme for the prestigious Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals, for writing and illustration respectively. The awards are to be presented at the the British Library today.

Over the past five years, the scheme has grown from 70 groups to more than 800, with those taking part including schools, libraries, young offender institutions, parent and child groups, home educators and special needs colleges. Groups shadow the judges: reading through the shortlisted titles, submitting reviews to the Library Association website and choosing their own winners in time for the official announcement.

In many respects, Cramlington's young bookworms are only passing on the enthusiasm of their librarian, Eileen Armstrong, who is on the judging panel for this year's Carnegie and Greenaway awards. A quiet, slight woman, she has immense power when it comes to channelling teenage energy and enthusiasm into a passion for books - at the very age when many young people are said to be turned off reading.

The LitCritters talk about books at every opportunity and for as long as anybody will listen. Kirsty Blewitt, 15, says: "We argue all the time, but it's no good just saying that you like or don't like a book. You have to explain why you like it." Not content with their own bookish company, they accost their peers and members of staff with must-read suggestions. Caroline Snelling, Cramlington's deputy head, says: "The youngsters have got all sorts of people reading. They have stopped me and asked, 'Have you read this?' I've found myself reading several novels for young people this year on their recommendation."

The LitCritters are in demand. Their reviews have appeared in Boox, a magazine produced by and for teenage readers and published by Well Worth Reading, and their local paper, the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle upon Tyne, is working on giving them a regular slot. Even pupils with reading difficulties at Cramlington, those requiring curriculum support, are developing as critical readers, and act as consultants for Barrington Stoke, the Scottish-based publishing house for reluctant readers.

David McMaster, 16, a recent convert to the reading habit, says: "I never used to pick up a book, only occasionally if I liked the cover, but I would hardly ever read it. Then Miss Armstrong gave me Skellig (by David Almond) and I've not stopped reading since. I'm seriously addicted now. If books were food, I would be seriously overweight."

Most lunchtimes, and before and after school, Cramlington's library (known as the learning resource centre) is packed with students reading comics, newspapers or Where's Wally? titles, lads poring over the football results or trawling the internet. They sit on the floor if they have to. There is no talking in whispers - the place is buzzing.

Eileen Armstrong is not particularly exercised about what young people read, as long as they do read and want to be there. And she never wastes an opportunity to encourage them. A particular group of boys who often met to read comics together were soon dubbed her "manga men" and commandeered to contribute reviews, this time to a graphic novels guide, Books with Attitude. The secret, she believes, lies in giving pupils choice, finding the right book for the right person, meeting preferences, and giving students the tools to articulate those preferences. "I am very conscious of this responsibility," she says, "because if you promote the wrong book, you could put them off reading for life."

Eileen Armstrong sees her judging role as responsibility writ large in promoting the right kind of books. "We have to stretch young people, but if you stretch them too far they may never pick up a book again," she says. The judging is a huge commitment on top of her already frenetic day job, but she rejoices in the task of reading the 100 or so books on the long list within an allotted six weeks to draw up the shortlists for the two medals. "I find myself still reading at three in the morning, but that kind of immersion is just magic."

Even when it's not CarnegieGreenaway season, she is a voracious reader, particularly in what she calls the "crossover" range between children's and adult books. Indeed she is co-author of the 16 to 19-year-olds edition in the School Library Association's Books to Enjoy series, which entails a list of recommendations with a short critique of each through a whole range of genres.

The annual shadowing scheme has becomea major event for Cramlington as Eileen Armstrong ensures the involvement of the whole school, with her LitCritters leading the way.

The librarian (who knows who the official winners are, but cannot be persuaded to tell before noon today) kicks off the shadowing process with the LitCritters, who are ready to pounce when the books arrive in the post. "I give them all a toffee or lolly to suck so they can't talk, and we put all the books face up and look at the covers. I ask them to note down their first impressions from the covers, then we turn the books over and read the blurb on the back. Then we read the first sentence and give that a mark out of 10, then the first chapter, after which we do some prediction work about the nature and quality of the book.

"I ask them to go away and read as much as they can and to keep a diary of how they feel and respond, so we might get something like, 'Oh my God it's two in the morning and I can't put this one down.'" Is she never tempted to reveal the real winners? "It's difficult, but in any case I am always concerned to draw out students' own opinions and not push my own preferences. It has to come from them."

From those warm-up exercises, the LitCritters spearhead a range of shadowing-related activities. Some of them take the picture books shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal into nearby Eastlea first school and read them to reception and Year 1 pupils, encouraging the younger children to attempt short reviews.

"My lot were very opinionated," says 14-year-old Sammy Dobson. "They loved Lauren Child's I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato (about an imaginative boy who lures his little sister into eating vegetables)."

The LitCritters broadcast "Bookbites", their own reviews of novels on the Carnegie shortlist, through Cramlington's intercom system. Tutor groups listen during morning registration, as part of a "campaign" leading up to a whole-school poll on the Carnegie winner. Meanwhile, pupils receiving learning support work on a technology project redesigning some of the Greenaway picture books' front covers. And students taking a GNVQ in health and social care, who also regularly take picture books to Eastlea first school, hold a Big Top Book Picnic for the primary children in a marquee in the school grounds.

Pupils' enthusiasm is spreading: Cramlington set up its own North East Book Award three years ago to draw in schools across the region. This year 10 schools joined in and the awards event was held at Waterstone's in Newcastle, compered by Children's Laureate Anne Fine, with all shortlisted authors in attendance.

Mary Hooper won the award with Megan (Bloomsbury) - a gutsy treatment of teenage pregnancy - over names that appear more frequently on award shortlists, such as David Almond and Aidan Chambers. Eileen Armstrong is now looking for serious sponsorship for the award. "It was a wild and wacky idea, but it's taken off. I felt that young people in this area should be given a real say." David McMaster, the 16-year-old book addict, says:

"We've got (the CarnegieGreenaway) for the way the nation thinks, but this is the award that shows what we think."

The LitCritters are in no doubt as to whom should get the biggest book award of all - their librarian, "for all the people she has helped to read", and whose academic work she has helped to improve.

Then there's her Write-On Club, for LitCritters who want to write as well as read, and the staff reading group that meets regularly in the local pub, and the curriculum support services including staff bulletins listing useful internet sites and subject-related resources.

An Ofsted inspector has described Eileen Armstrong as "out of this world". Every school should have one.

Schools and other groups wishing to take part in the shadowing scheme can find details on the Library Association website: www.la-hq.org.ukshadowingBooks to Enjoy 16-19 by Eileen Armstrong and Sue Beever is published by the School Library Association, pound;5. To order, tel: 01793 791787 or email: publications@sla.org.ukBooks with Attitude: a librarian's guide to graphic novels is compiled by Mel Gibson for Farries International Booksellers. Tel: 01387 720755The North East Book Awards website is: www.nebaonline.comPublic libraries plan to boost books through the holidays with two reading programmes: Reading Carnival, for four to 11-year-olds, and Reading Challenge Plus, for 11 to 13-year-olds. Incentives such as scratch cards, certificates and reading diaries encourage participants to borrow library books and record their thoughts on them. Ask for details at your local library


Cramlington's whole-school vote gave the Carnegie Medal to Ad le Geras for Troy, her novel about gods and mortals caught up in the Trojan War, published by David Fickling Books. Eileen Armstrong's LitCritters held their own vote and awarded the prize to Alan Gibbons for Shadow of the Minotaur, published by Orion Children's Books (more Greek myths, plus a terrifying virtual reality game), with Ad le Geras in second place. Both groups of pupils working with the Kate Greenaway Medal shortlisted titles gave Ted Dewan the medal for Crispin: the pig who had it all (Doubleday), the story of a poor little rich piglet who learns the value of friendship. Did Eileen Armstrong and her fellow judges agree? Find out at www.tes.co.uk from 12 noon today.

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