Reluctant readers are pure fiction

19th June 2009 at 01:00
Far from shying away from books, the pupils shadowing the Carnegie Medal judges are shaping up to be a new generation of literary critics

It doesn't feel like school," says Maddy, a Year 8 pupil at Fortismere School in north London. It's Tuesday, which means Maddy and her friends come into the school library at lunchtime to share their views on this year's Carnegie Medal shortlist.

She is one of several shadowers - up to 35 readers in her year have registered to participate in a national book group scheme that encourages young people to shadow the judging process for this prestigious children's book award.

One by one, the pupils arrive at a specially designated area, usually reserved for sixth formers only, and take a book from the neat row of the seven shortlisted Carnegie titles displayed on a table. They chat briefly with the senior librarian and an English teacher about what they have read that week before they continue with their school day.

From the end of April, when the shortlist was announced, to the awards ceremony next week, thousands of young people across the country are feverishly reading, debating and reviewing the same seven books using the same criteria as the 12 Carnegie judges, all of whom are librarians.

The shadowing scheme was initiated in 1994 and, like the award itself, is run by Cilip (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals). This year it has 3,600 registered groups, an increase of 400 since last year.

Kate Thompson, one of the shortlisted writers for her book Creature of the Night, feels it is exciting to know that hundreds of schools across the country are reading the shortlist, talking about the books and debating their favourite. "[It] encourages discussion, passion, parental involvement, after-school reading clubs, contact with libraries and librarians," she says.

Not only are children reading voraciously during this two-month period, schools and libraries hold many exciting Carnegie-related events. Fortismere, for example, organises a red carpet day where the group makes a final decision on who they think is the winner. Judges, too, are invited to speak to shadowing groups, as they did in Northamptonshire, where more than 100 school shadowers met up to exchange views.

Sue Polchow, a learning resources for education manager for Northamptonshire's Schools Library Service, Carnegie judge and former shadowing group leader, says that she tends to get interrogated by readers. When the final shadowing event takes place, she adds, the atmosphere "almost reaches fever pitch".

It is also an opportunity for neighbouring schools to come together. Our Lady's Abingdon School in Oxfordshire is in partnership with several other schools who join together for a series of events from quizzes to the final forum - a day dedicated to reading.

Kevin Brooks, shortlisted author for Black Rabbit Summer, has attended many shadowing group events. The sight of all the pupils talking to each other about the books and getting so involved is refreshing. He believes that there is a sense that "the books become theirs", which leads to a healthy element of competition with each trying to defend "their" book.

Yet all this creative activity seems to defy the well-documented difficulties in getting young people to read. A survey last autumn of 1,800 five to 16-year-olds conducted by research agency ChildWise found that reading loses out to television, computer games and the internet. The number of children reading for pleasure fell from 80 per cent in the previous year to 75 per cent, and 42 per cent of boys aged 11-16 said that they never read books for pleasure. Interestingly, all seven of the books shortlisted for this year's Carnegie feature male protagonists.

The National Literacy Trust conducted a report last year that looked at what children define as reading. There was often a conflict in views between those children who believed that blogs or emails did not count as reading and those who did. It also explored the sometimes negative perceptions children had about those who read regularly and highlighted that 8 per cent more girls than boys read every day or almost every day.

Sarah Osborne, manager for the National Reading Campaign at the NLT, believes shadowing groups like the Carnegie should also present "an opportunity for young people who don't define themselves as readers (but who do read) to get involved".

She thinks schools should include opportunities for pupils to publish and share their opinions in ways which they are used to doing socially - even if it is through social networking or over email - if they are going to encourage them to read.

With this in mind, Cilip's shadowing website encourages more interaction between reading groups. They can blog, upload video content (readers can listen to the shortlisted authors talk about their books and can post questions directly to them), design individual polls and questionnaires.

At Cilip's discretion, shadow group leaders can give responsible pupils access to their own home page, enabling them to choose what information goes up. Shadowing leaders track their group's progress via a blog. The groups that use the site in the most original way will get a chance to attend the awards themselves.

Just two weeks into the shadowing process and there were already almost 1,000 reviews posted. Joe Winters, a former shadower at Fortismere School, says: "As the weeks went on we started reviewing the books and posting them online. We were also able to read other people's ideas about which should win - and disagree with them."

The format for the Carnegie shadowing scheme clearly works, but could it work in a wider context in getting over young people's negative perceptions of reading?

According to Jake Hope, a Carnegie judge and a regular reviewer and commentator on children's books and publishing, there is a snowball effect when we read alongside other people and take their views. "It does create a buzz," he says. He thinks that utilising technology can fuel enthusiasm for reading by providing different access points that young people are familiar with.

Mr Brooks agrees. He has been using social networking sites such as MySpace for some time as a means of communication with his readers.

Some of the groups have taken it even further. Barbara Hickford decided to set up a wiki - a collaborative website where the content can be edited by anyone who has access to it, for her shadowing group.

Although it is a private wiki - posts can only be read by those who are registered - the children are communicating directly with each other about the books, via the wiki. She thinks that part of its success is connected to friendship endorsement. "They like to hear what their friends think about the books," she says.

By involving pupils and embracing technology, not only does it hook them in, it encourages them to read books that they may not normally pick up themselves, says Ms Polchow.

Pupil Joe Winters felt that it helped him make a connection with the library and its librarians. "I really enjoyed the experience and a few of us have now moved on to reviewing some of the newly published books as they come in," he says.

Perhaps the scheme will produce the literary reviewers of the future. As another Fortismere reviewer writes ". a good read, however, in my opinion the language could be improved ." Patrick Ness, author of The Knife of Never Letting Go, take note.

What is the Carnegie medal?

A Carnegie-winning book must be "a book of outstanding literary quality" for children and young people. Although there is no cash prize, the winner receives a golden medal and pound;500 worth of books to donate to a library of their choice.

Established by the Scottish-born philanthropist and industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), its first winner was Arthur Ransome in 1936. Philip Pullman, Meg Rosoff and Geraldine McCaughrean are all former winners. Carnegie's experience of using a library as a child led him to resolve that, should he become wealthy, his money would be used to create "free libraries". By the time of his death, more than half the local authorities in Great Britain had Carnegie libraries.

This year's medal will be announced on June 25. For more details, visit

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