Spread the word
The Earls high school in Halesowen, Dudley, is used to putting on a show (it is a performing arts college, after all). For literary events, there's a routine: a Year 10 boy dons a smart suit and goes on the door, a Year 11 boy takes the pictures, and the cream buns and strawberry tarts made by a parent are famous. Every seat is always filled with children, staff and parents.
Tonight there are guests from two feeder primaries, Howley Grange and Springfield. As usual, Rosanne Bartlett is MC. "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we have a very special guest tonight," she announces. Author Pete Johnson steps forward, exactly a year after two Earls pupils interviewed him for Radio 4 (the school contributed to a survey to promote his 2003 novel How to Train Your Parents).
Mrs Bartlett is head of learning and curriculum support and a senior teacher at the 1,165-pupil 11-16 school, heading a team of 16. She's usually in school by 7.30am in time for the learning resource centre's breakfast club, and leaves 11 or 12 hours later. For the past year, she has followed her day job with work as chair of the national Federation of Children's Book Groups. She's stepping down this weekend, but will continue to invest time in the federation because it makes her job of inspiring and motivating pupils so much easier, feeding in particular into her role as chair of the Black Country Emotional Literacy Group and The Earls' project on boys' achievement.
The FCBG is a network of local groups of children's book enthusiasts. Many of their nationwide activities such as Share a Story Month (in May) and the Red House Children's Book Award directly involve and benefit schools, and members include teachers and school librarians as well as authors, illustrators and children's booksellers. But traditionally the core membership has been parents keen to introduce their young children to good books. Mrs Bartlett's daughters were 16 and 18 when she joined in the mid-1990s, but she had just been given responsibility for developing reading throughout The Earls and needed all the help she could get.
"I was doing reading interviews with children at our feeder primaries and in Year 7 library lessons, and finding out that many of our new students weren't reading at all," she says. "I would tell them they hadn't found that magic book yet. The federation is all about that, finding the magic books. I wanted these students to have the pleasure from books my daughters had enjoyed. I went to a federation event with Dear Greenpeace author Simon James in the Merryhill shopping centre and thought 'Yes, we need more of this'."
In 1998, she set up Dudley's own children's book group, which organised the Pete Johnson event at The Earls. With a school governor and the head of the Dudley school library service on the committee, building schools' access to books has been a strong focus. For the launch event, she went to the top.
"I got Jacqueline Wilson's number, phoned her up and invited her. She was wonderful, and she's been to Dudley three times now."
Ms Wilson joined Michael Morpurgo, Louise Rennison and Simon James last November for Dudley's first literary festival, which attracted more than 650 parents and children - on the day of the Rugby World Cup final. This year it will run all weekend, while the national federation is programming a full day of children's book events at the Hay Literary Festival (see box, facing page). "I phoned Peter Florence (the festival director) when he was in the middle of cooking his supper and asked him."
Since last September, The Earls' current Year 7 has attended eight author events; some out of school, such as the Dudley festival and David Almond in Birmingham. Gwyneth Rees and Jamila Gavin are coming to the school in May; Chris d'Lacey as well. You sense that JK Rowling will be queuing up for toast at that breakfast club once Mrs Bartlett reaches the relevant page in her address book. "Hearing authors talk about their work and getting to meet them makes our students feel special," says Mrs Bartlett. "After Gillian Cross visited she sent a boy who has dyslexia a tape of one of her books. That is so motivating.
"Authors want to come because we can guarantee a good audience. It doesn't take as long as you'd think to organise and the benefits for the school are enormous.
"Our book group has a very strong committee - you just need a few keen people working together - and in school I have an excellent team and a very supportive head, which makes everything possible."
Pete Johnson spent the afternoon after his morning visit to The Earls at Alice Ottley girls' school, Worcester. The event was a launch for the Worcester Children's Book Group, set up by Julie Benkwitz, who helped to found the Dudley group. She is on the federation's national committee, and is now school librarian at Alice Ottley. Jo Williams, the joint co-ordinator of the Red House Children's Book Award, was at The Earls in the morning and at Alice Ottley in the afternoon to promote the 10 books shortlisted for the award. Mrs Bartlett's reading group (45 volunteers in Years 7 to 10, boys and girls equally keen) are ready to help in the final stage of the judging. "Now I want you all to get reading and pester me to give you a new book," Mrs Bartlett says.
Headteacher Tom Johnston brings his son, Ewan, 13, who goes to school in Wolverhampton, to The Earls' book events, but he has to miss Pete Johnson to see a group of dancers from The Earls perform in Birmingham. The evidence that Mrs Bartlett's approach works, he says, appears in "the large number of boys in the school of all levels of ability who are reading, and the number of parents who are keen to come to the events and support students' reading at home".
Mrs Bartlett grew up on a farm near Rhayader in mid-Wales, where teaching at the small village school "revolved around books and the nature table".
She got her first job at The Earls in 1972, teaching music and history, and moved on to The Thorns community college in Brierley Hill, Dudley, as head of RE from 1974 to 1980. She's been back at The Earls since 1983 and has been teaching her first pupils' children for some years - "I haven't got to their grandchildren just yet".
Liz Barton, one of the teaching assistants in her team, is a former pupil ("I played the piano when she was singing in HMS Pinafore") and Liz's husband, Mike, another former pupil, is now the school's governor with responsibility for student educational needs (The Earls' name for SEN).
Mrs Bartlett hopes this weekend's federation conference in Birmingham will help her settle on the right book to introduce to Year 6 classes at the school's feeder primaries' in May. "I teach the classes while their teachers are meeting with our primary liaison teacher. I need a book I can read in an hour with a little bit of tweaking; last year we had Michael Morpurgo's Cool! and everyone loved it.
"And I always organise an event just after our open week for the primary schools in October, to give the children a taste of excitement about reading."
At the end of the summer term, with the Hay festival out of the way, she has two weeks of literacy summer school to teach and next autumn's Dudley festival to plan. "I'm 53 this year and I see myself teaching for a long time yet," she says. "There's never been a more exciting time to do this job. We have a learning development group for staff, which gives us quality time as colleagues. We have so much information coming out now about developing independence in learners and getting the emotional climate right for learning and the importance of valuing and respecting the individual.
"It means a lot to me that we've got such a community of readers here," she adds as the room fills up for the evening event, with the photographs of the Dudley Literary Festival and the trays of cakes competing for guests'
attention. "Thank you for coming," Mrs Bartlett says to each pupil as they leave two hours later. "Thank you so much."
On the Fed's agenda
This weekend's Federation of Children's Book Groups conference in Birmingham shares its theme, "From Here to There and Back Again", with Share a Story Month in May. See www.fcbg.org.uk for details of the launch at the Royal Armouries, Leeds, on May 8 and a month of events organised by the FCBG's 32 local groups. The theme of journeys means a tractor-and-trailer story hunt and story walks as well as author events and workshops. A children's competition in three age groups urges children to "draw, paint or otherwise decorate a transport of delight" or write a short story, with the chance to win an author or illustrator visit to their school.
On the Red House Children's Book Award site, www.redhousechildrensbookaward.co.uk, pupils can vote for the 10 shortlisted books until May 21. The award, to be presented in mid-June, was set up in 1980 to lobby against cuts in school and library book budgets. No other major children's award involved children as judges even in a shadowing capacity, and this is still the only major award in which children control every stage of the selection.
The FCBG's Hay Day is on June 3 in half-term week as part of the Hay Fever children's festival at Hay-on-Wye, Powys. Events will include the first Federation Lecture by Malorie Blackman; Bali Rai, Michael Rosen and Jacqueline Wilson on children's classics; Michael Morpurgo and Richard Holmes on War Writing, a session chaired by television news presenter Kate Adie. The day will end with a children's party in the Gifford Circus big top, attended by the authors and circus entertainers. All these events require tickets and will need to be booked early. Keep an eye on www.hayfestival.com for programme and booking information.