Monday, 30 December 2013

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Researching Rugby in France - a travelogue


I'm in Toulon. Home of the European Rugby Champions. Rugby Union champions. There's a good reason I'm here.

After Toulon tomorrow, I'm heading to Avignon on Friday to watch New Zealand v France in the Rugby League World Cup. I'm here to blog about it. I am really looking forward to sitting in the Parc de Sports, Avignon, with my wife and daughter (9) and watching the New Zealand Haka, followed by another fantastic Rugby League tie. And I have a feeling France - New Zealand is going to be a good one.

But my trip here has been funded by my desire to see the home of the European Champions of Rugby Union, RC Toulon and the book I am doing set here. I'm writing a trilogy. About a school rugby team. A Rugby Union team. The second book is set in Toulon. In the Stade Mayol, RC Toulon's home ground. Tomorrow I get to watch the team train, to see the likes of Andrew Sheridan and Jonny Wilkinson preparing for their latest match in the French Championship.

I can't wait. I am lucky. I know I am lucky.

My Rugby Union book is about a team that has won the UK school's title and is now playing a Russian and French team in a fictional European championship. Tomorrow morning will be invaluable research. And I am very grateful to Andrew Sheridan, R C Toulon player, who has made it possible.

I have done three books about rugby league for children. But finding a publisher interested is not easy. Rugby Union is easier. But still a struggle. I'm lucky Barrington Stoke Publishing were up for it. It took me years to get a publisher interested in any kind of rugby book and it is a credit to Barrington Stoke that they went for it. (The book is called Scrum! by the way.)
I'll blog about my trip to Toulon on Thursday. Then my trip to Avignon on Friday.
Watch this space.


Tomorrow I am going to watch the Rugby League World Cup game between France and New Zealand. In France. It should be a good game, as both sides won their opening games. New Zealand will be favourites, but if... if France can use their home advantage to their benefit perhaps they have a chance?

To be honest, I don't know enough about international rugby league to make that call, but one think I have worked out is that the winner of the France-New Zealand game will play England in the semi-finals, all being well. So that should make it interesting too.

I am also in the south of France to research a children's book about rugby union. So today, I watched RC Toulon (European Champions) training at their Stade Mayol down by the docks. I was very lucky that Andrew Sheridan showed me round. he was extremely helpful, even though he'd moments before had an injection in his neck.

I watched the RC Toulon team warm up, train and then I looked around the stadium, which will be the setting for the second book in my rugby union series. Long after all the other players had gone and when I had found out all I wanted to, there appeared to be only one other person in the stadium.
A man practicing his kicking.

Jonny Wilkinson.

I kind of knew he was going to be doing that. I read his fantastic autobiography last month. Never have I read a sportspersons' book that was so honest and interesting. Highly recommended. He speaks very highly of rugby league, by the way.

Then I got on a boat. Out across the water, past several large grey ships. The French Navy resides in Toulon. I got very close to an aircraft carrier. Not a bad day's work.
Then I looked round the town. I saw a few possible settings for the book: a funicular up a mountainside, the cafes in the centre of town and a large shopping centre. I like looking for settings. It's a nice way of getting to know a place.


I was lucky to get to the France-New Zealand game tonight. There was trouble on the trains.
We left Toulon at ten-thirty, aiming to get to Avignon for lunch, have a look round then make it to the stadium in good time. But the TGV we were travelling on hit someone and the train was forced to sit ten miles outside Avignon for four hours.

Then - after those four hours - an announcement over the speakers: the train was travelling back sixty miles to Marseille where we would all have to get another train, as the first train was damaged and unable to go on. Everyone in our carriage was very relaxed about it. No-one complained as several policemen and women and firemen searched the edge of the railway track, then brought a stretcher alongside the train.

When we arrived at Avignon we were really impressed. It is a lovely walled town with some very old buildings. (I wish I knew how to date buildings with words like Baroque, etc. but I don't.) It reminded me of Avila in Spain.

There were one or two Kiwis on our bus into town. They were quiet, busy applying face-paint. Unlike the band of French supporters singing the Marseilles just inside the city walls, waving a Tricolour before them, their voices echoing up the main street of the city as we went to find out hotel.

The French singing put me in the mood. We were about to hear the French national anthem sung by twenty thousand passionate France supporters, then see the New Zealand Haka. Then eighty minutes of pulsating rugby league. I was really up for it.

After we'd found our hotel in Avignon, we rushed to the bus station to get to the Parc des Sports a few miles out of the walled town centre.

My family wanted to get some food in town, so I told them we'd be able to get food at the stadium. They agreed and we jumped on the bus. There was a chance we'd miss the start if we stopped to eat.
I like 'special' buses. Everyone is going to the same place for the same thing. I'm used to football specials in Leeds. The frenzied foot-stomping P2s from near the railway station drawn to the floodlights of Elland Road. Often slightly out-of-the pub.

The Avignon Rugby Special was travelling from the railways station to the floodlights' glow, but it was not frenzied. There were very few rugby tops. None, actually. Most people were dressed in nice coats and fashionable scarves. Men and women. Quiet conversations as the bus made it's way. The Tricolour-waving fans were long gone.

There was one obvious drinker on the bus. He was working his way through the bus, shouting. Slightly unnerving when you have a child with you, but it worked out okay. As he got off - not at the stadium - he wished everyone 'Good rugby!' then stumbled off.
As the bus approached the stadium I asked my daughter (who is 9) what she was looking forward to about the game.

'The Haka,' she said without hesitation. Then added, 'And a burger.' She was still hungry.
We rushed off the bus to get our tickets. Towards the stadium. Towards the Haka and towards the noise of the French fans already echoing around the streets.


When we reached the Parc de Sports, Avignon, the atmosphere was building nicely. Streams of men, women and children making their way to the stadium in the warm dark streets of France. Waves of noise coming from inside, as the teams warmed up and the pre-match entertainment came to an end.

The entrance gate was in chaos. Hundreds of people pushing to get in, minutes before kick off. No turnstiles. We must have looked confused or anxious to the man on the gate. He looked harassed himself. But, when he saw we were with a child, he stopped the flow of fans and led us through the main stand to our seats. My daughter said 'Merci.'

We caught the end of the brass band and saw the two country's flags being unfurled on the pitch just as we reached our seats. The roar that went up when the giant Tricolour was laid out on the pitch was almost shocking. Really loud. Really passionate.
Patriotism is alive and well - and untainted - in France.

Then the players came out. To a louder road. Not the kind of noise I've heard at a football or rugby match in England in years. An explosion of cheers, foot-stamping and applause. Roars.

In the three other stands thousands of fans held up pieces of card in red and white and blue. Giant Tricolours appearing under the massive sky, lit by the four floodlights. And the sky was massive. Without cover over all but the backs of the two main stands, the sky was huge and black, bringing your eyes back to the explosion of colour and light in the bowl of the Parc de Sports.

With the crowd fully pumped, the man on the PA was chanting Allez les Bleus over and over, as the French joined in. Fever pitch. Then the anthems.

The New Zealand anthem was respected perfectly. The French sang along to so passionately to their anthem that the stadium vibrated. Like a plane taking off, my wife said. I love the Marseilles. It gets me every time. Sung by twenty thousand plus it was something else. I recorded it on my phone. What an anthem!

And then something changed in the atmosphere. The French team lined up on the halfway line. They were ready. For the Haka.

Next, the New Zealand players came out of their huddle and walked towards the French team.
A few boos from the crowd. The TV cameras picked up a few anxious expressions on the faces of the French players. A sudden hush. Like that feeling you get in a pub where a fight is about to kick off. Multiplied by 20,000.

The Haka. The war dance. The faces of the Kiwi players twisted.

And the French boos died down. Made silent.

And you could hear every word of the Haka. The raging passionate stadium was intimidated. No question about that.

The New Zealand team were ready.


The first I saw of Albert was him standing on a seat on his tiptoes to take a photograph of the French rugby league team as they ran out for their World Cup tie against New Zealand. He was shouting Allez! Allez! Allez! over and over.

Albert was wearing black jacket, white shirt and black tie. He had a long moustache, twirled at the end. Very smart. He was chain smoking pungent French cigarettes. And he was falling backwards, off his chair, to a probable broken arm or leg.

Albert was lucky that there was a man in a St Helens shirt directly behind him. The St Helens fan caught him and set him upright again. Then Albert came to sit next to me.
But this was a problem. Because of Albert's cigarette.

My daughter was right next to me. She immediately wanted to move. An English nine-year-old not used to strong smoke wafting in her face, very used to strong anti-smoking messages.

I said, 'S'il vous plait. Non fumer. Les enfants.' It was worth a try. He was within his rights to tell me to get stuffed, seeing as we were in his country. But he was very kind. Albert nodded and ripped the burning end off his cigarette, then stamped it out. Just as the game kicked off.

'You are from Manchester, yes?' he asked me.

I shook my head. Not a good start to a conversation with a lad from Leeds. But the man had done me huge a favour, so I took it well. With a smile.

'Leeds,' I said. The St Helens fan turned round and grinned at me. He understood the nuance.

'Ahh,' Albert said, 'Rhinos. We are for Catalan Dragons. And, in England, Salford.'

We talked about Superleague. For a bit. But he was distracted. By the game. New Zealand were already pressing for a try. Three minutes gone.

'Allez1 Allez! Allez!' Albert shouted. Then the crowd exploded into Allez les bleus. Over and over. I joined in, still influenced by the Marseillaise. He was pleased.

'Who you are for? France or New Zealand?' he asked.

'France,' I replied, honestly.

'Merde!' he shouted. But not because he doubted me. New Zealand had scored. After four minutes. My daughter nudged me in the ribs. There's nothing like hearing someone swear when you're with your parents. Especially if it is in a foreign language.

The game did not go well for Albert. 18-0 down at half time.48-0 by the end. But he was always positive. Always ready to shout Allez! Allez! Allez! when France got into the New Zealand half.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Rugby Union autumn internationals

The autumn international season starts in a week, with all the great rugby union nations of the southern hemisphere touring Europe. It's a great chance to see how the teams are developing two years short of the Rugby Union World Cup.

If you have children at home or school that are interested in rugby union and need some help getting into reading, please have a look at the free resources on my website that aim to use that passion for rugby to get children reading more broadly and with more passion.

Free rugby reading resources.

You'll find reviews of children's rugby books I did for the 2011 World Cup, along with ideas for activities and the first chapter of my own rugby novel, Scrum.

If you work in a school and would like me to come and play my Rugby Reading Game with your pupils, then I have six dates left in February, during Six Nations 2014.  Please email me on if you'd like to know more.

Also, keep an eye on this blog over the next few days. I'm heading to Toulon soon to check out their training set up: research for my new rugby union series for children.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Writing on Adrenaline

Today we wanted to get boys writing competitively. For them to go at writing in the same way they go at sport. With adrenaline and urgency.

We blended three sports challenges with three writing challenges. Sport, writing, sport, writing, sport, writing. The idea was to get the children fired up about the sporting challenge and ride that competitiveness into writing too.

Five schools sent a team of five boys each.

They were awarded points for success in three sporting activities. Indoor versions of rugby penalty kicking, baseball and basketball. This involved a ball and classroom objects like boxes and chairs. whatever we could find.

They were also award points for three writing challenges.

One, creating a villain based on someone they hate. They chose Luis Suarez, Simon Cowell and the teachers chose Michael Gove. They defined two actual things they didn't like about their villain. Then they added an extra crime. Such as being a murderer, kidnapper, etc.

Two, making a story using their villain as a starting point. They asked the following questions about their villain. Who is he? What did he do? Where? When? Why? How? This list of six points gave them a basic story.

Three, they wrote and performed an opening paragraph.

A panel of teachers gave the children points. A scoreboard was updated every round. The winners were presented with a trophy.

It worked well. The sport sessions got them on their feet, moving around. And they went at the writing sessions with real passion.

Thanks to Haworth Primary for hosting a great day.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

How to use the World Cup to get kids reading more

Now that England have qualified for World Cup 2014 in Brazil, I am very happy to be announce that I will be working with the National Literacy Trust to use the interest in the tournament to promote reading in schools and libraries.

Our plans include :

 * a daily five-minute classroom-read episodic story based around the events of the tournament, written at the end of play each weekday of the tournament and published the next morning

*  daily writing challenges based on each day's talking points and controversies

* a toolkit of reading activities for the classroom, library and home

It will all be free.

This work will build on the huge successes of our 2010 World Cup Reading activities, where we did all the above.

In 2010 our World Cup materials were downloaded 119,199 times. The toolkit –  Love Football Love Reading – was used by at least 2433 schools and libraries. Over 2000 schools read all 28 episodes of The World Cup Mystery and, with most schools using it in more than one classroom, at least 100,000 children will have been read all 28 episodes.
More information on the National Literacy Trust website, here.

Let children read about football... if they like football

Neil Gaiman gave a very important lecture on Monday night. He was speaking about books and reading. One of the things he said was that we should let children read the books they love.


He said: "I don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children... There was a fashion for saying that Enid Blyton or RL Stine was a bad author or that comics fostered illiteracy. It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness."


I wouldn't read when I was a child: but I loved football. My mum got me books on football: so I started to read.

Most adults get this. You give a child a book about something they want to read.

But some don't. That's where Gaiman's reference to snobbery comes in. I witnessed this once.

I was in a school talking about my football books. The event had gone well. I had convinced the children that reading and writing about football was just as good as reading about anything else. I had done my job.

Then, during the questions, the teacher asked "When are you going to write books about proper subjects?"

Friday, 11 October 2013

Dyslexia Awareness Week

It happened when a teacher was talking to me in a sports hall in Bridgend, south Wales. She was asking about the stickers on my three Barrington Stoke books. Stickers that said dyslexia friendly.

What makes them friendly? she asked.

I told her. Barrington Stoke design and edit their books with a view to breaking down some of the barriers that conventional books put up for dyslexics.

Like what? she pressed.

The colour of the page. The font. The way the letters and words are spaced on the page. The editing of the book. The author taking into consideration what those barriers are for dyslexics.

Then she spotted that one of my books was about rugby. Scrum!

There's a boy here, she said. He loves rugby. He's dyslexic. Can we show him?

I nodded. She called him over. He was eleven, tall, dark-haired.

Look at this, she said to him.

The boy looked at the book. First he turned it over in his hands. Then he opened it. He said nothing. I thought I saw him frown.

Then he looked at the teacher said: I can read this! like he couldn't really believe it.

His face lit up. Really. I'm not exaggerating. His face lit up like something really good had happened.

I am happy to say that I have four more books coming out with Barrington Stoke in the next two years. Not just because it is good for my career: but because I will get to tell more teachers about their books.

Find out more about dyslexia specialist publishers, Barrington Stoke.

Find out more about Dyslexia Awareness Week and the British Dyslexia Association.s

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Useful literacy ideas for World Cup week

It's a big week for football fans. The question among England fans is: Can England qualify for the 2014 World Cup?

If you like football or you don't, football is a great way to engage some children with reading. Lots of children will enthuse about football. Lots of them will read about it, even if they aren't that into reading.

We can use the football interest this week to get more children reading for pleasure.

Here are a few resources that might be useful this week.

A toolkit of ideas for activities and challenges using football to improve literacy in your classroom and library.

A free five-part story about international football. Five x five minute reads.

A letter to go home to parents about how they can use the increased interest in football to help their children read for pleasure.

Articles by myself and teachers about using sport to engage children with reading.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Bismark is On Side

In 2009 I visited Ghana to find out more about the trafficking of young footballers from African countries to Europe. It was research for my children's crime thriller set in the world of football, Off Side.

I was very lucky that Tom Vernon of the excellent football academy in Ghana, Right to Dream, let me interview some of his student players. I wanted to know more about good things that were happening to young footballers in Africa too. One boy was particularly helpful. His name was Bismark Boateng. He answered all my questions and I based my character, Kofi Danquah, on Bismark.

I was thrilled to hear recently that Bismark is now on the books of Manchester City, on loan in Norway at that moment. It's ironic that my character, Kofi, ended up playing in the UK for a team called City.

In fact, Kofi goes on to score the winner in the Champions' League semi final. I hope the same happens to Bismark.

Here is a picture of Bismark collecting a copy of Off Side.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Free literacy and sport posters and postcards

I have a range of posters and postcards that are free for schools and libraries. Free postage too.

You can see them on this picture. They include:

A LOVE FOOTBALL: LOVE BOOKS poster with tips on reading about football in newspapers, magazines and books.

A poster of all Barrington Stoke's excellent sports books.

Sets of ten postcards featuring three of my dyslexia friendly novels for children.

Sets of 25 red and yellow referee cards with information about my 13 Puffin football books.

If you would like to order some, please contact me on and let me know your postal address and the quantities you would like of each item.
There are also lots of free resources that you can use on my website too: Ideas for sports literacy sessions in schools.

Thank you!

Monday, 30 September 2013

Rugby Reading for Pleasure

This autumn sees the Rugby League World Cup take place in England, Wales, Ireland and France.

A massive sporting occasion like this creates a fantastic opportunity to promote reading for pleasure.

The public libraries of the north of England have got together to do just that. They're running 100s of events and promoting reading of all kinds through their website,

I am overjoyed to have been asked to be involved, like many other authors and artists.

During the summer I did over 30 sessions of my Rugby Reading Game in libraries from Workington to Doncaster. I talked to children about what they like to read for pleasure and about my children's book, Scrum

I have also written two special Try Reading books for schools, libraries and families to enjoy. What's a Bear to Wear (0+) and Haka Boy (6+).

And during October and November, it gets better.

I will be blogging about the Rugby League World Cup every day (at least once a day) during those two months. My blog will focus on what you can read about rugby league, the World Cup and on the several games I will be attending.

I'll be at a game in Limerick with a Gaelic Football fan, the semi-finals in London with a class of Essex football fans and in Avignon watching the New Zealand Haka with my daughter. Ten games in all, including the first game (England v Australia) and the last (which could be the same two teams).

You can read my blog by visiting here.

The Rugby League World Cup - runs from 26 October to 30 November 2013.

Worrying about the Arctic

Researching White Fear in the Arctic
Several Greenpeace activists - including two Britons - are being held on remand in Russian prisons.

They were arrested during their protest against the oil giant, Gazprom, which is drilling in the Arctic's Pechora Sea. Their protest was part of Greenpeace's on-going Save the Arctic campaign.

I have been following the campaign since 2011, when I travelled to the Arctic to research my children's book, White Fear (Puffin Books) which is set around a fictional conference in the Arctic that aims to avert disaster in the region.

Reading about oil and gas exploration in the Arctic and how it will affect all of us, not least the communities who live there, was very disturbing. Then seeing what a spectacular place the Arctic is - as I searched for settings for my novel - made me understand what the region has to lose.

White Fear is a children's spy story which - although it raises awareness of global warming, the Arctic and its issues - is verging on the far-fetched. In the book it appears the villain is a Russian, but, in fact, it turns out the Russian is passionate about the Arctic and it is an American (named Frank Hawk) who is the baddy. Either way, my child spies stop the do-badders in their bid to make the world a better place.

I didn't make the Russians the villains of White Fear because I thought it would be a cliché. Perhaps I should have understood that many clichés come from realities.

Read about the fantastic book about Arctic geo-politics, The Future History of the Arctic by Charles Emmerson here.

Read the BBC article the Greenpeace prisoners here.

Protest to the Russian government via the Greenpeace website, here.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Imagination is not enough

On Friday I will be sitting down with six children and three of their parents at Albrighton Primary School in Shropshire.

I want them to tell me what I am doing wrong.

The books I am writing for the next nine months are about a school rugby team. Most of the children at my fictional school will have parents in the RAF. 

Albrighton Primary is right next to RAF Cosford. Many of the families with the school work on that base.

I could easily make up a school, a handful of kids and a few RAF parents. I could do it in an afternoon. In fact, I have. I am going to take that work-in-progress to the families at Albrighton to see what they think of it.

I expect to be told most of what I have done is unworkable. I expect to be laughed at. I also expect to learn what is the right thing to do.

For me it is important to get the worlds I write about right.

That is why I went to Ghana in 2010 to interview young footballers about trafficking; and to a school for children whose parents are fair trade farmers there. For my football thriller, Off Side. As a result my book about trafficking and fair trade was a little more realistic than it would have been if I'd done it using my stock of off-the-mark clichés and YouTube.

The families at Albrighton are going to start by helping me to devise characters, settings and plotlines.

Later, they will read my drafts and help me make the stories represent their lives more accurately. What is it like being in a forces family? What do their parents do? How do they feel if their parents are away during a conflict?

I can only imagine what it feels like. That's what writers are meant to do: imagine.

But, in this case, it is not enough.

I'll blog about each stage of my work with Albrighton Primary.

The three rugby books, as yet untitled, will be published by Barrington Stoke in 2014 and 2015, in time for the Rugby Union World Cup in 2015.

Spies are like Writers

1. Kids like spy stories

When I was in Preston yesterday I asked 140 children if they liked stories about spying. At least 100 put their hands up. They named fiction series like the Gallagher Girls, Alex Rider, Jayne Blonde and Spy Dog.

I was in the school to encourage children to read for pleasure. And - through that - to help inspire them to want to write more.

I normally work using sport to engage children with reading and writing, but, because I had a spy series out last year, I did some work with a teacher and class in Essex to create a literacy resource for children who are interested in spying.

2. How to create a spy ring

The Essex school and I created the Spy Pack. The Spy Pack is a toolkit for teachers to set up a spy ring in their school. Running a spy ring is fun. It also teaches children how to work together and be more observant.

But the Spy Pack's greatest impact is to enthuse children about writing.

3. Writers are like spies

There are six writing workshops in the Spy Pack. Each teaches a spy skill. One session is about reading body language, another is about bugging a conversation, another about creating a false identity.

This is how writers are like spies:

Creating a false identity = character development
Bugging a conversation = writing realistic dialogue
Body language = showing what people are thinking and feeling, not telling

That is the general idea. That anything you train your spy ring to do as spies is also teaching them how to write more effectively.

The pack is set up in a way to make it secret, exciting, special and with lots of physical activities that will help engage the children.

4. Intelligence

Several schools have used the Spy Pack. It's free.

One teacher who used it said: 'I was approached by a year 4 teacher telling the good news that all of the year boys in my Spy Ring had increased their reading levels. With the lowest gaining 6 months rising to 2 years and 6 months. This was fantastic news.'

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Researching is Fun

I have been doing some research today. In Edinburgh. I like research. I probably like it too much. Sometimes it can be hard to pull myself away from researching to start writing.

I spent the morning at Stewart's Melville College's rugby fields. I watched a couple of games, eavesdropped on the coaches, talked to a few parents. My next book is about a school rugby team. It features parent characters, so it was a very useful morning all round.

The action before the matches kicked off was as useful as the rugby, to be honest. Seeing parents arriving with their kids. Watching the boys fooling around before the games. Hearing the coaches coach. Watching the warm up drills. Smelling the bacon sandwiches and tea that the parents were tucking into, while they chatted to each other.

Detail. Authentic detail. Things you might not bother to mention while writing.

I attended my first air show in the afternoon. At RAF Leuchars. The reason for this is that some of the boys in my fictional rugby team have parents in the RAF. As a result I needed to see some planes flying. Particularly Typhoons, planes that are still operational in the RAF.

Research is useful because it tells you things beyond you imagination. Watching the Typhoons was just that. The way they manoeuvre in the sky. Their noise. How the air is carved white by their G-force. It was astonishing. And thrilling. My subject needs to thrill me if I am going to thrill my readers.

I also got to see a bit of the air base. The hangars. The RAF houses. The vehicles. How people dress.

It all helps. More authentic detail.

I am lucky that I get to write about things I am into. Going to watch rugby and fighter aircraft is hardly work, is it? I'd do it even if I wasn't writing about it.

I have lots of notes now. But, more than that, I have images and smells and sounds and snippets of conversation in my head. For when I start writing. Soon...

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Free literacy resources for schools

There are a lot of free literacy resources on my website that you can download and use in schools and libraries.

My background - before writing - was in reader development, so I sometimes come up with new ideas for ways of encouraging reading for pleasure.

The most downloaded materials on the website are:

* Spy writing intervention pack. Six classroom sessions about how to run a spy ring from your school.
* Love Football: Love Reading. Ideas for promoting reading for pleasure through activities, events, book groups and displays.
* The Danger Academy. A five part story with cliff hangers to be read over a week in class.
* Ten top tips for parents to help their children get into reading for pleasure.

This is a more general idea of what is on there:

* videos of me reading passages from my books, with comprehension questions
* fun activity packs with puzzles, games and predictions
* free stories
* ideas for using football and rugby to engage reluctant readers
* articles by literacy experts about different techniques in encouraging reading for pleasure
* and a lot more

If you need any advice on where to find things, please email me direct on

Please also see my previous blog about free posters and display materials that I have available.

Free display materials

I have some new display materials that should be useful to schools and libraries.

They're free. Free postage too.

They're great for displays in school halls, classrooms and libraries.

Please also see my blog entry with ideas for a sports reading display, coming soon.

The display pack can include:

* A3 Love Football: Love Book posters (from Puffin)

* A3 Tackle Your Sports Mad Readers posters (from Barrington Stoke)

* Packs of A6 postcards featuring my Barrington Stoke books

* Packs of A7 red and yellow referee cards, that feature details about my Football Academy, Squad and Foul Play series

* a personally signed poster message from me to your school or library with a - hopefully - inspiring message about reading

You can order sets of these free materials by emailing me at I'll need your name, address, school or library name and numbers of materials above that you need.

Thank you!

Please also see my other blog about free on line literacy resources.

Back to School

I seem to have spent a lot of time talking to children about going back to school this week. My daughter, 9, has been sorting out her school uniform. My younger niece is starting junior school, my older niece is going to start secondary. Also, a few of my readers have been emailing about what they are looking forward to. And not.

One of the things that I think schools do well now is they start the transition process before the summer holidays. In June and July I worked with several schools on transition days, where year sixes
went to their new high school for days of activities and overcoming worries and preconceptions.

I even worked with some secondary schools during the summer, where they hosted large groups of year sixes in their school without all the older children around. Summer School. My older niece did this and is very much looking forward to high school now.

Even within junior and primary schools children spend a day or a week with their teacher for the next year. My daughter did this. So did my younger niece. As a result they are both looking forward to next year too.

Changing schools and years is traumatic for children. And I am sure it is for teachers too. I tried to capture this is my new book, Secret FC.

Secret FC is about a primary school with a new headmaster for the school year. But Mr Edwards does not enamour himself with the children. He bans football. His argument is that, with only one small playground for children aged 5 to 11, football is too dangerous a game to play. As a result the children find a place to play football secretly. And it goes well, until Mr Edwards discovers their furtive footballing.

I was trying to write about how things will always change in a new school year and that it is important for people to talk about that change to each other. And that that is the best way of making sure change makes things even better.

Reading Newspapers

I use newspapers a lot in my school and library events. I like to ask the children – and adults – what they  read in newspapers. The answers are usually: sport, celebrities, cartoons, puzzles, TV guide, cars, animals and news.

Lots of children read newspapers. On paper – and online. I think it is important to validate children who read newspapers, whatever subject they are finding out about. Some of them tell me that they don’t think  newspapers count as real reading: that reading books is the only real reading. I like to put them right on that. Reading newspapers is just as real as reading books.

My daughter really enjoys  reading First News. First News is a children’s paper with stories that will interest kids, written in a way that makes it engaging for them. She reads it cover to cover. She skips. She goes back to bits. She draws moustaches on people. I am really happy about it. If she’s engaging with an engaging newspaper, then she’s going in the right direction.

I have found newspapers particularly useful this week. The seemingly unavoidable war with Syria is the main story at he moment. I have been following it on TV and the radio, but I never quite understand the issues until I read about it in the newspapers. I think part of it is that I can go back and re-read sections to understand what is going on fully. It could also be that I fade out while watching TV or listening to the radio. Sometimes. Newspapers work best for me if I am trying to understand something.

Reading the newspaper today has helped me understand what the issues are, the pros and cons. I am still confused about what the best course of action is for our politicians to take, but at least I know why.

Culling Words

I am reworking a children’s book for publication in March 2014. My deadline is… soon.

The original version was 35,000 words. The new version needs to be 20,000 words. This week’s job is to cull 15,000 words without annihilating the story completely.

I think I have spent nine months writing this book to date, so, looking at it that way, I am culling three or four months work.

That should make me feel bad. Like I’ve wasted my time. But it doesn’t. In fact, it makes me feel great. It is exhilarating to have to remove material from a book. To have no choice. You have to look for look for anything weak. Anything that does not directly tell the story. And you realise that there is a lot that can go.

Well, I do. That could be a weakness in my original work, or it could be a valid part of the writing process.

The book is question is called Over the Line and is about a soldier from WWI who won two medals for bravery at the Somme, then went on to score England’s first goal after the war. It will be published in March 2014 by Barrington Stoke. Unless I have annihilated it.

It’s called Over the Line and is about a soldier from WWI who won two medals for bravery at the Somme, then went on to score England’s first goal after the war.

On Play

Someone on Twitter commented recently that my events in schools seem to always revolve around play. It was not something I had spotted before, but it’s true.

The three school events I have been using in 2013 have been the Football Reading Game, the Rugby Reading Game and an event comparing making an Airfix kit aeroplane to writing a story and where we do both.

Secret FC

I use playing when I do school events because I am scared that if I just stand in front of 200 children and talk about myself and my books that I will be boring. I’m not that charismatic, so games and play help me keep things lively. To be honest.

So I was interested to hear about Play England’s campaigns to encourage children to play more. They have developed a charter for children’s play that takes on the barriers to children playing, often barriers in adults’ minds. Barriers like fear of injury, fear of so-called stranger danger and fear of upsetting the local community. Also barriers such as  lack of space and time and supervision for children to play in.

Like most adults I remember playing all day outside without adults being too obvious. But not just at home. At school too

I work in a lot of schools, urban and rural. There are astonishing differences between the spaces children have to play in their schools. Some of the urban schools have car parks taking up most of the original playground and small or no playing fields.

Seeing that inspired me to write Secret FC, which is published by Barrington Stoke this week. Secret FC is about a schools where there is a tiny playground. The new head teacher’s first move is to ban football because he feels it is too dangerous to the school’s younger children in such a small place. He also has big issues with risk, after a friend of his had a terrible accident when he was a boy.
The children are devastated. They only have one place to play football in their neighbourhood. School. Now that is gone. So - with the spirit of creativity and problem-solving that children will never lose - they find a secret place in the small wooded area between some railway lines. And form the Secret Football Club.

In the end that spirit of the children wins the adults round and they reach a happy compromise with the adults. They use play to overcome barriers and anxieties. A bit like me using play to overcome my fear of boring children to death.

Edinburgh Book Festival

I did an event at Edinburgh Book Festival today. It was a lot of fun. I’d say there were 80 in the audience. Not bad for me: not bad at all. In fact, I’d say it’s the largest audience I’ve ever had when the audience actually had a choice whether to be there or not…

I was there to talk about my Barrington Stoke books, Ghost Stadium and Secret FC, which I did a bit. But I feel a but uncomfortable just talking about my books at events, so, instead, we played the Football Reading Game. A quiz about football reading material, followed by a penalty shoot out.
I know I am supposed to be at a book festival to talk about my books. I know that I am the author and that people are supposed to want to meet an author and buy their books. But – like I say – that makes me feel uncomfortable. That’s why my event is about what the children like to read and about giving them a bit of fun.

I was lucky that Calum was there. Calum works at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh. Calum went in goal. He did a fine job. Sixty-plus kids took penalties at him. He faced about 110 in all. He only let in 15 or so.
After that I went for a walk down to the Princes Street Gardens with the BBC. Radio 4. They wanted to do a piece on my books. In particular about Barrington Stoke and what makes their books so attractive to dyslexic children. We chatted. We had a kick about. It is supposed to be aired on Thursday. I’ll update this blog when I know more.

More from the festival tomorrow as I do a schools event.

Book festivals

I’m in Edinburgh. Due to do a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival this afternoon. This is a big deal for me.

Before I became a children’s author I used to run book festivals. One in Bradford. And, briefly, the more famous Ilkley Literature Festival. That was my career before writing. Putting on author events in bookshops, libraries, theatres and football stadiums too. I hosted over 500 events in my time.

Before I tried to get published I thought you had to be something special to be a published author. I was thinking along the lines that you had to be very intelligent, rich, maybe from London and – perhaps – posh.

And some authors are intelligent. Some are even from London. But…

…what I’m saying is that when I ran book festivals I met authors and realised they are mostly just normal people. And that the one thing they have in common is a strong drive to write, to be writers.

Meeting authors at book festivals made me believe I could have a go at being a writer. That I could dare to dream. I even dreamed about talking at book festivals.

Anyone can write. You don’t have to be special or rich or clever or posh. You just have to want to do it.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Do the Summer Reading Challenge!

The Summer Reading Challenge is a fantastic way of keeping children interested in reading during the six-week school holidays.

This year the theme is Creepy House.

One of the first things my daughter wants to do when school breaks up is go to the library and join up for the challenge. She likes the free goodies she is given. She likes the stickers. She likes the books (usually). And she likes the challenge. Can she read six books over the summer break?

I have made a short video about Creepy House that schools and parents may want to use. In the video I talk about the Summer Reading Challenge and about how libraries are worth a visit in the summer. I also recommend a few creepy books that I have enjoyed.

Tom Palmer on the Summer Reading Challenge

The characters in my new book - Ghost Stadium - do not head for the library on the day they break up, like I hope my daughter will. Instead, they sneak into an abandoned football stadium on a daring camping trip. Unfortunately for them the stadium is haunted and they do not have a very nice time. On a more positive note, they help solve a mysterious unsolved murder. Ghost Stadium is published by Barrington Stoke.

Please encourage any children you know or work with to go to their local library and join the Summer Reading Challenge. It'll be good for the libraries, good for authors like me and - most importantly - it will be good for them.

Have a great summer.

Visit the Summer Reading Challenge website.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

A classroom cricket conundrum

The Ashes begin on 10th July. England playing Australia at cricket in another tussle for the famous trophy. It is going to dominate the sporting news for several weeks.

I've written a one-page mystery story for children or classrooms to try to solve. A puzzle for them before or during the summer holiday.

Can your child or class solve the Ashes Mystery?

Here is the solution. It might help the children if they do a little research about the Ashes games and - in particular - the trophy.

Good luck.

Monday, 24 June 2013

How to use Airfix models to get kids writing

I am working with the RAF museum in Cosford tomorrow. We are piloting a writing workshop where we will compare making an Airfix model to writing a story.

Most stories start with a character.
Airfix kits usually begin with the pilot.

Next comes motivation. What does the character want or not want?
That's the propeller: the part of the machine that drives the plane, or story, forwards.

The fuselage is the setting.
The wings create the plot.
The wheels - up or down - are the choice of genre.
The canopy determines the point-of-view.
The paint and decals are the descriptions.
And it goes on.

The idea is that 20 children will work on an Airfix Spitfire at the same time as deciding the main components of a story they want to write. This is the overall plan:

The reason behind this workshop is that some children find it hard starting a story, coming up with the main components. Just as it would be difficult to make a Spitfire model without all the parts. The workshop should give the children a structure to work from when writing stories in the future.

Also, it will introduce them to the fun that can be had making Airfix models. And to our history.

I'll blog more about it after the event. Until then, chocks away...

Friday, 21 June 2013

Five tips to get young Lions reading

The British and Irish Lions kick off their three-test series tomorrow, Saturday 22nd June. This is a great opportunity to encourage young rugby fans to read.

Here are five tips to do just that:

1. Deliver a newspaper to the door of your Lions fan, with breakfast in bed, encouraging them to sit and study the form at ease.

2. Invest in the Official Lions magazine or this month's Rugby World (both pictured), even giving them that tonight as bedtime reading.

3. If you can't follow the game on Sky TV or on TalkSport (I can't: I'll be at my daughter's dance class), you can follow it on the BBC website, Twitter feed or their sports App.

4. Borrow or buy one of the lavish photographic histories of the Lions from your local bookshop or library.

5. Give them a copy of my, Tom Palmer's, book, Scrum! (pictured) to read before the next test on 29th. Or Gerard Siggins' Rugby Spirit or Dan Anthony's Rugby Zombies.

Australia v Lions kicks off at 11am on Saturday 22nd June. Enjoy the game! And the rugby reading!

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Sleeping on the Pitch

I researched my new book - Ghost Stadium - by sleeping on the pitch of the oldest international football stadium in the world. The Racecourse Ground in Wrexham.

I wanted to know how it would feel for three boys to camp inside an old football stadium. That's because Ghost Stadium is about three boys who camp in an abandoned stadium, overgrown and shut off to the public. And I like to experience what my characters experience. As far as I can.

Sleeping on a football pitch was amazing. As the sun went down and shadow then darkness flooded the stadium, I started to feel a bit creeped-out. But I needed more.

I decided - to make things more scary - to walk around the stands. Inside and out. Through dark corridors. In overgrown stands. I got some ideas about what my characters would feel like.

In the book the dead come to life and things start falling out of the sky. I had to imagine those bits. But I got some good material.

You can read the first chapters of Ghost Stadium here.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Climate Change Week

Climate Change Week takes place from 4th to 10th March 2013. It is a great chance to get children (and adults) thinking about what we can do to reduce the impact of climate change to communities around the world. 
In 2011 I became quite obsessed about the metling ice in the Arctic. I read up about it in books that spelled out not only the grim impact climate change is having and coming threat on communities aroud the world, but, in particular, about what will happen in the Arctic when the ice has gone.
I visited Tromso and the Arctic areas north of that city in Norway to find out more. Then, using my findings, I wrote a children's novel - White Fear - about five child spies who are trying to prevent a war that is about break out about who owns the oil and gas that lies beneath the Arctic seabed. All too likely, I am sorry to say.
My website page on how I went about writing White Fear has more information about that research and on the melting ice.
There is a free schools' pack of activities around the book and the theme of climate change too.

But, more importantly, please visit for more information about Climate Change Week and what you, your family and your school can do to help.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Fair Trade Fortnight

Next half-term it is Fairtrade Fortnight: a great opportunity to get children thinking about where they spend their money and the difference that choice can make other people's lives.

In 2009 I wrote a book about a boy called Kofi, who - as well as being a gifted footballer - was the son of cocoa bean farmers in Ghana.

The book is called Off Side.

At the beginning of the Off Side, Kofi's family were being cheated and not paid a fair amount for their beans. By the end they had become part of the Kuapa Kokoo co-operative which supplies chocolate manufacturers Divine.

I was very lucky, when in Ghana researching my novel, that Divine took me to meet some farmers and to a school paid for by our buying Fairtrade Chocolate. I have seen the results of the decision we can make to buy Fair Trade chocolate: children being well-schooled, learning to run their own businesses and families living in decent accommodation.
When I came home I worked with Divine Chocolate to produce a schools' pack that should encourage children to think about the impact of buying Fair Trade products. It is free to download.
There is more information about my book, Off Side, which also looks at people trafficking, particularly the exploitation of young footballers from Africa.
And, if you would like to download the first chapter of the book for free, it is available here.
Fair Trade fortnight runs from 25th February to 10th March 2013.

Monday, 28 January 2013

10 Tips for Parents: Using the Six Nations to get your kids reading

The 2013 RBS Six Nations tournament runs from 2nd February to 16th March, with England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy competing to be the northern hemisphere's top rugby nation.

For parents with children interested in rugby - or sport in general - this is a great chance to get them reading. For pleasure.

Here are 10 quick tips on rugby reading that your children could try as the tournament progresses in the next six weeks.

ONE: download the RBS Six Nations app and keep up to date with official news updates, match analyses and player profiles

TWO: read a copy of the latest Rugby World magazine, packed with interviews and expert anaylsis of the tournament - also try The Rugby Paper

THREE: go to the library and borrow rugby books about players, teams, coaching and the history of the game

FOUR: follow previews to the Six Nations in newspapers - on paper online

FIVE: read one of several children's stories about rugby, including The Rugby Zombies by Dan Anthony, Rugby Spirit by Gerard Siggins and Scrum by Tom Palmer

SIX: check out some of the best sports websites for very up-to-date information and videos of key highlights - is a great one

SEVEN: read one of the new books published in time for the Six Nations, checking out your local library or bookshop, with When Rugby was Rugby or the World Rugby Records 2012 book looking good

EIGHT: buy official RBS Six Nations 2013 magazine, to have on the arm of your sofa as you watch the games

NINE: leave any of the above lying around the house, on the kitchen table or as a screen saver on the home computer, if you have one.

TEN: read some of the above together with your children - reading with kids and talking to them about what you are reading is a great way of finding things out - and a great way of embedding reading in them as a thing to do for pleasure

There are other resources that can help parents, teachers and librarians encourage children to read. Check out my last blog for free schools' packs, book lists and other ideas.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Six Nations Rugby 2013

The RBS Six Nations tournament kicks off on February 2nd. It is a great opportunity to get boys reading for pleasure.

Rugby Books for Children

First of all a book list. There are not many rugby books for children. But this is what there is:

(1) The Rugby Zombies series by Dan Anthony. Published in Wales by Pont. Three boys meet fifteen zombies in the woods: all the zombies are wearing Welsh rugby union tops. It is funny, moving and very good for rugby fans. Age 8+.

(2) Rugby Spirit by Gerard Siggins. Published by O'Brien in Ireland. Great story about a boy who joins a new school where his granddad was a heroic rugby union player. Age 8+.

(3) The Flea Thing by Brian Falkner. Published by Walker. About a very fast New Zealand
rugby league player. Very good read. 8+

(4) Scrum! by Tom Palmer. Published by Barrington Stoke. A rugby league and union novel. Two rugby codes. A dad and a step dad. North vs south. Lots of conflict. Dyslexia friendly. 8+

Free Rugby reading resources

(1) The National Literacy Trust has a free pack called Love Rugby: Love Reading. I wrote it. You can download it here. It was written for the 2011 World Cup, but most of it is general enough to be useful now. It is full of activity ideas for promoting reading through the love of rugby.

(2) I have produced a reading and writing pack based around my own rugby novel, Scrum! It is called Rugby Reading. Again it is free and available here. From five-minute fun activities to writing your own rugby stories in class. Plus activities based around reading my book.

Author Events

I am going to be doing a tour of schools during the Six Nations, running my Rugby Reading Game. It involves a quiz, talking about rugby reading and a kicking competition. More info about that here.

And if you need to know the Six Nations fixures, to plan good days for your activities, go here.
Enjoy the tournament. I will.