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.