A Bookish Adventure

I started this blog to document an extended trip to the US and UK in 2012, introducing children to my Alice-Miranda series. It's hard to believe that it's just on four years since we launched the first Alice-Miranda title - and now there are nine books out in Australia with another five still to come. When I first came up with the idea of this precocious seven and a quarter year old, I had no clue that she would take me on such an amazing journey, not only in Australia but also across the world. I visited 37 schools while we were away in 2012 and gave over 80 talks - it was fantastic. In 2013 I've been on lots of new adventures in the UK - visiting schools from London to Southampton, Lancashire, Scotland, Newcastle and back to London again. After that I headed off to meet readers in Singapore. In Australia I've been to Melbourne, Perth, Albany, Alice Springs and Brisbane. There's a new series too - about a gorgeous little girl called Clementine Rose. She and Alice-Miranda don't know each other yet, but they will soon.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Importance of Reading for Pleasure

This morning I came across an article in The Telegraph (UK) about former children's laureate Michael Morpurgo's plea to reinstate daily story time in UK schools.  I couldn't agree with him more and during my school presentations I frequently talk about one of the reasons I fell in love with stories as a child being that my teachers read to the class - and I couldn't wait for those daily instalments where there was no test afterwards, no comprehension questions or cloze passages - just the joy of sharing a wonderful story. 

I still remember as if it was yesterday, my beloved teacher Sally Hogan reading February Dragon by Colin Thiele and being completely mesmerised.  When I became a teacher, story time was sacrosanct.  I loved nothing more than to read to my classes - silly voices and all.  It was something I looked forward to and so did they.  I couldn't tell you how many times I've read Hating Alison Ashley or The Twits aloud but I never tired of the joy on the children's faces when they really got to know the characters - as if they were friends, or when they grew to hate certain characters and wanted to see them get their come uppance.  There was always a cheer when the horrible Twits got what they deserved and Mugglewump and his family were safe.

I read the comments attached to the article and there are a couple of people who dismiss the story, saying that story time does exist in all British schools.  Having been in quite a few lately, I'd beg to differ.  I've had numerous teachers come up to me after my talk and say they just wish they had time to be able to read to the children.  But the pressures of the curriculum are too great - they just can't fit it in...there's too many tests and too much to get through.  I talk about the notion of DEAR and its importance at home (DEAR stands for Drop Everything And Read - and is generally where children are allowed to choose their own books to read for about 15 -20 minutes), but not having been in the classroom now for a few years, I wonder if it too hasn't been crowded out of the day.  I hope not.  Apart from that, while DEAR is important, so too is the idea of the teacher reading to the children and sharing stories.

Children need time to listen, to think, to dream and imagine.  Boredom is the mother of creativity after all.  If we want children to be creative then we have to give them time to create - not to be tested within an inch of their young lives and stressed out of their minds.

Anyway, I thought this article was worth sharing.

That chair below is the story chair at Seven Stories in Newcastle Upon Tyne.  I'm looking forward to sitting in it next time I'm over.

The Bishop's Primary School Chelmsford, Royal Masonic Cadogan House, St Helen's, North London Collegiate School and Danes Hill - what an end to the tour!

We spent the first part of this week in St Alban's which was a real treat.  Unexpected in many ways and a place I very much hope to go back to.  On Monday evening Ian and I had dinner with Nikki Gamble from Just Imagine and her lovely husband Neil in a gorgeous pub just north of Chelmsford.  We ventured out in the afternoon for a drive and ended up in Thaxted, a beautiful village with some fantastic ancient buildings.  Many of the village houses are painted in pale colours, a veritable rainbow of pastels.  The Guildhall is very interesting and looks as if the top might topple off and the Alms Houses beside the church are so well preserved.
We didn't have a lot of time there as it was getting dark and we were keen to find our way to The Compasses at Littley Green.  It proved slightly more challenging than we imagined, as the address was a little vague and we wound up at the wrong end of the road.  A phone call to the pub saw us back on track, although when we arrived the place was shrouded in darkness.  As we tried the front door a head popped out of an upstairs window and the chap asked if we were the people who'd just called.  It was about 5.10pm and the pub wasn't due to open until 5.30pm but as it was freezing and he was expecting some guests to check into the accommodation, he'd come down and open up for us.  The pub was warm and cosy with low beams and that look of a much loved place.

It wasn't long before locals began to arrive and Ian and I had a great time chatting with a number of them.  I think we were a bit of a fascination being from Australia.  We met a friendly chap called Martin who runs an eco cab company with Smart Cars and Prius vehicles.  Apparently he does a booming trade in Smart Car runs from Cambridge to Heathrow with single passengers.

Nikki and Neil arrived and we had a wonderful time chatting about this and that - lots about education and books and teaching reading (and teaching trainee teachers about teaching reading).  Nikki is an amazing woman with a passion for her work and a deep understanding of her profession.  Drinks continued to dinner and in no time it was after 9.30pm and time to get a move on back to St Albans.

The following day we left early for a school visit at The Bishop's Primary School in Chelmsford where two teachers I had met at Just Imagine worked.  It was great to see Stephen and Helen again and meet the students in Years 3 and 4.  The children were a very enthusiastic audience.  Sam from Just Imagine looked after the book sales (she looks just like my dad's sister Aunty Terry).  It was a great morning and I loved every minute.

The following day we had two events; a morning at Royal Masonic Cadogan House working with the Year 4 girls and the afternoon at St Helen's school.  Shirley Drummond at Cadogan House is one of those truly inspiring teachers.  The work she had done with her Year 2 students since my earlier visit was amazing.  The girls had written fantastic stories inspired by Clementine Rose and the Pet Day Disaster and during a little break from Year 4 I popped in and said hello to them.  The looks on their faces were priceless and they talked animatedly about their stories and showed them off. If I can work out how to make the pictures stay the right way around I will add some close ups of their work asap.  The Year 4 girls worked so hard - their enthusiasm was unwavering.  I was chatting with one of the Year 4 teachers, Eva Helm at morning tea time and mentioned that I had worked at Abbotsleigh in Australia.  Eva looked at me and said, 'in Wahroonga'.  Yes, I nodded.  It turned out that when I arrived at the school midway through 2001, Eva Phillips, as she was then known was one of our Junior School Gap Girls.  We had a wonderful time reminiscing about all the people she knew - Rosalie Geddes, Margaret Duke, Lesley Forbes, Merle Green and Murray Keating to name a few.  Of course June Brown too.  Eva is now married with a baby daughter - I know the Abbotsleigh connections will be thrilled to hear about her life now.

We spent the afternoon with Sheryl from Chorleywood Bookshop at another lovely school St Helen's.  Librarian Elizabeth greeted us at the office and I was thrilled by the warm reception from the girls and staff.  It was a fun afternoon and I signed books for ages afterwards.

Thursday was a late start - which I was really glad of.  We headed to North London Collegiate School to meet the Year 3 girls.  Another smart group with lots of questions and perceptive answers.  It was a pleasure to meet them and their lovely librarian Sarah. 

We had packed up our chattels and drove down to Surrey last night.  We're staying at a gorgeous old mansion called Woodlands Park Hotel.  It was first built as a private home but over it's 119 year history has seen different uses including an aged care facility and educational centre.  As a private house in it's heyday, King Edward VII was a frequent visitor. 

This morning I headed over to Dane's Hill.  The largest independent Prep School in the UK, I've developed a lovely connection to the school through Jan Firkin.  I had the pleasure of working with the students from Year 2-5 today and their enthusiasm was fantastic.  I can't wait to see their writing and hope to post some on the blog too.

So we've now come to the end of the official tour. Two countries and almost 6 weeks later I've just tallied things up. 27 schools, 52 sessions, 3 newspaper articles, an interview with BBC Radio Europe (yet to air), an interview with Nikki Gamble from Just Imagine, a visit to the stunning Seven Stories in Newcastle Upon Tyne, finished editing Clementine Rose and the Seaside Escape, finished up the page proofs for Alice-Miranda in Japan, developed the new storyline for AM 10 and been in more bookshops than I can remember. Visited new places and met many wonderful people. Caught up with friends and made new ones. Also eaten too much and exercised too little! But that is about to be remedied. We're off to Portugal for a golfing holiday tomorrow - where I will endeavour to eat less and exercise more, read, relax and reflect on how fortunate I am to be doing something I love.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Blenheim Palace enroute to St Albans

On Sunday we left our cosy basement flat in Cheltenham and drove across to St Albans in Hertfordshire.  We chose this as our base as I have an event in Chelmsford on Tuesday (about an hour north east) and then two days around Rickmansworth and North London (south) so it's fairly central (and out of the busyness of the city).

We drove via more of the pretty Cotswold villages and found ourselves in Chipping Norton, which is gorgeous.  On the way into town we came across the most extraordinary building with a giant stack attached to it.  On further investigation we learned that it was formerly Bliss Tweed Mill.  It's a striking building with the most enormous chimney stack atop a dome (sort of looks like a plunger) but the building itself is magnificent and has apparently been converted into apartments since the closure of the mill in 1980.  It would be a landmark building to call home.

We then drove to the very quaint village of Woodstock.  We must have missed the main gates into Blenheim Palace but I think we got the most beautiful view of the palace and grounds as we came in through another entrance.  What a pile it is.  Home to the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, Blenheim is enormous, ornate and has the most stunning grounds designed by Capability Brown.

I knew Winston Churchill had been born at the palace but hadn't registered that his grandparents were the Duke and Duchess.  I stood at the top of the gardens imagining what it would have been like to have the run of the palace during the school holidays, when young Winston was a frequent visitor.  There is a very interesting Winston Churchill archive in the house and access to the foyer, State Rooms, dining room, library and chapel as well as the grounds.  Unfortunately it was extremely chilly and started to rain so our visit to the gardens was short.  However, Blenheim currently have a deal where you can convert your one day pass into one year - so we did that and hope to make it back again before the 23rd November 2014.

We drove into Oxford and had a very quick look around.  It's a place we'll have to come back to and spend a proper amount of time but the light was fading and we were keen to get across to St Albans.  Ian booked us into St Michael's Manor and I have to say it's gorgeous.  St Albans wasn't a place I knew much about at all but turns out it was one of the three largest Roman cities in England and a seat of power.  There's a museum dedicated to the Roman times and a beautifully preserved mosaic floor in the middle of the sports field (which has a building over the top to protect it).  There are other mosaics in the museum and the most stunning park which runs alongside the river up to the St Alban's Abbey.  Another treasure we didn't realise was here.  I'll let the photographs do the talking suffice to say we've been really taken with the area and it's proximity to London and other centres.  It would be a great place to be based when we come back in 2014.

I suspect the glasses were added more recently than the carving was done!