I thought I’d have a go at representing how the publishing industry looks to me right now. What do you think?
40% of Democratic Unionist Party activists, and a good chunk of their leadership believe that the earth is a little less than 5,000 years old and that creationism should be taught as science in our schools.
There’s already evidence that the rules on teaching radical religious beliefs as science are being ignored, and with the DUP now propping up our government, the risk is that this could be about to get worse.
There’s a school of thought that says this doesn’t matter much – that people can believe what they like about how life came about, and that in our day to day life, it’s not really that important. Dinosaurs are like dragons. If you want to believe in them, fine. If you don’t, that’s OK too.
As a writer of children’s books, I spend a fair amount of time around dinosaurs, and dragons, and I can tell you, they are not the same. Dragons are great – they teach us lessons about greed and heroism and power, but dinosaurs are something more. Dinosaurs are our history. They teach us what really happened, and why we are the way we are.
To deny evolution (whichever set of religious or nonreligious beliefs you hold) is to misunderstand the nature of the entire universe and our relationship with it, and with each other. The unbroken line of ancestry that connects us to each other, and to everything else, back through time to the first dividing cell 4.2 billion years ago is the key to understanding who we are, the world we live in, and why we do the things we do.
But more than that. By replacing dinosaurs with some other explanation of our creation just because it fits better with our beliefs, we send out the signal that evidence based study, rational thought and scientific rigor can be simply swept away if you don’t like its consequences. And the fight against that notion is a fight worth having in any classroom, or anywhere else on any day of the week.
Regardless of who it offends, evolution is real, and we can prove it. What’s more, we have the children on our side – because in a fair fight for children’s attention between dinosaurs and angels, the dinosaurs will always win.
If you feel that the rules are being compromised in your children’s school or if you are coming under pressure to teach creationism as science yourself, knowing who to talk to can be difficult. As a first step, Humanists UK have a full time advisor who should be able to point you in the right direction https://humanism.org.uk/contact-us/
If you’d like me to come along to your school and talk about the role of evolution in my work, just drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’re a writer, it’s a question you get asked all the time. Literally every time I enter a classroom, the first hand that reaches for the ceiling will have the same question attached to it:
“Where do you get your ideas?”
And that’s odd, because in 30 years working in the creative industries, writing, illustration, animation, theatre, TV and film, I’ve found primary school children (and their teachers) to be absolutely the most creative people I have ever met. My stock answer is to ask them where they get theirs.
It’s not limited to schools either. In fact, I’m likely to fall head over heals for the first woman who doesn’t ask the question on our first date.
We are all taught that ideas a kind of magic – that they’re floating around like fairies, and some magic people can see and catch them, and the rest can’t. But worse than that, we’re taught that the route to “good” writing or art is through mastery of the technical disciplines – drawing, grammar, spelling.
In reality it’s not like that. Creativity is a set of muscles and they’re absolutely vital ones in every area of life even if you never want to compose a story, or draw a picture. By not recognising that, we fail to train and exercise those muscles, and they waste away until we struggle to remember where it is ideas come from.
This week I took part in CWISL’s Shoutsouth workshop as part of National Writing Day (http://www.cwisl.org.uk/shoutsouth-2017/4593844242). Two days of intensive creative writing and story making for children from south London schools, in which none of the writers and illustrators and teachers involved ever mentioned spelling or punctuation, or tried to tell a child how to make a drawing look neat.
Why? Because there are two types of creativity:
First, there’s the creative use of technical skills – the construction of sentences, the drawing of shapes and shades, the clever solving of the hundred problems that every attempt at communication throws up. This is the creativity we all understand, and we all get taught in school and beyond. It’s the creativity of the builder. Vital, practical and sharp, and it depends on your ability to work with your technical tools.
And then there’s the other kind. The big stuff. The creativity of the architect – who sits and stares at an empty sheet and asks “What do I want to achieve, and why?” The feelings, and the philosophies, the abstract notions, and motivations and concrete realities that swirl and crash together to form the underlying structure of (and I do not exaggerate here) every decision in your, my, and everyone else’s life.
This is the muscle we don’t train in school, because these connections are fragile and personal, and if you don’t learn to solidify them properly, they don’t survive first contact with paper or screen. They’re easy to spot, but almost impossible to mark, so we generally just sit back and hope that somehow kids will start to develop those muscles on their own. The problem is, we are not giving them room, in our current curriculum to try. And nothing kills big ideas like spelling and grammar.
Concentrating on the technicality of your work focuses you away from the ideas, and into the execution of them. We all instinctively know when someone is using technical small scale creativity, but isn’t doing the bigger thinking behind it.
A badly executed brilliant idea is still a brilliant idea. Whereas a technically perfect nothing is still nothing. All too often, that’s what we train ourselves and our children to create, and I’ll bet you read work like that every day, or watch it on TV, or hear it delivered in a meeting.
We need to train people to have ideas. Not for the sake of art and literature, but because big ideas drive everything we do, feel and think, even if we pretend that they don’t, and if we treat them as magic fairies that only the creatives can see, then we don’t see ourselves as capable of making the choices that drive our own lives.
But we can do it. We can get rid of the “where do you get your ideas?” question. I know we can, because, at the workshop on Monday, once our group of children had abandoned spelling, and torn out that first scary blank page of their exercise books, it took about fifteen minutes before those magic fairies started settling.
And we could all see them.
If you’re thinking of getting an author to talk to your school, and you’re in the UK, just get in touch: email@example.com
The really big upset of the 2017 general election was the turnout of the young vote. The conventional wisdom has it that 18-24 year olds stay at home on polling day, and let the older generation decide their future. This time, things changed, and Jeremy Corbyn reaped the rewards.
But the conventional wisdom isn’t quite right.
Whilst the youth vote appears to be massively up since 2015 (up from 43% to 66%), it’s not true to say the young have never voted. Up until 1992 the youth turnout had always been up around 65-70%. The moment John Major beat Neil Kinnock, to secure a record fourth Tory term, it fell off a cliff. Blair and Cameron were the pick of the oldies.
Think of that what you will, but the 2017 election begs the question: Are the young back in the driving seat now, and if they are, what does it mean for May, Corbyn and Brexit?
I’d argue they are back, they’re back for good, and it’s a game changer.
It came as no surprise to me when the Oxford University Press analysed 130,000 children’s stories and declared ‘Trump’ to be the national word of the year for school age children. As an author, I visit a lot of schools and run creative writing workshops. Last time I was at a primary, I asked a class of year 5s to come up with a crime they’d like to commit. Five out of six groups of young creative criminals decided to assassinate or kidnap Donald Trump.
The idea that kids are not interested in politics is nonsense. Trump and Brexit are just as much hot topics in the playground as they are at the water cooler. What the grownups are talking about, the kids are too.
As they get closer to voting age, things can go one of two ways. Either young people can become enthused by politics or, as has happened recently, they can become dispirited and bored by the whole grey suited business.
Of course, there was a time when the political agenda was absolutely driven by the young. The 60s and 70s were marked by youth protest and massive political change. University campuses were where the direction of travel for politics was set, and the young made their voices heard on every important subject.
Today, those same people are still setting the agenda – only now they’re in their 60s and 70s.The young have seen their parents and grandparents interests pushed to the fore, and voting, and political protest has seemed futile. Politicians have attempted to turn this around – but while getting people to vote by appealing to their sense of civic duty might work for the old, it won’t wash with young adults.
However, the massive chaotic changes we’ve seen over the past couple of years have set the debate raging across the country. Politics is exciting again, and if you’re at university, or college an election isn’t a chore, it’s an opportunity for an all night party. A demo isn’t just a way to show your outrage, it’s a picnic.
This is, of course, how it should be, but the point is this: If you’re seeing politics the way you see the World Cup with your team in the final, then voter fatigue just isn’t a thing.
Politicians may be wondering how their vote will hold up if the public is forced to haul themselves out for another election in the near future. And it’s pretty easy to find middle aged middle Englanders who sigh deeply and roll their eyes at the prospect.
But I can guarantee that this new youth won’t be thinking that. They’ll be rubbing their hands, studying the form, and getting the beers in.
In today’s Times Educational Supplement, I’m writing about coding in schools, and arguing that you don’t need to feel intimidated if your pupils know things about the technical side of coding that you don’t.
We think of coding as a science – and in a science lesson, if the pupils knowledge outpaces the teacher’s then it’s a problem.
In reality, however, computer coding isn’t a technical job. it’s a creative one – at least as far as the pupils are concerned. They want to create a game, or create an animation, and they solve the technical problems they need to solve to do that.
And if you’re teaching an art, you’re delighted, not intimidated when your pupils come up with an idea you wouldn’t have thought of yourself. You celebrate it.
What do you think?
Here’s the link to the article
With “Act Normal, And Don’t Tell Anyone About The Present Machine” gearing up for publication, I’m thinking about publicity.
This book is a lot bigger than any of the previous Act Normal titles (five times the length), and, I think, it needs a bigger publicity push. So how to do that?
Well, I’m going to make it available to bookshops as well as through Amazon – which means a whole different approach to printing and distribution. And to go along with that, I’m considering employing a publicist – somebody who knows their way around the press contacts and the reviewers in the publishing world.
It’s a big step, but hopefully, it will allow the whole Act Normal series to reach a wider audience.
So, if you’ve got experience of how book publicists work, drop me a line.
And if you haven’t, but you’re thinking of using one, stay tuned… I’ll let you know how it works as soon as I find out!
There was a call this week from Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education and skills, for children to be taught, in school, how to recognise fake news.
Absolutely bang on!
Working out what’s real and what isn’t is a vital skill, and it always has been, and that’s what school – if it’s about anything – is about.
So the problem isn’t a new one. What is new, is the fact that news is no longer controlled by a small group of individuals with their own agendas. It used to be that children (and adults) could learn to filter their news just by looking at the masthead at the top of a page, and adjust their expectations accordingly – If it says “The Guardian” at the top, you can expect different prejudices than if it says “The Sun”. And, of course, whatever, it says at the top, you can expect that somebody, somewhere is going to sue, or at least complain to a regulator with teeth, if those prejudices get too out of hand.
With social media, that’s all gone now, and you can’t tell instantly where your news comes from, or what level of rigor has been applied to it before its originator hit the “send” button.
You’d think that would make fake news harder to spot. However, the truth is, it’s never been easier to spot lies. Put any news story into Google, and you can, in about a minute, find out whether it’s real, and even trace it back to its original sources.
Showing children how to do this should be pretty easy. In fact, I’m going to come up with a workshop/game to take around schools to help children navigate what’s real and what isn’t.
Any teachers interested in this? drop me a message
Finally back at my desk after a hectic couple of weeks around World Book Day.
I’ve been to Ling Moor school in Lincoln (got stuck there during the storm). I’ve been to Aldro school in Godalming. I’ve Been to Prince’s Mead school near Southampton, Eton End in Datchet, and St Mary’s in Swinton, Manchester.
Quite a couple of weeks, and I’ve still got two more visits this week. I’m feeling a little shell shocked, but it was amazing to meet lots of children and teachers with real excitement about reading and writing, and masses of creativity.
Every school has its own atmosphere and character, and it was especially great to end last week with a visit, on Friday at Market Field – a school for children with learning difficulties near Colchester.
The children there are so lovely, and one particular class had so many great questions for me, it was difficult to leave them at the end. The focus of some of the children on the autistic spectrum really makes you understand how although they have a lot of difficulties, many people with Asperger syndrome manage to achieve things the rest of us struggle with.
“World Book Day” is what they call it, but for children’s writers, and certainly for me, it’s not a day. It’s a month.
Between now, and mid march, I’m visiting 9 schools, from Ling Moor, in Lincoln to Market Field in Colchester, and from Prince’s Mead near Southampton to John Roan in Blackheath. it’s taking quite a lot of organising and means I’ll be spending a lot of time going from one end of the country to the other, sampling the joys of Airbnb all over the country.
It’s always great fun to talk to all the children at these schools, and it always takes my breath away how creative teachers are in getting their pupils interested in reading.
What I have to do between now and Thursday, when my first visit is scheduled, is to work out what I’m going to be working on during the long train journeys. I’ll be tired, I know, and it’s very tempting to just sit back and watch the countryside go by.
However, I can’t let the fact that I’m spending a month traveling the country talking about writing mean that I don’t actually do any writing, so I’m going to have to have a project to work on at the same time.
That’s a bit tricky right now. I’ve just finished the new Act Normal book – Act Normal, And Don’t Tell Anyone About The Present Machine. It’s four or five times the length of a “normal” Act Normal book, so it’s aimed at a slightly more confident group of readers – the sort of boys and girls who would happily tackle a David Walliams, or a Roald Dahl book – and I’m really excited about releasing it.
Right now, I have to create the illustrations, so that’s my job for when I’m at home over the next few weeks. I can’t work on the Professor Challenger series (see previous post) because I’m still waiting to hear back from the publishers, so I’m going to need another fun project to work on in the meantime.
And, of course, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m just sitting on my hands here… at the same time as all this, I’m filming the interviews for my new documentary, in London, Bath, and, potentially, Edinburgh. I’ve also volunteered to write a feature for the Times Educational Supplement over the next couple of weeks, and I’ve just volunteered to join CWISL (http://www.cwisl.org.uk/) the Children’s Writers and Illustrators of South London – If you live or go to school in south London, you’ll probably have come into contact with them. But they’re not an organisation for passengers, so I’m guessing, as soon as I meet up with them, I’ll become involved in something….
Oh, and the council want to build 7 new blocks of flats right next to my back garden, and with planning permission going through, and me on the residents group, it looks like things will be fun for the next few weeks…
Time to dive in.