By Benjamin Harris (@one_to_read)
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”- Carl Sagan
If every teacher began their training in teaching writing by looking at that quote in detail, by thinking about every sentence and the meaning they each hold about the purpose of writing, then lived that meaning for the rest of their teaching days, I wonder how many of the young people in their care would go on to become writers for life…
When I was eight, my class was visited by a paper-technician who showed us all how to make pop-up animals from one piece of paper: I thought it was the best thing I’d been shown since my reception teacher let us make butter by shaking a jar of cream all afternoon. That night, I went home and made many, many more and stuck them all together to make a book of weird creatures. Frankly, this little book was – like the butter – magic: Sagan’s words above were proved to me from a very early age! Like most of the learning that sticks for life, it was something simple and direct.
Secondary school inflicted itself on me: gone were those halcyon days of butter-making and pop-ups. From time-to-time there were still ‘independent projects’ to be done. For me, these quite naturally became the opportunity to make books, while others handed in lever arch files of hole-punched paper. I can’t remember much of the work I did elsewhere, but these books stick: a tea-stained-and-gas-hob-scorched ancient manuscript of Roman Life and a carefully bound guide to microscopes that I made with my best friend spring readily to mind. I was proud of them – very proud indeed.
I still have the microscope one and often show it to my classes. I tell them how looking at it reminds me of the feeling of creating it, of how proud I was (and still am). My biology teacher awarded me A+ for that effort, but I couldn’t have cared less about that – it could have been ungraded for all it matters – because I felt (and still feel) something had been captured in that book that was recorded for all time: it’s a tiny snapshot of who I was, aged 13.
Many people would readily recognise the huge value that an album of photographs has to its compiler – it’s in essence a picture book with (or completely without) a few words, telling the story of a period or event in one’s life. We look over our old photos with warm nostalgia, joyful remembrance, bitter regret, and maybe weep at sad or difficult memories they show. These photo albums are part of the story of our lives.
Now imagine this:
As an adult, you are sorting out boxes of old stuff in the loft. You come across a cache of books that you made when you were young. These books contain bits of writing and stuff and that you remember so vividly that mattered to YOU, stories about your childhood so far – the time you learned to ride a bike, your grand-dad hero, the recipe of your mum’s best macaroni cheese and exactly why you like it so much. Reading it all, you smile at a memory that has never ever gone away, then gasp when you read about something that you had quite forgotten. They are all intense snapshots, far deeper, individual and more personal than any photo could tell. Everything you recall has been presented to what was your very best effort; you remember really caring about making those little flaps and creating the bubble-writing titles. The handwriting, the slightly wonky construction, the pictures you drew, all combine to create an object so unique and heartfelt you find yourself looking into the soul of your childhood.
It is this vision that I have about each of the children in my classes. It’s why I help them to make books. It’s one of the reasons why making a book is not some precious nicety, not an ‘add-on’, but – for me – a crucial part in the teaching of writing.
I was fortunate to begin my teaching career in a setting that was one of the ‘Plowden Schools’ in the Seventies. It seemed that I had stepped into the school that I wished I had attended as a child. Along with particularly high standards of reading and writing, the Art and D.T. work was exceptional…and the school got the children to make books too! They were called ‘Topic Books’ then and I loved looking at examples from the ‘80s and ‘90s, with their spray-diffused stencilled pages, curious pop-outs and intricately cut pages. These pages were hand-stitched. This wasn’t work…it was craft.
Craft is how many of us see writing too: it’s not a kit, not a bunch of semicolons and adverbial phrases cobbled together into something that calls itself ‘a non-chronological report’. No: a skilful construction with an impulse to be created and a burning intent behind it – that is what makes writing a true craft.
Nearly twenty years on, I am still teaching at the same school. In every one of those years, I have helped my classes to make their own books; from infants to Year 6, the children have always gone home with at least one book that I hope will be brought out in thirty years’ time to reveal the child that was.
And maybe, as Carl Sagan tells us, the author that was will speak clearly and silently, directly to the very one that they grew up to be.
Here are some pictures of one of the most recent sets of books, which were designed and written by the children in my Year 6 class of 2018-19. They were produced during their last term of primary school. (Incidentally, it was the time when I took part in Ross Young’s and Phil Ferguson’s project What Is It Writing For Pleasure Teachers Do That Makes The Difference?) Each one is totally unique, the contents and style, chosen by the individuals.
- Leslie BENNETT – Children Making Books (1978)
- Gwen DIEHN: Making Books That Fly, Fold, Wrap, Hide, Pop Up, Twist and Turn (1999)
- Paul JOHNSON – A Book of One’s Own (1990) – Get Writing! (2008) – Making Books (2000) New Pop-Up Paper Projects (2013) –Pictures and Words Together: Children Illustrating and writing their own books (1997)
- Ester K. SMITH: Making Books with Kids: 25 Paper Projects to Fold, Sew, Paste, Pop, and Draw (2016)
Books that inspire by their craft:
- Janet and Allan AHLBERG – Peepo (1981) – Which Witch? (1979) (+ all the other titles in the Daisychain series) – Yum Yum (1984)
- Eric CARLE – The Bad Tempered Ladybird / The Grouchy Ladybug (1977) – The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969)
- David PELHAM – Sam’s Sandwich (1990)
- Jan PIENKOWSKI – Little Monsters (1986) – Haunted House (1979)
- Terry PRATCHETT – The Compleat Ankh-Morpork (2012)
- Matthew REINHART – Game of Thrones: A Pop-up Guide to Westeros (2014)