New tumblr at matthewfinch.tumblr.com

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Matt at Coney Island Subway, March 2011

At the prompting of various friends and colleagues, I’ve launched a tumblr at matthewfinch.tumblr.com, where you can see photos and other media from recent adventures on the road in literacy, outreach and community education.

After this: more on my Antipodean experiences, Hong Kong visit and the long-awaited Scandinavian project. Stay tuned…

Australia’s Paint the Town Read Scheme Brings Communities Together

Dr Matt Finch with Behind the Book's Comic Workshop in Brooklyn, NYC
Dr Matt Finch with Behind the Book's Comic Workshop in Brooklyn, NYC

Tonight, Thursday 1st September, I’ll be the guest speaker at the opening dinner of Paint the Town REaD’s Annual Convention in Sydney.

You can find them online at their new home, http://paintthetownread.info/

To discover more about this amazing Australian community literacy scheme, read my recent piece on the website of New York literacy organisation Behind the Book:

http://behindthebook.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/in-australia-communities-come-together-to-%E2%80%98paint-the-town-read%E2%80%99-for-early-literacy/

Zoology for early readers from Ayla Herskind at Sydney Wildlife

At the heart of the city on Circular Quay, Wildlife Sydney offers every kind of Aussie animal life, from saltwater crocodiles to

Crocodile at Wildlife Sydney
Crocodile at Wildlife Sydney

rock wallabies. Behind the scenes, one staff member is working to promote zoology to young visitors through her own writing.

Ayla Herskind’s What is a marsupial? follows a small boy on a visit to the zoo, where he tries to work out what kind of animal a koala is with the help of a friendly keeper.

Ayla, Interactive Officer at Wildlife Sydney, wrote the book as a way to introduce the categories of taxonomy to young readers: ‘The whole notion of genus and type is too complicated for very young readers, but the questions and answers in the book let children understand what makes marsupials different from other animals. I’d like to do the same for other classes of Australian wildlife too.’

Read more

Nnedi Okorafor Interview, Part 4: ‘Chittim’ and Earning for Learning

Find the first part of this interview here.

One of the most distinctive inventions of Nnedi Okorafor’s new novel Akata Witch is chittim – a currency earned by magical practitioners when they learn an important lesson, delivered in the form of a shower of varying-sized metal rods falling from the sky.

‘I liked the idea of earning something for your knowledge, for learning,’ says Nnedi. ‘The rods are based on objects used in real-life Nnedi Okoraformagical practices, but I don’t know where they come from in the world of the novel! They’re not from God, they just…fall from the sky when you learn something new.’

Like most writers and teachers, I could always do with some extra currency, and I love learning, so I adored the idea of chittim.

Nnedi offered her own example of a ‘chittim moment’ from her teenage years as a tennis player:

‘When I was about seventeen, I was in California playing the nationals. I don’t know what part of the draw I was at in the tournament. It was early on. Not the finals or semi-finals or anything. I was playing this girl. Both of us were there alone. No parents or friends or siblings had come with us. But we were battling. We were evenly matched. We had no audience.

‘As our match drew on for hours, other kids finished playing each other and went home for the day. But she and I kept slugging it out. We split sets (she won one set, then I won the second). We played for over FIVE HOURS. No one knew we were there on that far tennis court in the sun. No one cheered. No one was on the edge of his or her seat. But we were battling. We both wanted to win even if no one else cared.

‘I eventually won and there were no cheers. We sat together drinking water, quiet, smiling occasionally, sweaty as heck. It was awesome. It didn’t matter who won, that’s what I learned that day. It was all about the game, pushing yourself, and playing your brains out.’

Nnedi’s perspective on education is shaped by such experiences, and the notion that learning as embodied by chittim is not about formal study:

‘I was a late bloomer – I struggled with tests, and didn’t blossom until grad school. I felt I had missed out because of assumptions made at an early age about which class you were put through.

‘Exams and learning are sometimes really in conflict. It’s not about passing the test, it’s what you learn, the things you choose to develop. I don’t know how many chittim you would get from taking a formal exam…maybe one if you were lucky!’

‘I feel that kids should be given space to change. There’s so much pressure now on young people to achieve and conform. The whole idea of “Tiger Mothering” and “Helicopter Parenting” is also connected to people trying to control fate.

‘As a mother, I understand parents wanting to choose the destiny of your child. But you must let your child become her/his own person – and resist your urge to take control!’

With her writing appealing to a young adult audience, Nnedi has taken her work into high schools in the U.S. and beyond.

‘My last school visit was in Trinidad, a peaceful place where I was very comfortable! They really got Zahrah, because the world of Ginen reflects that same mix of peoples and cultures you find in Trinidad. They identified with that.

‘I had the students do a writing exercise – to work together and create a character, as a group.

‘I was delighted with the result – a mixed-race boy with pink hair…and he could fly!’

Nnedi’s future plans include more schools outreach work and contact with inspiring young writers like the students in Trinidad. In the meantime a film of Who Fears Death is in the works and, of course, Akata Witch is available in all good bookstores!

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

>Time Travelogix – Interview with Claire Dopson

>Today on Books and Adventures we’re joined by my friend Claire Dopson, writer of the children’s adventure Time Travelogix.

Back in the day, as teenagers, she and I fought crime and battled evil on the mean streets of Warwickshire, but now Claire is London-based, with a sensible job and a passion for children’s fiction.

Time Travelogix

Claire started writing seriously while studying French at university. ‘I used to want to be an artist, but actually writing fits in much more easily with everyday life, so it’s good I changed my mind!’

After travelling, teaching and general adventuring around the world, Claire set her mind to writing an adventure story of the kind she loved to read. ‘I started something dreadful, which has now ended up as a short story (“I Know What You’re Thinking”). I abandoned that and a couple of years later, I began Time Travelogix.’

Claire’s novel sees Ixian, a 24th-century schoolboy, blasted into Victorian times after foiling a an attempt to steal the mysterious ‘Infinity Triangle’. Ixian struggles to cope without the labour-saving gadgets he’s used to, but he has an ally in Ruby Swift, a pickpocket from the era in which he finds himself. Now Ixian must survive in Victorian London, escape the baddies and find his way back to his own time…

Claire explains that the novel was very different in its earlier drafts: ‘It started as an idea of doing some grail-type quest though time, which also dreadful because I had no idea how to write, but it gradually morphed into what it is now. Ruby used to be a boy and Ixian wasn’t from the future at all until about 2006.’

Claire Dopson

Claire found researching the Victorian settings for the novel much more challenging than creating a 24th century society – ‘Imaginary things are much easier to write about because no one can tell you it’s wrong’ – and she doesn’t envy Ixian his lot, trapped in the past: ‘I’m so dependent on my laptop. I write with it on the sofa – under a blanket in winter, minus the blanket in summer! I can’t begin to imagine how Dickens and co managed to write their novels by hand.’

Time Travelogix is the first part of a projected series, which required Claire to develop planning skills as a writer:

‘I just started writing Time Travelogix as it came to me, and spent years editing and perfecting as I went, which was a mistake because I ended up changing so much of it when I finally got to the end. So now I sketch enough of an outline so I know where it’s going, write loads of unedited rubbish based on this, then edit and polish afterwards (and abandon if the idea just isn’t working). Much more productive. The other 2 books are planned out, but I haven’t actually started writing them yet, as I want to see what happens to Time Travelogix first. I’m working on a completely separate novel now, and various short stories.’

Claire writes in the evening and on weekends, with a work ethic that puts some of us to shame! ‘I hate that feeling that you’ll never get anything published ever, ever, ever – but I’m always looking for that turning point in a project, when you realise that it’s not going to be rubbish and you can finish it.’

It’s time to let today’s guest crawl back under her writing blanket now, but to read some of Claire’s stories, including extracts from Time Travelogix, visit www.timetravelogix.com.

>Books and Adventures Review of the Year

>As we soak in the warm bath of another festive lull, it seems a great time to review a busy first year on the blog at Books and Adventures.

We got started in February with an ABCTales/AbracaDABra Radio award for my children’s story Shark with the Mind of a Rabbit. The story had a dual origin in reading sessions with Volunteer Reading Help and old university jokes about a lecturer who we had cast as a wicked witch…

Then came the interviews – and our first celebrity interviewee was a Teletubby, no less…Nikky Smedley joined me to discuss her storytelling and dance production The Tell Woman in March.



April saw the Annual General Meeting of the British branch of IBBY, where I met Mick Inkpen of Kipper fame. During my time with Volunteer Reading Help, I saw a child go from tearing books up on sight to vowing to write his own…Mick’s Anything Cuddly Will Do was a key book in making that transition.

In May I wrote my first theatre review for Claire Massey’s great blog, The Fairy Tale Cupboard. Claire, who edits New Fairy Tales, also pointed me to one of my favourite events of the year, Ignite 2010.


July was the highlight of the literacy calendar for me – I was privileged to speak at the House of Commons on behalf of Volunteer Reading Help, the incredible English charity which helps children develop a lifelong love of reading.

In the same month, I read the first of the late Patricia Wrightson’s Wirrun books, which led on to an interview with Patricia’s publisher Mark Macleod and a series of features on these important, controversial and underrated pieces of fantasy writing. Huge thanks to Judith Ridge for putting me on to this great writer.

The Song of Wirrun, and Nnedi Okorafor’s pitch-perfect novel Zahrah the Windseeker, were my favourite reads of the year. (To be honest, I’m almost scared to read anything else by Nnedi because that first book was so perfect!).

The latter part of the year saw Books and Adventures go on a ‘world tour of literacy support’ with NGOs and charities from San Francisco to Sydney and beyond. Starting with Reading Partners and Reach Out and Read in the USA, we moved on to South Africa’s help2read, and then Rhonda Brain’s inspirational Paint the Town Read scheme in Australia.
 

In November, I was foolhardy enough to participate in, and complete, the 50,000-word challenge of NaNoWriMo, although the resulting text (written to a topic determined at random by fellow writers) will now be broken up to be re-used in an entirely different way!

Still, Chris Angotti, who runs the Young Writers’ Program for Nano, was kind enough to grant an interview during his busiest month of the year –you can find what he had to say about enthusing and supporting young writers here.


Roland Pietsch

Other highlights from the year’s interviews included: Stories from the Web, Edgardo Zaghini of Outside In, storyteller and psychologist Steve Killick, philanthropy guru Mike Dickson, Elena Schmitz of Wales’ Young People’s Writing Squads, and an old colleague turned pirate historian, Roland Pietsch. Some of these went on to provide useful fodder for Zoe Toft’s directory of book charities at Playing By the Book.

Amid all this frantic reading, writing and blogging, there was a little time for some running, too. Getting bitten by that bug has led me to make some dumb commitments, like signing up to run a 10k in the immediate aftermath of Christmas. (Assuming we don’t get snowed off, I’ll be the guy at the back of the field, with turkey and sprouts visibly bouncing up and down in a still-swollen belly!).

Once post-Christmas recovery has completed, there’ll be a lot more Books and Adventures to come in 2011…I’m looking forward to more interviews from around the world, including YA author Claire Dopson, and guest bloggers including storyteller Eric Maddern. There’s also some big travel plans on the horizon, so hopefully I’ll be delivering some front-line reports from foreign climes along the way!

Wishing you all the best for the season…see you in 2011!

Matt

PS…How pleased was I to see flying sharks in Doctor Who???

>The Lesson of League Tables

>I’m sure many UK readers will have seen the news today about the primary school league tables, whose results have just been published.

Angela Harrison of the BBC reports that almost 1 in 10 of schools with validated and published results failed to meet minimum standards in the SATs. But how many of these schools will be located in the most challenged areas of this country, where pupils and parents alike need support and encouragement, rather than teachers bound to a regime of relentless formal assessment?

Teaching in a London school where a high percentage of pupils had English as an Additional Language, I was incredibly frustrated by the box-ticking mentality, especially in literacy.

Such an attitude encourages teaching to the test rather than a love of reading and writing. The best teachers in the world will find themselves sitting with an “underperforming” student on the day results are due in, thinking, “Just let me tick one more box so I can move you up another sub-level!”

My class made great progress in their literacy skills – but more from an attitude on the part of our year group that we would make learning fun, engaging and creative.

A poetry unit was delivered to rap music – our class gave themselves rap names and learned to freestyle to The 900 Number (“I like / chocolate / I want / CHOCOLATE CAKE!”). I knew we had made an impact when months later one of our pupils, who had little English and numerous educational needs, was still using the rap names with his friends in the playground.

In another class, we created a ‘living comic book’ together, using a whiteboard for each panel of the story of ‘Melon Boy’, a superhero who transformed into a caped, flying cantaloupe when he consumed too much of the fruit in question.

The story was inspired by a boy in our class who had given himself a laughing fit that morning, when he said, ‘My mum says if I eat too much melon, I might just turn into one.’

It was the first time he had ever given himself an attack of the giggles. He couldn’t stop, and the whole class ended up laughing along with him.

By using that moment as a springboard for our literacy lesson, the entire class became enthused and empowered to apply their own creativity to reading and writing.

When the education system mandates ‘teaching to the test’ in the very earliest stages of schooling, which should be about fostering a love of learning…
When teachers have their performance management directly linked to children’s formal levels….
It becomes incredibly difficult for classroom practitioners to be confident, creative and…dare we say it…a little subversive.

With the best will in the world, teachers find themselves ‘playing it safe’ and delivering mediocre education under such a system. Check-boxes will never prioritise the kind of passion for learning which brings together parents, pupils, and teachers – the kind of whole-community commitment which schemes like Paint the Town Read deliver so well in Australia.

It’s frustrating that around the world, so much of the ‘heavy lifting’ of encouragement and enthusiasm in education – work which is actively frustrated by the league table/”No Child Left Behind” mentality – falls to committed, creative, subversive teachers – and to those generous members of the community who commit to schemes like Volunteer Reading Help, Reading Partners, or Paint the Town Read. It’s time for the authorities to rethink their priorities and put a love of learning before league tables.

*

Well, that’s almost it for 2010. Next time on Books and Adventures, our review of the year, along with some sneak previews of features, interviews and guest writers for 2011!

>Patricia Wrightson, Part 4: Shadows of Time

>


Patricia Wrightson’s Shadows of Time (1994) is a strange and powerful novel. It recounts the journey of an Aboriginal boy and English colonist girl who, by the gift of spirits, ‘travel in a timeless dimension’ – drifting without ageing or changing through Australian history. En route they are chased as devils, encounter various supernatural creatures and even come across a mysterious stone figure who may be the protagonist of the earlier Wirrun books. Although Wrightson had to some extent ‘let go’ of indigenous subject matter by this period, Shadows unmistakeably revisits some of the themes of her earlier novels.

Mark Macleod links Shadows to the Australian bicentenary of 1988. ‘That itself was a problematic anniversary. Indigenous Australians had already renamed Australia Day (26 January, the day when Captain Phillip took possession of the country in the name of the English king) ‘Survival Day’. And as the Bicentenary approached non-Indigenous Australians were increasingly asking ‘What is there to celebrate?’

The timeless quality of the children’s journey in Shadows, ‘given the privileges of water – to flow wherever is natural’, allows for a meditation on Australian history and, thereby, on Wrightson’s concept of culture.

As Mark Macleod explained in our recent interview:

‘In Shadows of Time, Wrightson invents a spirit character that seems very like those she borrowed from Indigenous culture in earlier works, but is in fact her own. For a writer who speaks repeatedly of borrowing only the equivalent of European ‘fairies’ and being careful not to touch the spirits of creation mythology, and who speaks of her terror of misrepresenting the spirits she does borrow, this is almost a defiant move, coming as it does after she has acknowledged that time has overtaken her whole project. The novel is therefore a coda to her major work, reasserting the mutability of cultures and her right as an artist to let her imagination flow where it will. Her readers and Wrightson herself might have changed their views over time – but not entirely.’

As time continues to flow, and Wrightson becomes a posthumous figure to be considered primarily through her legacy, there are challenges ahead for those who wish to preserve her work and circulate it for a new generation.

Mark Macleod comments, ‘I think we are still vaguely embarrassed or guilty about the idea that she might have been just another one in a long line of exploiters of Indigenous people.’

But it is precisely the encounter with Wrightson’s texts which dispels that idea, while at the same time forcing us to consider the complex and uncomfortable connections between storytelling and the legacy of colonialism.

A fantasy writer ‘cannot restore the original context for mythic stories, but she can create new contexts – as living cultures themselves do constantly. The fantasist can use all the resources available to the contemporary novelist to fill gaps within and around the story, and at the same time can alert the reader to some of what was lost.’ – Brian Attebery

Brian Attebery makes a distinction between a fantasy writer like Wrightson and any self-appointed white spokesperson for Aboriginal people: ‘Her job, as a writer, is to work out in fictional form her own relationship with Australia’s troubled history and haunted landscape. Her strategy has been to bring in Wirrun and other characters to share the task, going where she cannot go. These fictional collaborators remind readers that we need to invite other collaborators, fictional and real, to help us extend the quest for understanding beyond the boundaries of the text itself.’

Attebery’s comments raise so many questions worthy of debate. That fantasy writer ‘alerting the reader to some of what was lost’ sounds like those white 1930s poets busy writing on behalf of the Aboriginal culture they perceived to be dying, which leads us back to asking: Who set Wrightson the task of ‘working out in fictional form her own relationship with Australia’s troubled history and haunted landscape’? And what do we make of the notion of a ‘fictional collaborator’?

These are questions to which there’s no final answer, but they are thrown up by the challenge of Patricia Wrightson’s legacy today – which forms the basis of our final instalment, next time on Books and Adventures.

You can go to the fifth and final part of this feature by clicking here.

>Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor

>Nnedi Okorafor is hardly short of positive reviews at the moment, but I just wanted to drop a few lines about her 2005 Young Adult novel Zahrah the Windseeker, which I picked up this month.

The book sees thirteen-year-old Zahrah venture into a forbidden jungle to find the antidote to a poison which has claimed her best friend Dari. On Zahrah’s travels there are encounters with giant scorpions, psychic baboons, and a city of gorillas, as well as the small-mindedness of Zahrah’s native town to contend with.

There’s been a lot of praise for both the Afrocentric sci-fi setting Okorafor has imagined, and for Zahrah herself as a strong, yet vulnerable and credible, heroine. However, what I really loved about this novel was its focus on the importance, and future of, the book.

The charming, rebellious Dari whom Zahrah must save is a hero precisely because of his bookishness. Dari may not be up to the jungle quest which Zahrah undertakes, but his thirst for knowledge, driven by reading, helps to upset the stagnant and self-satisfied society which Zahrah challenges.

An erratically functioning ‘digi-book’, The Forbidden Greeny Jungle Field Guide, plays a vital part in Zahrah’s journey. Her relationship to this frustrating, inspiring piece of technology makes neat comment on the various brands of e-book reader, at once incredibly useful and unbelievably irritating. Every time she tries to access its pages for advice on a particularly fearsome beast, the otherwise indispensable guide can be counted on to malfunction.

The literary lineage of this chatty, occasionally useful device is hinted at by another reference, made in the novel by a talking frog which Zahrah encounters:

‘“Like every other human explorer I’ve met, you want to know the meaning of life […] The answer is forty-four. That machine was off by two,” the frog snapped.’

Which is up there with Doctor Who’s dressing gown as the neatest Hitchhiker’s reference you will see this decade!

Zahrah the Windseeker isn’t as jokey as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but somehow Okorafor has seen straight to the heart of the Hitchhiker’s series and the sense of wonder that permeates it.

She also makes a neat swipe at the current vogue for ‘adding value’ to books with interviews, extraneous material and reading-group prompts when Zahrah mentions her favourite novel:

‘I’d read it four times. But not once did I read the rambling thoughts of the author – on how to cook the perfect holiday fowl – that came stored in the digi-book along with the story. Of course, as I read the book, every ten pages a little window would pop up on the bottom, saying “Hey, why don’t you read a bit about my thoughts on glazed bush fowl? As you can see, I write brilliantly. I cook even better!’

You can find out more about Nnedi Okorafor at her website, The Wahala Zone, here.