Thursday, 24 June 2010
Yesterday I received, from the Federation of Children’s Book groups, a copy of their magazine “Carousel”. For inside, I am interviewed by retired head teacher Margaret Hickman-Smith. She has written a lovely piece about me. Now it is time to return the favour, for our meeting a few months back reminded me of the absolute pinnacle of school visits, which was at her tiny little village school in the middle of the Norfolk Countryside.
I’ve been visiting schools for over twenty years. But my experiences at Margaret’s school were truly out of the ordinary.
Like something out of Anne of Green Gables, the school had just two teachers and around 40 children when I first visited over 15 years ago. Margaret and I quickly saw in each other a kindred spirit and our friendship was sealed when I took a hosepipe and drenched her in the playground. This isn’t how I normally treat head teachers of brief acquaintance. But Margaret was different.
She was a brilliant educator; imaginative, loving, strict, funny, talented, resourceful, visionary, inspiring, loyal and passionate. My wife and I came very close to moving there just to educate our son at her school; family commitments kept us in Hertfordshire, alas. But the influence of the school still reached us here, and I fought to introduce many of her innovations at my son’s school (not always taken up sadly). And every year Margaret invited me back to ever more spectacular and touching celebrations.
Like the time when the children showered my wife and I in confetti before our wedding; and when they all worked on creating a huge Cloth of Dreams (after one of my books “The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams") to welcome our newborn son in 1999.
As the school grew in size (which was necessary to survive) and new staff came, they all fell into place under Margaret’s impressive leadership. And they all contributed elaborate dishes to the banquets laid on in my honour. And there was always plenty of cake - can you spot one with Katie iced onto it for a book launch?
Of course such royal treatment is lovely for a visiting author (and all their visitors, from Anthony Browne to Kevin Crossley-Holland were treated just a well), but it also taught the children lessons: to celebrate literature, to enjoy guests, to make an effort to make them welcome.
There would always be a surprise for me at the school. One year the children all dressed as characters from my own books: In these old photos of children (now grown up!) you will see a Firebird, and Princess of Inexhaustible Loveliness (from my book of Russian tales). Others were dressed as characters from famous paintings, inspired by Katie…Degas dancers, a boy dressed as Constable’s Haywain (!), Renoir’s girl with a hoop, Manet’s piper and many others...
You may even see Margaret herself as Katie, discussing something with a dinosaur. Such was Margaret’s ability to inspire enthusiasm, the children and their parents were quite happy to create breathtaking costumes, to spend time and energy helping each and every child create their own “Katie” book, and to find money to buy books – and to cherish them. At Margaret’s school reading schemes were a minor supplement to education. Children learned to read with “real” books.
Projects at the school before and after an author visit were in depth and thorough making sure the children got every shred of worth out of a visit. Books were always brought in for selling and signing. My art projects included toy theatres from shoe boxes, murals, costume designs for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and of course a great deal of investigating into art.
I dedicated “Katie and the Sunflowers” to Margaret and the school, such was (and is) my admiration for this great lady. Even this gesture was reflected back with characteristic generosity: when the school expanded, I was invited to open the “new” school buildings and I was immortalized in a special plaque, based on a sunflower motif. I then decorated the new library (yes, this tiny school had a magnificent library) with sunflower murals.
In every department, in every way, Margaret gave her children a wonderful experience by really using her visitors and building on their work. Imaginative project work, imaginative support for the guest, imaginative choice of visitors.
Therefore, this post is to celebrate a wonderful friend - Margaret - who even in retirement has kindly supported me with the lovely article in Carousel magazine. But without her vision and encouragement none of the things described would have happened. So any teachers reading this – next time you plan a book week, pull out all the stops and see how special you can make it. It’s really up to you!
Thursday, 17 June 2010
Friday, 11 June 2010
The very first copy of the new KATIE book, Katie and the Waterlily Pond arrived yesterday, and as always there was a moment of trepidation as I looked through it. Would I be pleased with the printing? Would I spot some horrible typographical error? But it's all fine: The tenth Katie book, in all it's splendour. It will be published in August.