Thursday 26 November 2020

How To Create A Book List

There’s been a lot of excitement on social media the past couple of weeks around the announcement by Marcus Rashford that he’s teamed up with Macmillan Children’s Books to not only write several books but also launch a children’s book club aimed at age 7+ with the remit that “books should have diverse characters … making sure people of all race, religion and gender are depicted correctly and representative of modern society.”

As a school librarian, I know the impact a popular young Black male footballer tweeting “Reading is cool. Books are cool.” will have – and it’s exactly what we need to help promote books and reading for pleasure. Can we have more role models like this please?

But, as is the norm whenever anything like this is announced, a plethora of suggested books appear – one of these was a list published in the TES of 10 books gathered by a teacher from suggestions on Twitter. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these books but they don’t exactly fit the intended remit. And I know if I was to create a library display around them very few would be borrowed. I might be able to entice some students to try a couple if I could deliver a talk promoting them but it would be more likely to be the avid readers picking them up, those who are already confident in trying something new or different knowing that if they didn’t like it they could put it down and move on to something else.

It’s actually quite difficult to put together a list that appeals to everyone, especially if the number of titles is restricted. The wider the age range the list is targeted at the more challenging it is especially if you have to consider emerging readers alongside confident readers – too many suggestions aimed at each group will put many off. I’ve had experience of doing this for book awards and school library packs, and it takes a lot longer and is harder than you’d think.

The books need to be diverse – with respect to characters as well as authors and illustrators. They need to be inclusive so that children can see themselves in the stories, physically and emotionally. However, it’s important to remember that they don’t always want to read something that mirrors their own lives; sometimes they want escapism.

The stories should be well researched – there really is no excuse for incorrect factual information – and well-written with characters and plots that engage and develop throughout the book. Fiction introduces children to new language, sentence structure, inference, etc. but books that are aimed too high and outside their level of understanding may well have the opposite effect and put them off reading. So a balance is needed with books at all levels encompassing both less-able and more-able readers. It is important to remember that a book that is read with a child, or as a class set text, can be at a totally different level from one a child reads by themselves; simply because words can be explained, concepts explored and any issues arising in the book discussed.

Then there are genres to consider. If you want the list to have a wide appeal it needs to include as many as possible; fortunately most books encompass several genres but this can still be a bit of a balancing act. And let’s not forget different types of books; poetry, graphic novels, verse novels, memoirs, non-fiction and so on …

Finally, one important thing to think about is the visual appeal of the whole list, especially if you are planning to create posters or displays using the books.  Covers are important.  Forget “don’t judge a book by its cover” because that’s what people do. They have nothing else to go on until they pick the book up and read the blurb so if the cover doesn’t appeal, they’ll leave the book sitting there. And children are no different ... if anything they can be more rigid in what they like and dislike.

So … I asked my librarian colleagues for suggestions, received rather a lot and have narrowed them down to the following 10. This is not a top ten list and if I was to create another one in a couple of months, it would likely be very different. I've not been able to include every type of book or every type of character.

And yes, I know it’s yet “another” list but I’m hoping this one might just be a bit more appealing and help some children engage with reading. As with all book lists my caveat is that the age recommendations are exactly that; they may appeal to younger or older children and books targeted at 7 – 11 years sometimes have content that may be unsuitable for the younger age range although often the age restriction is more to do with reading ability. If you’re not sure my advice is to read the book first - or ask a librarian.

So … what do you think?


1.      The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson
Published by Andersen Press, 2020
Recommended 7 – 11 years (and older)

A stunningly illustrated poem that remembers both famous and often overlooked figures from Black history. This book can be read on several levels and is excellent for encouraging discussion and further exploration into the background of the people and events represented. It’s a book that, when on display, draws people to it.


2.      Super Side Kicks: No Adults Allowed by Gavin Aung Thun
Published by Puffin, 2020
Recommended 7 – 9 years

Junior Justice is fed up with the adult superheroes getting all the attention so he and his friends form their own team to save the world. A graphic novel series about superheroes and supervillains – always popular! Rather silly and entertaining.


3.      World Burn Down by Steve Cole and Oriol Vidal
Published by Barrington Stoke, 2020
Recommended 8 – 11 years

Carlos’s mother works for Brazil’s Environmental Authority protecting the Amazon from being destroyed. When he’s kidnapped, Carlos manages to escape but then finds himself trapped in the burning jungle. A gripping story with an environmental message. Particularly suited to struggling, reluctant and dyslexic readers.


4.      Who Let The Gods Out? by Maz Evans
Published by Chicken House, 2017
Recommended 9 - 12 years

Things are not going well; Elliot is struggling at school, he is the main carer for his mother, and they’ve received a letter informing them the house is going to be repossessed. But when an immortal constellation crashes into the cow shed, he has a whole new set of problems to deal with. A laugh-out-loud and action-filled fantasy adventure with a nod to Greek mythology and a wonderful cast of characters. This is book 1 of 4 so opportunities to read more of the same.


5.      High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson
Published by Knights Of, 2019
Recommended 8 – 11 years

When Nik and Norva discover their community art teacher has been murdered on their tower block estate, the detective duo swing into action, collecting evidence and tracking down suspects. A fast-paced, urban-set whodunnit with a gripping plot and great cast of characters.


6.      The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L D Lapinski
Published by Orion Children’s Books, 2020
Recommended 9 – 12 years

When Flick Hudson discovers the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, where she can be transported to hundreds of other worlds simply by stepping into the right suitcase, her adventures begin. However, Five Lights, the world at the centre of all this, is slowly disappearing and Flick has to race against time to save it. An imaginative fantasy that pulls the reader in and transports them to magical lands.


7.      Wild Lives: 50 Extraordinary Animals That Made History by Ben Lerwill and Sarah Walsh
Published by Nosy Crow, 2019
Recommended 7 – 11 years

The true tales of fifty animals from around the world and throughout history, featuring bravery, friendship, courage and inspiration. Lots of interesting details, a great way to learn about history and superbly illustrated with drawings and photos.


8.      Planet Omar: Incredible Rescue Mission by Zanib Mian and Nasaya Mafaridik
Published by Hodder, 2020
Recommended 7 – 9 years

Omar has a very active imagination and when he discovers his regular teacher has been replaced with a rather grumpy one after the school holidays, he’s convinced she’s been abducted. So he persuades his friends to undertake a rescue mission. Book three in a great series about the (mis)adventures of Omar and his friends. The illustrations as well as fun use of fonts and space make this book visually appealing and the characters are culturally diverse.


9.      The Big Book Of Football by Mundial and Damien Weighill
Published by Wide Eyed Editions, 2020
Recommended 7 – 11 years

There’s no denying the popularity of football books – my library shelves that contained them were always in a mess – but many are aimed at older readers. This is a perfect book for younger children covering the history of the game, popular players, famous stadiums and lots more. An essential guide to football with fun, colourful illustrations.


10.  Seven Ghosts by Chris Priestley
Published by Barrington Stoke, 2019
Recommended 8 – 11 years

Jake is a finalist in a writing competition and they have all been invited to a tour of a stately home haunted by seven ghosts. As each tale is told, the ghosts are stirred up and Jake begins to see things out of the corner of his eye. An atmospheric collection of connected short stories that are unsettling rather than frightening. Great for struggling, reluctant and dyslexic readers.

Sunday 15 November 2020

What's All The Fuss About Non-Fiction - and how on earth do you choose from so many books?


One of the things I love about November is its focus on non-fiction: the Federation of Children’s Book Groups (FCBG) uses this month to “celebrate all things factual” while the School Library Association (SLA) holds its Information Book Awards (IBA). Although I’ve always got a fiction book or two (or three or four) on the go, looking at my bookshelves you’d be forgiven for thinking I preferred non-fiction. This is partly because I pass on a lot of my fiction books or borrow them from my public library but I hoard my non-fiction and find it difficult to let go of them. I can weed any school library collection to within an inch of its life but hands-off my personal stuff!

This has resulted in a rather esoteric collection over the years. Most of the non-fiction books I buy are linked to interests or hobbies – so I’ve got knitting books alongside travel guides, books on photography and architecture sitting next to stuff on fantasy art and painting, then there’s my CPD collection about books, reading, libraries and all things connected. I have Jim Morrison’s poetry sharing space with Kaffe Fassett’s needlework and Prince Charles “A Personal View of Architecture” (I did warn you) …

As discussed in my previous blog, there are numerous advantages in reading non-fiction – improved vocabulary, exposure other cultures, increased general knowledge amongst others – and when reading non-fiction is done for pleasure it replicates the benefits of reading fiction. I also mention several ways that non-fiction can be promoted in the library and school but what about choosing it for the school library? How do you decide what to stock when you have a limited budget and shelf capacity?

The two organisations above, the FCBG and SLA, are both good starting points: each year the IBA shortlists feature books for all ages and the FCBG has a “100 brilliant non-fiction books for children and young people” list. However, these suggestions need to be considered in the light of the following:

·         Choosing non-fiction books used to be fairly easy. Many subjects used the library for research lessons so you basically bought books linked to those topics. However, today, too many teachers traipse off to an IT suite to undertake “research” which means books can lie unused on the shelves and pupils don’t get to investigate the use of both print and online resources.
So if you have research lessons in the library then prioritise those topics for any non-fiction purchases.
And teachers – please think about using your school library for research (though give the librarian plenty of notice so they can get relevant resources in stock). Contrary to popular belief, not everything is online and students will, at some point, need to access information in different formats. Now is a good time for them to start learning those skills.

·         Publishing non-fiction has also changed, probably because of the change of use in print books but particularly with regards to its use by older pupils. It’s difficult to find non-fiction that links to GCSE topics that’s not a text book. KS4 students tend not to read around the subject; they don’t have the time and are taught to the test so have no need to. This is often true for many KS5 (A level) pupils other than those who are extremely motivated or gripped by their subjects. Unless you have staff who push library use with KS4 and KS5, then it is likely books aimed at this level will get minimal use.

·         Non-fiction aimed at KS3 and KS2 is totally different and there are some fabulous books published for this age group. Again, if you have classes coming into the library to research then ensure you have up-to-date and appealing books on those topics but don’t forget interests and hobbies, especially as non-fiction can often be a way to entice the reluctant reader.
Interestingly these can vary from school to school, even within a geographically close area so what works in one school library may not even be picked up in another.
There are perennial favourites – such as football, cars, space, animals, cooking – but I’ve worked in schools where ice hockey, wrestling and fishing books were in constant demand. One good way to ascertain what pupils are involved with is via a survey about their interests. And don’t forget topical areas of concern such as Black Lives Matter and the environment.

·         Primary school libraries are slightly different. They typically supplement classroom libraries with teachers using the stock to support the topic pupils are studying, often bringing in their own personal books. This means that books linking with curriculum topics will be in demand but don’t forget that pupils will also want to explore the shelves and discover books outside of the curriculum.

·         Resources to support mental health and wellbeing are important at both primary and secondary levels. There are a number of books to support this which can be stocked in the library and used – either by individual pupils, as part of PHSE lessons or by the pastoral team. Have a look at The Reading Agency “Reading Well” programmes for some suggestions.

Can’t finish this blog without some book suggestions. These are not a “best of” list or the top 2020 publications. I always find it hard to make recommendations as I’m only too aware of the numerous amazing books that aren’t included; however, as this year’s non-fiction theme is “The Planet We Share” these are some of the non-fiction books linked to this that I’ve enjoyed reading – in no particular order:

Climate Emergency Atlas.
Published by Dorling Kindersley. 

Covers what climate change is, its impact & what we can do about it. A stunningly visual book – it’s both awe-inspiring and scary at the same time. An important topic.

The Farm That Feeds Us by Nancy Castaldo & Ginnie Hsu
Published by Words & Pictures

A year in the life of an organic farm. Pages filled with gentle muted illustrations and lots of information about sustainable farming.

The Big Book of the Blue by Yuval Yommer
Published by Thames & Hudson

I love all of Yuval Zommer’s books (and am intrigued as to what the next one is going to be one as the subjects all begin with B) but this is my favourite. An exploration into the world of the oceans. 

Lots by Marc Martin
Published by Big Picture Press

This is a book for dipping into. It’s a journey around the world with random facts and observations, filled with pages that are bursting with illustrations and quirky details.

Our Wonderful World by Ben Handicott, Kalya Ryan & Sol Linero
Published by Wide-Eyed Editions

I confess to having a soft spot for atlases and this one is filled with 50 maps containing facts and figures, encouraging the reader to explore the world. Hours of browsing delight!

The Magic and Mystery of Trees by Jen Green and Claire McElfatrick
Published by DK

A perfect introduction to the world of trees – nature, wildlife, biomes, conservation and more – all wrapped up in a beautifully illustrated package.

The Animal Book by Ruth Martin.
Published by Lonely Planet Kids

It was hard to choose between this or one of the Lonely Planet books about countries or different cultures but this won because, even though it’s aimed at 8-12 years, my grandson (aged 4) will happily sit and read it, looking at the photos and asking questions. Books that appeal to ages outside their intended audience are definitely value-for-money!

Wild City by Ben Hoare and Lucy Rose
Published by Macmillan

Another book that takes the reader on a tour of worldwide locations, this time looking at the wildlife that can be found at each one. 


I could go on … there really is a huge choice out there and books are a wonderful way of  introducing children to the natural world. I always find I'm learning something new myself - which is one of the reasons I love non-fiction so much! Go and explore ...

Monday 14 September 2020



According to bereavement charity, Winston’s Wish, a parent dies in the UK every 22 minutes, leaving 41,000 dependent children a year. Many children will have experienced the death of a parent, grandparents, wider family member or friends as a result of the pandemic. And circumstances may have meant they have not been able to see them to say goodbye or attend a funeral – an occasion that, whilst sad, is also often a celebration of the life of the person where others share memories of them. Personally speaking, I have always found the period between death and a funeral to be a sort of limbo and I’m not able to start my grieving until I have said goodbye publicly with others who knew and loved the deceased.

Going back to school could be a trigger that brings out intense emotions for many pupils. They will have had six months of “unknown” and many will already be experiencing stress and anxiety; add to those feelings the trauma of a death and you can understand why supporting children through their bereavement is important. So how can school librarians help?

·       Acknowledge what has happened. Schools should inform all staff of changes in circumstances that have occurred during lockdown. All members of a school community support pupils and you can’t do this if you’ve no idea of their needs. I am often perplexed why school librarians are left out of the loop of “need to know” when it is possible they could interact with every single student.

·        Validate their experiences. These will all be different and there is no right or wrong way for them to respond or react to what has happened.

·       Don’t worry if you don’t know what to say or that you’ll say the wrong thing.

·       If a pupil wants to talk about what has happened then let them. But they may not want to. If that’s the case then it’s okay to sit in silence. Or cry.

·       Recognise that their feelings will vary; some days they’ll be okay, on other days not so much. Their emotions will also impact on their behaviour. For some this may result in meltdowns, other pupils may withdraw. Know that there could be both physical and emotional responses including denial, numbness, exhaustion, feelings of anger, feeling overwhelmed or depressed.

     Children have a different experience of time so may go through the stages of mourning quite quickly. However, there is no time limit on grief, no right or wrong way, it is a personal journey that you can only support them through. And remember, bereavement is a trauma which can take time to come out.

Feelings can occur at different times and, as anyone who has suffered from grief knows, these can appear unexpectedly, often triggered by something very small. For me, it is not birthdays or anniversaries that trigger my loss, it is small inconsequential things – a phrase, a random song, a long-forgotten memory.

If you have suffered bereavement yourself, this time may be hard for you too so ensure that you support your own wellbeing.

There are lots of resources available to help you support bereaved pupils. You may find the following websites and booklists useful. A picture book is often an ideal way to help young children talk about their feelings but older pupils may need more one-to-one support and the non-fiction books listed will help you to provide this. Collaborate with staff including tutors and the pastoral team – supporting students during these unusual times needs an holistic approach.

There are lots of middle grade (MG), teen and YA books that involve bereavement within the story. However, it may be that a pupil does not want to read a story that relates to their situation right now but if you feel a fiction book would help them, I’ve listed just a few suggestions below.

Each book has been given an age range but these are only recommendations based on the content rather than reading level and pupils vary in their emotional maturity. As this is an emotional topic, I would advise you to investigate the book and subject matter and use your professional judgement before recommending it. If in doubt, read the book yourself first.

Finally, a caveat. School librarians are not bereavement counsellors or mental health practitioners and should not be used in place of specialist services. But we play an important role within a school, providing a safe space with a trusted adult and curated resources for both students and staff. This role is often under-valued but that does not lessen our impact and the support we can offer.



Winston’s Wish -
Childhood bereavement charity providing emotional and practical support.

Young Minds –
Range of resources including posters, leaflets, activity sheets, videos, lesson plans for primary and secondary.

Childhood Bereavement Network -
Resources and information including local bereavement services.

Hope Again –
Cruse Bereavement Care’s website for young people.


Non-Fiction books about bereavement

When Parents Die: Learning to Live with the Loss of a Parent – Rebecca Abrams

What Happened to Daddy’s Body? – Elke Barber and Alex Barber (Under 8) 

When Dinosaurs Die: A guide to understanding death – Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown (Under 8)

Helping Children and Adolescents think about Death, Dying and Bereavement – Marian Carter

Letting Go! An activity book for children who need support through experiences of loss, change, disappointment and grief – Sharie Coombes and Ellie O’Shea

The Grieving Teen – Helen Fitzgerald

I have a Question about Death: a book for children with ASD or other Special Needs – Arlen Grad Gaines and Meredith Englander Polsky (Under 8; 8 – 11)

Independent Thinking on Loss: a little book about bereavement for schools (14+) – Ian Gilbert

What Does Dead Mean? A book for young children to help explain death and dying – Caroline Jay and Jenni Thomas (Under 8)

Teen Grief: Caring for the Grieving Teenage Heart – Gary Roe

What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? – Trevor Romain and Elizabeth Verdick

A Child’s Grief: Supporting a Child When Someone in their Family has Died – Di Stubbs, Julie Stokes, Katrina Alilovic and Heidi Baker


Picture Books

Granpa – John Burningham

Missing Mummy – Rebecca Cobb

If All the World Were – Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys

Grandad’s Island – Benji Davies

Always and Forever – Alan Durant and Debi Gliori

Rabbityness – Jo Empson

Duck, Death and the Tulip – Wolf Erlbruch

The Heart and the Bottle – Oliver Jeffers

The Invisible String – Patrice Karst and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

Maia and What Matters – Tine Mortier and Kaatje Vermeire

Mum’s Jumper – Jayde Perkin

The Memory Tree – Brita Teckentrup

Badger’s Parting Gifts – Susan Varley


MG (8 – 12 years):

Slog’s Dad – David Almond and Dave McKean

Artichoke Hearts – Sita Brahmachari

A Pocketful of Stars – Aisha Bushby

A Library of Lemons – Jo Cotterill

The List of Real Things – Sara Moore Fitzgerald

Milly’s Bug Nut – Jill Janey and Peter Bailey

Love Aubrey – Suzanne LaFleur

Pie in the Sky – Remy Lai

Charlie and Me – Mark Lowry

The Star Outside my Window – Onjali Rauf

Ghost Boys – Jewell Parker Rhodes

Sad Book – Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake

The Land of Neverendings – Kate Saunders

Milo and the Restart Button – Alan Silberberg

There May Be a Castle – Piers Torday

Charlotte’s Web – E B White

Cloud Boy – Marcia Williams

The Cat Mummy – Jacqueline Wilson and Nick Sharratt


Teen (12 – 14 years):

Lost – Eve Ainsworth

Car Wish Wash – Sita Bramacharia

Mind the Gap – Phil Earle

Haunt Me – Liz Kessler

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece – Annabel Pitcher

Crongton Knights – Alex Wheatle

The Road to Ever After – Moira Young


Young Adult:

Clap When You Land – Elizabeth Acevedo

Dear Evan Hansen – Val Emmich, Justin Paul, Steven Levenson and Benj Pasek

Next – Keith Gray (Editor)

Ostrich Boys – Keith Gray

The Fault in Our Stars – John Green

When We Collided – Emery Lord

Optimists Die First – Susan Nielsen

The Million Pieces of Neena Gill – Emma Smith-Barton

Elsewhere – Gabrielle Zevin

Saturday 30 May 2020

School Librarians After Lockdown - how can we build on an interest in reading?

According to a recent survey by The Reading Agency, nearly 1 in 3 people are reading more than before during lockdown. This rises to almost one in two people (45%) in the 18 – 25 year age group. Reasons given for this increase in reading include “a form of release, escapism or distraction” and many people said “having more time was a key driver”. I suspect if you looked at the statistics for younger people you would find similar increases. Many school librarians are working from home, supporting students remotely, and they have reported an increase in engagement with reading, often from students who have previously shown no interest or who have rarely visited the school library to borrow a book. Students are signing up to e-book platforms, accessing e-books from both their school and public libraries, requesting recommendations (and making them to their peers). The things that have always distracted students – such as social media, video games, TV, etc. – are still there. So why this increased interest in reading? More time may be a factor but I think that many of them have simply discovered the benefits of reading for pleasure.

The impact of reading for pleasure has been well documented. The National Literacy Trust has undertaken several studies into this, as has BookTrust, if you’d like to read further but in addition to improving vocabulary, writing skills, concentration and memory, reading for pleasure also helps to reduce stress, aids sleep and foster wellbeing. The work of school librarians during lockdown highlights this importance aspect of their role - it seems obvious to me that if we want children to read then they need access to a wide and diverse range of books, and the best person to help them find what they need is a school librarian. It should also be said that “reading for pleasure” does not simply constitute reading fiction; any sort of reading counts – fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, comics, wordless picture books, manuals, journals. I am currently browsing through books on acrylic painting techniques in an attempt to improve my skills - I’m actually “reading for information” but am still enjoying it and find it relaxing. So we can’t assume that just because somebody is reading for information they’re not also reading for pleasure; the two are not mutually exclusive. IFLA School Library Guidelines consider that school librarians should “support the individual preferences of readers, and acknowledge their individual rights to choose what they want to read”.

So how can school librarians build on this renewed interest when students finally go back to school and the library is reopened? Many students will want to go back to physical books. Some who have discovered the delights of reading via e-books may be encouraged to try out a physical book, particularly one by an author they’ve enjoyed or in a genre they’ve connected with. But I suspect that, sadly, several may just put books and reading aside.

·         If a school library hasn’t really offered e-books before then this is certainly something that should be considered. Not to replace physical books but to offer them as an alternative format alongside audio books – and this may well have budget implications so if schools want their students to continue reading they need to fund their libraries adequately. 

·         School librarians have been able to provide a more one-to-one service with support and recommendations, promoting books, and related websites and activities. I suspect this is because they’ve been able to concentrate on putting together resources without the innumerable ad-hoc interruptions that occur during a normal day in the library. These tend to result in ideas and initiatives being pushed down the list and, eventually, forgotten or half-started and abandoned. So staffing is another factor – if schools want their librarians to continue providing these services then provision needs to be made so they have uninterrupted time in which to create them.

·         Outreach during the past few weeks has, by necessity, been online. Several schools don’t allow their school librarians to connect via social media platforms but have had to relax the rules a bit. It would be great if these connections could continue. Many students won’t go near the library during the school day as it’s not considered a “cool” place to be seen in so this online presence allows them to continue to explore reading in an anonymous way.

·         For the majority of students a period of transition will be needed. Some will have experienced bereavement; others will have experienced abuse; those who do not consider school a safe space will probably experience high levels of anxiety; and most students are likely to feel some sort of stress about returning to school. Student wellbeing needs to be a priority and the library – and reading – has a huge role to play here in supporting students and staff so try to ensure you are included in any wellbeing initiatives, and continue to engage with the students that have connected with you during lockdown.

·         I think the largest factor at play is going to be time. Students are going to be back into the usual busy routine of lessons, activities, homework, etc. plus there will be the added pressure of everyone trying to assess how much they need to do to “catch up”. When planning all of this, it would be fantastic if some time could be given to “reading for pleasure” – time to explore and talk about books, to find out what students have been reading and why, and to build on this unexpected legacy from lockdown. 

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Grief, Anger and Loss - School Librarians and Furloughing

We are living through strange times. A worldwide pandemic, social distancing, lockdown. For many this means working from home; however there are quite a few school librarians who have been furloughed.  You might be forgiven for thinking they’d consider that’s a great idea; they can do all those projects they never had time for or they can sit and read all day.

But the reality is, for many, very different. Furloughing is temporary suspension. The problem is that nobody knows how temporary, there’s a huge unknown quantity to this situation – when will schools reopen, will this be partial, will some people still have to social distance? And this unknown element makes everything feel as though we’re in limbo, swimming through murky waters without any sense of direction. It makes it difficult to actually start any of those projects. Personally I’ve found it very hard to focus on anything that requires even a minimum level of concentration; I’ve lost count of the amount of knitting I’ve had to unpick because I’ve gone wrong and the reading I’m doing has dropped dramatically!

Furloughing can feel a bit like redundancy. I’m a freelance consultant and yes, all my outside work has been cancelled but I also work a lot from home as well as being involved with several committees so part of this feels “normal” to me. However, I have previously been made redundant and have also off sick with work-related stress and anxiety (another aspect which has a huge unknown element to it) so I know very much from a personal aspect what it can feel like to be told of a decision that requires a significant adjustment and change to your life. 

When you are told that you’re going to be furloughed yet see other staff continue to work, the immediate response is often one of shock and shame - isn’t my job worthwhile, doesn’t the work I’ve been doing for the past “however many” years count, why me, what’s going to happen to the students, to the library? So many school librarians put their heart and soul into their libraries (and note the use of the word “their” it really does become a very personal space), they work above and beyond their contracted hours supporting students and staff. They love their jobs – to most it’s more of a vocation. And being told you’re being furloughed can result in a definite loss of self-esteem.

You know that you can continue to provide a service to students and staff, you see librarians in other schools doing this – the internet is currently awash with online resources and activities created by librarians – and yet your school doesn’t want you to do this. Even though logically you tell yourself this is a business decision it still hurts. You feel guilty for being at home, doing nothing and still being paid, when others are working. You feel as though the school doesn’t value you or your work – and this has an emotional impact leading to feelings of loss, grief and isolation. 

And the big question going round in your head, the elephant in the room, is – if the school copes without a librarian or library for several weeks will they decide they can continue to do so? Will I actually have a job to go back to?

One thing that struck me when thinking about all this was that if the job was “just” about books then it would be easy to move everything online. But it isn’t and never has been. A huge part of the role is one-to-one personal interaction with students – knowing their reading habits, likes and interests so you can give them individual recommendations; taking ad-hoc opportunities to deliver digital literacy skills when they ask about resources for their work; just being there as a trusted person to talk to in a safe space. All these are hard to do remotely. And it occurred to me that perhaps the reason for some librarians being furloughed was because those making this decision have decided that the lack of students in school means this aspect of the job, the personal side, couldn't physically happen. I know there's a huge amount of things we can do to support students online not to mention the never-ending admin work but few people see that side of the job. This personal aspect is why librarians are important and why I think schools will need them when this is all over – more so than ever as there’ll be huge discrepancies in home education to balance out plus an impact on children’s and young people’s mental health and wellbeing that we’ll all need to support.

But there’s no doubt that the feelings generated by being furloughed, together with any worry about at risk or vulnerable family and friends, are creating a lot of stress and anxiety, and impacting on people’s mental health. So I would say to any librarians who have been furloughed and are struggling, the first thing you need to prioritise is your own wellbeing. Stress and anxiety result in physical reactions – they vary but can include tiredness, a lack of motivation, sleep disturbances, headaches, changes in appetite – so it’s important to maintain a programme of self-care: a healthy diet, enough sleep, exercise, continued contact with family and friends, carry on with hobbies and interests, incorporate relaxation and mindfulness into your routine. Mental Health UK has some ideas and downloadable resources that might help but a search for “wellbeing” will give you lots more.

The thing to remember if you’ve been furloughed is that while you can’t do any work directed by the school, there’s nothing to stop you undertaking self-directed CPD. This can be for personal development or to help you improve the service you deliver. An example of this is keeping up-to-date with books being published. Knowing what’s available is part of our skills as librarians. I keep lists of books on various topics with keywords and age recommendations so that when I’m asked to evaluate a collection and make recommendations to fill gaps I can do so fairly quickly. Thus there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same – so that when schools reopen, you can order new books and create new book lists. 

There’s a huge amount of CPD opportunities currently available. I won’t list them all but have a look at FutureLearn for MOOCs, investigate TED talks on the topic of library, listen to some of the 13 Must-Hear Librarian podcasts, have a look at the School Library Association website for some further ideas, read that pile of professional journals and jot down any ideas for future events and activities, investigate professional e-books you can read. Stay connected with your work colleagues – you should still be receiving school emails so that you are kept informed and up-to-date with the situation; just remember that you can’t respond to any requests for advice, etc. (and yes, I know, it’s hard not to!). Make sure you add in some leisure activities. I’m writing more letters to friends and family, and sending that physical connection helps me, I’ve added the National Theatre At Home, Cirque De Soleil and The Shows Must Go On to my viewing each week, I’ve made myself do more painting (something I’ve been promising myself for ages) instead of sitting at my desk clicking from article to article feeling like I should be doing something productive. And if you’re a member of CILIP then this is an ideal time to think about your Chartership portfolio or Revalidation. Finally, you could always think about writing up a case study for the Great School Libraries Campaign – something around a project, event or activity you do. Have a look at the website for examples and a template. 

Everyone will have different experiences and different reactions to this situation; there’s no right or wrong response. The important thing is to find what works for you and above all, stay well and stay safe.

Thursday 19 March 2020

Help - how can I survive with the children at home!

My blogs tend to be about library and reading-related things but in these rather strange times I thought I’d pass on a few tips about coping with having children at home for an extended period, and how to help both them and you maintain your sanity and sense of perspective. I’m not going to post a list on online resources, social media is full of these (so many that my head is spinning – and thanks to everyone who is putting stuff out there for people to use), this is more of a “how to” list. It relates more to younger children but will also help those having to deal with teens as well:
* Structure your day. I know from working at home how important this is. If you don’t then the day will just wander away and everyone will get fed-up, bored and rather disheartened very quickly. Children are also used to (and like) structure; it gives them a sense of security. This is important for young children but applies to older ones as well; those that are used to “doing their own thing” in the holidays, and being out and about with friends. Don’t forget, when they are at school their day is organised.

* The easiest way to do this is to break the day down into timed slots and allocate activities for each one. They don’t have to be detailed at this stage, just an indication of whether it’s going to be learning activities, creative time, quiet time, screen time, etc. Keep it simple; if you make it too complicated you are unlikely to stick to it. Depending on the age of your children, these could be 30 minute or 1 hour slots. Or you could follow their school timings.

·        * Then – plan what you want to do for the week. This is where you allocate specific topics and ideas into each slot. If you’ve been given activities, a curriculum, etc. from school use them. Make sure you set goals and give rewards too. And mix it up a bit for variety. Planning what you want to do in advance will save you having to think “what shall we do next”. Have more activities organised than you think you’ll need – children often take less time to do things than you think they will. And if they don’t show any interest in what you’ve got planned you have a back-up.

·       *  It doesn’t all have to be “traditional education”. Children learn through play. They learn by helping you make cakes, by playing with water and different sizes of containers, by playing games. Life will still need to go on around them being home (ie: washing, cleaning, cooking) so involve them.

·        * One of the best pieces of advice I ever read (which stopped me stressing) was that if you give a child a chore to do, remember they can only do it according to their level not yours. So, for example, if you ask them to dust they may not do it quite the same way as you. Eliminate unnecessary tasks. Yes, bathrooms and kitchens need to be clean but this isn’t the time to defrost the freezer or worry about washing the windows. It can all wait!

·        * Don’t try and fit everything into one week. You may have to prioritise the core subjects and leave others on the back burner for now. It’s important for younger children to maintain literacy skills (research shows that these drop during the long summer break) so read, read, read … and then read some more. Note - reading doesn’t have to be story books – recipes, instructions, information books, it’s all good practice.

·        * Also remember, you’re not expected to be an expert in every subject they’re studying. It’s okay to say you don’t know something or don’t understand. Find out the answer together (one of the things I loved about being a school librarian was how I was always learning something new thanks to random questions from students). Let them explain things to you – this is a great way of reinforcing what they’ve learnt.

·        * If you have children of different ages at home it can be hard. The younger children often want to do the same as the older ones but they don’t have the equivalent skills or expertise. The temptation is to give the older children worksheets and devote time to their younger siblings. But all your children need some time and attention from you. Why not involve the older children in some of the activities? For example, they could act as “reading buddies” – reading to younger children or listening to them read. Think about activities that they can all do at their individual level or games that are based on luck rather than skill. Also, if it's possible try to give them some time-out from each other.

·        * However – stay flexible! It’s your schedule so you can change it. The idea is to give you some sort of aim and guidance for the day/week but if you’ve had a bad night, if everyone suddenly feels a little bit wobbly, take time out, cuddle up under a blanket and watch a feel-good film or read a book.

·        * Make sure you build in some break times. If it’s dry and you have a garden, get outside. If you live in an area where you can go for walks, do that. Cycling is another option. Fresh air and being outdoors is good for wellbeing. Have the break times after some desk work so the children can burn off some energy. Any sort of vigorous exercise (depending on your circumstance) is probably best in the afternoon when they will have had enough of being indoors and sitting still. Limit snacks to break times – and make sure they understand this – otherwise they’ll be asking for food all day. 

·        * Set up a workspace and use it every day. People who work from home have desks; I know when I sit at mine my brain switches into "work” mode. If I’m lounging on the sofa in PJs this doesn’t happen (or, what is more likely, making the mistake of picking up my latest book first thing in the morning before I’ve even got out of bed). Have all the necessary materials close at hand so that you’re not spending time trying to find them. Get a couple of boxes to store everything in – it will make your life easier and less stressful.

·        * If you have to work from home AND home-educate children accept that your productivity is going to be lower. This won’t work with young children; it might work with older ones but they will still need some sort of direction and input from you. Keep things in perspective. This is not going to last indefinitely; enjoy the opportunity you have to spend more time together. Remember that feeling of "it's never going to be the same again" when they started school? Now you've got a chance to grab some of that special time back. 

·        * Screen time! This is likely to be where you have your biggest arguments. It’s going to be hard but it will be better for them, for all sorts of reasons, to limit it. A lot of what is available and what the school sends for them to do will be online. During a normal school day they would not be spending this much time looking at a screen so letting them chill with the iPad or in front of Netflix wouldn’t have the same effect. However, if they are spending all day doing screen work and then spending downtime in front of screens, there will be no balance. Try to mix up screen activities with creative and practical activities. If you don’t have enough computers for all the family then sort out a rota. And make sure you don’t spend all day on your phone yourself.

·        * Finally – if you have younger children and you’ve just had enough – stick them in the bath! Mine were always so amazed at having a bath in the middle of the day that they would play for hours! Doesn’t quite work the same for older children although you could always set it up as a spa with candles, chillout music and a good book!