Young Adult Reading (and Writing) Guidance. An Interview with Nikki Heath. Part 1 of 2.

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by Jen

The View From Here Interview:
Nikki Heath

Ed Balls, the UK Government Children's Minister, is quoted in an article by Alison Flood in the the Guardian on September 12th, as having advised 'caution' over the controversial use of age guidance banding on children's books and recommended "parents seeking guidance about this contact librarians or teachers who know about the full range of children's literature".

As School Librarian of the Year 2008 Nikki Heath is someone who knows books for Young Adults. She has insider knowledge of what young people like to read, current trends in popular books, and of the challenges faced promoting reading to a demanding and discerning audience. She talked to The View From Here in September, on International Literacy Day, about the importance of reading, her opinion on age-banding books and in part two shares her experience of what young people enjoy (and what they don't), reviews her favourite books for Young Adults and offers her eight top tips for writers.


What do you see is the importance of reading for Young Adults?

Encouraging reading for pleasure at school and at home is a fabulous way to improve the literacy skills of our students and children. It is also a way to give them a lifelong pastime, even if it is one that is only use when travelling to work, or on holiday! Best of all, many of our young adults do not realise how quickly their reading skills, and therefore their academic potential, can be improved by ‘just reading’ for 10 minutes every day, whether the reading material is a book, a magazine or even the back of a cereal box.

As a parent of 5, 14 and 15 year old children, I know how difficult it can be to drag them away from games consoles, social networking sites and many other activities which are seen as central to their social life and get them to sit down with fiction or non-fiction reading materials. Many children will not read at all at home, and sometimes a library lesson is the only chance they will have to surround themselves with books and be ‘swept’ into another world.

School librarians, working with other school staff, therefore play a crucial role in ensuring students have regular access to books. They can work closely together to promote reading and provide an environment where peers can share their enjoyment of reading and recommend books to each other. It is so rewarding to hear students discussing books and authors, and to chat with them about their last book, and even more rewarding to work with those who ‘hate’ reading, and watch them become avid readers. We are so lucky that there is such a wealth of fabulous authors writing for young adults who make our jobs so much easier.

Do you think YA readers are more susceptible than adults to the recommendations by peers of what to read?

I think social networking and peer recommendation will in the future work hand in hand with Young Adults. Peer recommendation is more likely to happen at school and in school reading groups/classes, and more with newer readers/less confident readers/emerging readers is a classroom situation. Social network 'reading'and 'bookshelves' are more for the established readers who are confident about what they read, and who want to tell the world about it.

Adults don't have the kind of personal contact in a controlled environment that students have. In many cases, unless they join a reading group, they are more likely to review/chat online, especially as many will have kids and therefore more restricted social lives. I would rather chat face to face with someone about what I read. It's all down to how you feel more comfortable discussing, reviewing and recommending, really.

What do you think of the scheme to "age-group band" books?

I am TOTALLY against it. I am sure that publishers thought they had every-one's best interests in mind at the beginning of the scheme, but it was badly researched and did not take into consideration the professional experience of authors, librarians and teachers up and down the country. I'm sad to say that I foresee this going in the same way as computer and console games - parents will see their kids reading or attempting to buy books with older 'age ranges' on them and will stop them from doing so. It will limit the market more, not expand it. We're trying to encourage reading for pleasure of any format and anywhere, and age banding sends out totally the wrong message. Of course, there will be many adults who don't mind and will not really pay much attention to age banding on books, but what if a child FINALLY finds a book they want to read, maybe for the first time ever, and eagerly takes it to be purchased and is told they can't? It could put them off for life...

I was an avid reader and still am, and I read many books which were at my reading age but way above my physical age. Yes, some of these did have had more adult issues dealt within them, but if you don't fully understand an issue, you tend to read the words, but not take in their true meaning.

Children know so much these days and have sadly lost a lot of the childhood innocence that I had in my early teens. As a parent I know this is difficult to accept sometimes, but I know my teenage children are talking about so many more adult issues a lot sooner, and I'd rather these were dealt with through books and peers than in real life. Teens are told what to do on so many fronts that this will just take more of their choices away from them. We are supposed to be letting them take ownership of their career choices and their futures but at the same time telling them they can't read a certain book? How ridiculous!

If you aren't sure which book to buy for your teen friends and relatives please buy them a book voucher and give them the choice! They can then wander around the book shop for hours, working out which books to buy. It is NOT a boring gift; far from it. I am sure book lovers all over the world will tell you the same.
I am fully behind the No to Age Banding campaign. I probably would have been discouraged from reading, and would therefore not be a librarian, if it had existed in my teen years.

(part two to follow on Friday, including her experience of what young people enjoy reading (and what they don't), reviews of her favourite books for Young Adults and her eight top tips for writers.)

Nikki is currently supporting a global, one-day creative writing initiative "the Write Path" on October 6th, International School Libraries Day, which is supported by Alan Gibbons. In the spirit of his 'Campaign for the Book' and to support school libraries, he is one of five authors who have penned an opening chapter of the stories which will be continued by young people in ten schools across the world, from Stockport to Saigon.


School Librarian of the Year 2008, Nikki is based at Werneth School, Stockport, UK. Werneth School has 1200 pupils, Yrs 7-11 (ages 11 - 16).

Before her appointment in 2004 Nikki, a qualified librarian, worked for the local School Library Service and two further schools. She has head of faculty status and so can keep putting ‘the library’s point of view’ at curriculum meetings. She works in close partnership with Sally, her nominator (both agree to great effect!), and is line managed by the deputy head with responsibility for teaching and learning.

In 2004 Nikki found a library little changed over thirty years. She began by organising a revamp. This sense of purpose has continued, she calls it ‘a journey that never stops’.

Nikki runs the library with the help of an enthusiastic team of pupil librarians. After training they are expected to take responsibility for breaktime and lunchtime running of the library, freeing Nikki to be available for individuals. The librarians are enthusiastic about their roles and the humorous but sympathetic support they receive from Nikki. They mentioned her reputation for appearing in T-shirts with a message, such as, "Old librarians never die, they just get reshelved!"

The Werneth Head of English stated that the library was now firmly at the heart of all the school did “She facilitates: but it’s more than just being a librarian or a teacher: she takes you with her because of her great enthusiasm and belief in reading”.

For part 2 click here.

1 comment:

Mike French said...

Great stuff - this is the kind of insiders view from someone who is in effect at the front end of the industry and in direct contact with readers that we need to hear.

Great job Jen in adding Nikki's thoughts and views into the mix here.