by Jamie Allen, Trafalgar Junior School
17 May 2023
I love the Spark! School Book Awards - and I’m guessing you’re interested too, which is why you’re reading a blog like this.
For our school, Spark! has brought another layer of excitement about new books in our reading curriculum. I’m still not sure we’ve cracked the best way to run it – but the books are being shared and read.
Poetry is a focus for our school, which is why I was so keen to join the shortlisting panel, and the book I’ve chosen to write about is Windrush Child by John Agard.
Is it a picture book? Is it a poem? Is it history? What age group is it for?
These were just some of the questions we debated when considering this title. In the end, we decided it was a book for any age and that it was also all of the above; at a glance it seems more picture book than poetry but with my literary reviewer’s hat on, I’d call it a gloriously illustrated rhyming gateway to a significant event in modern British history.
Accessibility, humour, style, diversity, narrative, theme – all the other criteria we were looking for were there. But most of all, it had heart. It was a story about family, friendship, journeys, hopes and dreams. It was also real and important.
Does it bear repeated reading?
That’s another of the questions we ask ourselves as panel members and the answer was a big, definite ‘yes’. I read it with our Year 6 in assembly with the illustrations enlarged on the board. We read through once (because no-one likes it when you keep stopping!) and then we read it through again, slowly this time, making connections between the words and the pictures, considering what we knew – or thought we knew – and how the two intertwined. Sophie Bass’s bold images and use of colour (or lack of it at times) said just as much as John’s words.
Take the picture of the child at their desk writing home to grandmother. Their room is awash with colour but the street outside, seen through the small square window, is grey. Take the last pages too. The Windrush child framed by a large, split-yolk sun, waving at a new friend who is kneeling in the cold snow. "Windrush child, walking good, walking good, in a mind-opening meeting of snow and sun." Like any good text, you can enjoy it at face value or delve more deeply into what is implied.
I sometimes tell the children that reading fiction is like devouring a big bar of chocolate but reading poetry is like experiencing a single, hand-crafted piece; there’s less of it, but you should take your time over it and appreciate it more.
In April, our three Year 6 classes met with John in an online author visit. He immediately explained that, as a writer, he is continually playing with words. When he heard our school name, Trafalgar, for instance, he said that it made him think of Trafalgar Square and pigeons and postcards home. Before answering Amber’s question, he said she had a poetic name. Amber; like a tiger’s eye.
We had submitted questions in advance and John was so generous with his time answering them, that we ended up dominating the session. John was fascinating to listen to, and no-one wanted to interrupt him!
Poetry should be lyrical and John’s book is just that. But we also had a lovely moment when he flipped that. We had asked what inspired him to become a writer and he credited a music teacher from when he was 16 who had said to the class: "Check this out!" and then played some Bob Dylan.
John was encouraging us to find the poetry in the world around us; strip away the music and lyrics should be poetry. He quoted some Dylan, then switched to another Bob and quoted some Marley, slowly, deliberately and thoughtfully:
"And then Georgie would make the fire lights,
A log wood burnin' through the night.
My feet, my only carriage,
So I’ve got to push on through."
Poetry is all around you was the message. Find it in a name, in songs, in history, in each other.
Not letting go…
When I first introduced this book in assembly, I asked who had heard of Windrush. Only a few hands went up. I grew up in West London and from teen-years on, went to the Notting Hill Carnival most years – and I still do. So, I asked the children who had heard of carnival. Again, very few hands. Don’t be harsh I thought...they are young, there was Covid, but it didn’t sit right that so many hadn’t even heard of either.
As a school, we have been reviewing our curriculum; checking it once, checking it twice. Does it flow? Does it have themes? Does it teach the children what they need to know in order to navigate the world around them? Does it reflect their experiences, as well as others? With this in mind, we have decided to find a place for Windrush Child in our curriculum.
We have also deliberately left space in the reading spine to accommodate the new books that Spark! offers up each year.
This book deserves a place in every library alongside other stories that reflect the experiences that make the people of our country who they are today.
Thank you Sparky people for being a voice for new books in schools. We need you.