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Category Archive • Books
January 07, 2005
Education Rap

I am an erratic present giver to those to whom I should be giving regular presents, but this Christmas, Goddaughter II got lucky, and received four books from me by a favourite writer of hers, Cathy Hopkins.

I didn't get much of a chance to look at these books before they went off to Goddaughter II's home in the South of France, but I did, in this book, come across this, the work of the book's heroine:


That is a scan of a hasty (hence rather wonky round the edges) photocopy. Nevertheless, the sentiments are clear.

I'm pretty sure that this is how Goddaughter II feels about things too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:33 PM
Category: Books
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December 24, 2003
The boy who wrote Eragon was homeschooled!

Not heard of "Eragon"? You are about to, it would seem. And because of Eragon, it looks like homeschooling is about to get another big boost.

Meet the Paolinis of Montana:

For years, Kenneth and Talita former members of a survivalist cult led by a woman called Ma Prophet seem to have lived on a shoestring, with only occasional employment. Kenneth, the son of an Italian immigrant, used to be a photographer, but doesn't appear to have had much work lately.

He and his wife have devoted their lives to their children, schooling them at home and, until recently, rarely venturing outside their small community of Paradise Valley, Montana.

And one of those children, Christopher, has written a book. And it's not just any book:

The British edition appears early next month, but already it is a huge bestseller in America, where it has surged past the Harry Potter books. Almost half a million copies were sold in only two months, a screenplay is in the works and at least a dozen foreign-language editions are on the way.

The book, Eragon of course, began life self-published. But then:

Their big break came when the popular crime novelist Carl Hiaasen visited the area on a fishing trip with his young son, and the boy became immersed in a copy of Eragon. On the way home, Hiaasen asked his son why he couldn't put the book down. "It's great, Dad," came the reply, "better than Harry Potter."

To a novelist who has had his fair share of bestsellers, those words were magic. Hiaasen alerted his editors in New York, and the next thing the Paolinis knew, the prestigious publisher Knopf (a part of Random House) was offering them a contract.

This is one of the more educationally startling bits of the Telegraph story:

"I was only 15 when I started Eragon. I didn't know how to write. I just told everything in one gigantic burst, then spent another year revising it. "

Talk about learning by doing.

If Christopher Paolini turns out to be the perfectly nice, well adjusted, civilised person which I fully expect him to turn out to be, then that will ram the homeschooling point with particular force, because the popular fear is that whereas when maths professors do it, that's okay, maybe, when people called things like "Ma Prophet" get mixed up in it, only bad things can result. But now, it seems, the result is Eragon.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:55 PM
Category: BooksHome educationLearning by doingLiteracy
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September 16, 2003
English Rose Madonna has written a children's book

Madonna has written a children's book, called The English Roses. Yesterday's Times T2 Magazine had some quite complimentary reactions from various celebrity mums. (There is now a link for this, but links to timesonline are often a problem after a few days for non-UK people, so just take my word for this.) Their children liked the book very much, even though (because?) a lot of them have now never heard of Madonna.

From the sound of the various reactions, the story is a re-hash of the poor little rich girl story, only this time it's a poor little beautiful girl. Beauty is now wealth, I guess. And the moral is, don't be nasty to poor little beautiful girls.

Written from the heart, I think we can say. (Don't write mean reviews saying that some poor little beautiful girl is utter garbage in her latest movie, just because she is utter garbage ?)

But isn't that what good art does, whether "popular" or high. It takes real experience and rejigs it and universalises it. The idea that you can just slosh out "popular" art with one hand, emotionally speaking tied behind your back, is very, very wrong. You have to mean it.

This could obviously be a culture posting, but I have the feeling that all culture vultures who care already know about this Madonna book, while there may be educationalistical readers (all complaints about academic standards but no interest in the Zeitgeist) who missed this event completely. And a children's book that children like a lot is an educational as well as a cultural event.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:46 PM
Category: Books
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June 22, 2003
"Pupils who had previously resisted literacy "

More on the Harry Potter phenomenon, this time in the form of some entertaining rhapsodising about the educational benefits of Pottermania from the always provocative Normal Lebrecht in the Evening Standard last Friday:

Think back to June 1997 when 1,000 Bloomsbury copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone sneaked near-unnoticed into British bookshops, after being rejected by some 20 publishers for being variously too long, archaic and politically incorrect.

The pronounced wisdom was that children were uninterested in reading. Teachers and their unions set up a demand for more "visual aids". Pre-teens returned home from seven hours of unstrenuous schooling to slump, semi-vegetative, in front of flickering images of vaguely sexual connotation.

The publishing dictum, impressed on me when I proposed a story about kids with a chronic illness, was that "we no longer take on children's books without a television tie-in". Rowling changed all that, surreptitiously and within months.

Harry Potter spread by word of playground mouth and reprinted time after time.

Children blew their pocket money on the first book and clamoured for more. Infant teachers who read it aloud in class were begged to continue when the bell rang for break. Pupils who had previously resisted literacy mastered their ps and qs on platform nine and three-quarters.

Yes, this is what I've been hearing, and reading elsewhere. And seeing on the TV news of course, in the form of all those super-excited children queueing up at one o'clock in the morning. But is it really like this? Does any teacher or parent have first hand experience of this kind of thing?

Does anyone, in particular, have any tales to tell of Harry Potter resistance from any section of the youth market?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:53 PM
Category: BooksLiteracy
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May 13, 2003
The Harry Potter effect

I've read about it and heard about it. Tonight I witnessed it. My eleven year old god-daughter is deep into one of the Harry Potter books. I asked if I could sit with her, and read a book, and I expected the reading to be replaced soon by conversation. But no. She concentrated completely on her book, and it took a monumental row about cello practice to wrench her away from it. Now that cello duties have been done, she is, I should imagine, back with Harry Potter.

Nor is this infection confined to Britain or to English readers like my god-daughter. French bookshops are full of Harry Potter, and I recall the same thing happening in Slovakia when I took a trip there.

I read the first one with mild interest, but felt no particular urge to read any more, but I put this down to the fact that I am not a member of the target demographic. I am not a child. But apparently many adults have also been engulfed in HP frenzy.

Whence the mania? A good yarn? A good yarn about children who have escaped the attentions of their parents? A good yarn that is sufficiently un-respectable (these books are surrounded by denunciations of their literary third-rateness from literary authorities) not to have been made into compulsory reading, and which therefore makes a change from being nagged by one's parents to practice the cello? All of that, I dare say. Whatever the reason, it certainly shows that there will always be things that children really, really want to read, and which they will accordingly read avidly, if they can read at all, and which will consequently make them better at reading.

With me it was the Doctor Doolittle books and the Swallows and Amazons books. Each generation to its own.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:40 PM
Category: Books
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