I’m sitting in a library (one of my favourite places) waiting for some librarians (some of my favourite people.) It is a community library – a new one. The colours are bright, sun streams in through the big clerestory windows. There is the sound of books being shuffled into shelves ahead of school closing and the upsurge of readers beginning. (We hope.)

But how to get them here? For me as a child, it used to be more difficult. The library used to be far and the road there long. Now there is a library right here in the heart of the life of this village. This is surely easier, but will they come? Will the children come?

I think we have to accept that times have changed immeasurably from fifty … twenty … ten … even five years ago. Nothing is the same as it was, and that includes books, reading and even children. I have noticed that the people who moan (often beginning their sentences with variations of the words ‘in my day’), haven’t noticed the changing times. They want everything to be the way it was, without remembering properly what that way was really like.

I’m still in the library. A workshop is going on (one I am giving for teacher librarians and teachers). Teenagers are working quietly (well, fairly quietly) at nearby tables. A couple of young mothers are looking at magazines featuring babies. An older boy is thoughtfully looking for something on the internet. A few small children are giggling at a picture book on a brightly coloured mat.

I wonder, what has really changed? There is information here in this room, and stories to lose yourself in. There are stories to share and laugh about. There are newspapers and magazines and a quiet place for people who have nowhere else to go. There are helpful people to answer questions. There may be more screens involved, but the pages are still there. Everything that appears on the much-feared by book people Internet has to be read – and has to be written by somebody.

And the shelves are still full of books. Long live libraries!


Surrounded by books

I am lucky to have a wonderful second-hand bookshop near where I live – and libraries have played the same role all my life. You wander in, looking for something. You drift along the shelves until something catches your eye. Something does! You stop. You read the blurb, read about the author … test a couple of pages. Snap the book shut and take it home. There must be PhDs written about how we choose books, but it remains a mystery to me how I do. How, for example, did I come home only last week with a book that was exclusively about rare Mauritian stamps? Not a novel, mind you, a scholarly work on Mauritian Blues (and less importantly, Mauritian Reds). I have no interest in collecting stamps – never have had – but the book was quite fascinating in its way. I learned something, tucked a bit of information away – and who knows where it will pop out again. (Certainly not me.)

I live my life, and have always lived my life, surrounded by books. In a recent move, my own books were packed away for a couple of weeks. I missed them so much. When I unpacked them (and there are a few thousand of them) I immediately wondered where one of them was (don’t panic, it turned up mis-filed in the children’s section). I would go as far as to say that books are the loves of my life.

It’s just such a pity that they are so very heavy when one lives a nomadic kind of a life.

How do you start?

How did I start? (The only thing I can say for sure.) I read a huge amount and I played with words … and I told stories. It became a kind of game, when I was still at a distant school that was a long bus journey from home. I’d watch the people and I’d make up stories. I especially liked to make up funny stories – or to make ordinary stories funny, because that would make my dad laugh when we all sat round the dinner table that night.

I told stories to myself in the interminable long light summer evenings of my Scottish childhood. If truth be told, I tell versions of the same stories (pretty boring ones) to this day when I can’t get to sleep. The trick is not to allow them to get too exciting and thus wake yourself up to find out what happens. The best going-to-sleep story at the moment  is one that is actually about going to sleep – a rescued paleontologist who has dropped off a cliff into a deep cave in the Hindu Kush and is rescued by someone who is testing super-survival packs that will save her from hypothermia – and could lead to all-sorts of adventures if she doesn’t (and I don’t) fall asleep on cue. (Take this idea, by all means. Nobody is going to believe it!) The point is that your brain is always sub-consciously, or consciously, looking for a story. It leads to misunderstanding when you walk past people you know really well without acknowledging them, but it is what writers do. They watch for the bones of stories they haven’t made up yet, and they store them away like squirrels for a time when they will be needed. The above story could be (but isn’t going to be) analyzed for all sorts of influences from books I have read and people I have met recently, but it is a purely recreational activity …

The Godmother

It was a scary moment when I was first asked to be a godmother. I could feel the wings heavy on my newly responsible shoulders. What gift would I wish for my fairy godchild? It was obvious at once. Books. That’s what I would wish for her, books and reading all wrapped up in a warm blanket of story that would comfort and help her for the rest of her life. A small, rather less romantic voice whispered in my ear that reading would also be the key to Life in other ways less associated with cuddles and blankets; like school; like exams; like a career. And so it was.

Reading is the greatest gift I can think of giving, partly because it was given so generously to me. Every member of my family read to me, gave me books, encouraged me towards the library – and told me stories. I don’t remember a time when my mind was not filled with Water Babies and girls who were orphaned and sent to wicked relatives; children who lived in a barn (until their parents miraculously returned from an air disaster in South America) or Mad Hatters and tea parties. Favourite books changed over the years, as they do, but some of those books can still appear before my eyes as if they are still with me – and some I have bought again, as an adult, and given to children myself.

I can’t understand what is so difficult about this matter of children and books. WHY are our children not reading? And don’t talk to me about the Internet. What do you do there except read? Yes, I do understand the whizz-bang appeal of computer-generated activities that move at the speed of light. I also see the power in teaching that computers offer and the benefits of … well, one could go on for hours.

The simple fact is that if we give our children enough books, of the right kind, they will choose to read. And when they read with enjoyment, they read more and they read better – until the whole process becomes a self-fulfilling journey towards War and Peace or Steve Job’s biography, or whatever takes their fancy in a library or on an iPad. (I mention those as being particularly large books; there are better smaller ones.)

We need a climate of action about reading and we need to take it seriously. We need to bitch and moan and tweet and shout and yell and get on Facebook and You-Tube. We need to write to the papers and email our contacts list and do whatever we do to bring the matter of children and reading to the fore. It is critically important. In fact, I would say, there is no more important issue in Education right now than that of reading; reading in home languages; in English; local books and the best that are published in other countries, but books. We just have to give our children that gift – whether we are wearing wings or not.

Lesley Beake has worked in education and writing for children all her life and has just published her 90th book for young people. She is, with co-founders Gcina Mhlophe and Sindiwe Magona, one of the motivators for the Children’s Book Network, an organization committed to all of the above – Children, Books and Networking.

Why do we do it?

I can’t remember ever – even after hundreds of school visits and workshops – being asked the question: ‘Why do you do it?’ But it is a question that writers often ask themselves. Because writing is not an easy thing to do. Especially, it is not an easy thing to do well. The question people DO ask is: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

I was once asked that when I was waiting for something routine (allergy tests) at Karatara Hospital outside Windhoek in Namibia. A young man was being helped in with a football injury. Several women in traditional Herero dress were comforting a friend. A stretcher was rushed towards Emergency. Things were happening. Things that could each have developed into a full-length novel. That’s when the Sister asked me where I get my ideas from.

They are everywhere.

The most critical piece of kit for a writer is a good memory. The ability to remember a place – any place – let’s call it ***. And the small, small things, like what a disappointment, for example, go in for school dinner and find out that it was horrible liver and onions day, or to miss a bus and be stranded with no money, or to have your heart broken; memory is paramount.

The second most important thing is a notebook. Write it down. When you discover the horrible liver, miss the train, or have your heart broken, WRITE about it. Those cryptic notes:

3.00 am. He isn’t home. Again. Will he ever be?

Now examine the all-important ***. Try inserting Istanbul. A new story instantly begins to materialize out of the dusky smoke. Try Chicago instead. It will be different. Now try somewhere you know really well – certainly the best option if you haven’t actually been to Istanbul or Chicago. The story is set free to go where you will it to go. The story is free to explore your real memories of the place you perhaps know best, the inside of your own head.

The lights of the train twinkled their goodbye as my running footsteps faded in my ears. I was too late. It was cold. Rain was coming. I felt in my pocket – hopelessly There was the useless ticket. There was no money. The last train was rapidly disappearing towards *** and I was alone. Alone.

But the question was … Why DO we do it? Because it’s fun!


The Beginning

I was sixteen. We were leaving Scotland for Africa, forever, in a few days. Our house had been sold, the furniture distributed; only a rusty wheelbarrow remained in the garden, forlorn among the weeds, (but with a beautiful view of the gentle Pentland Hills). I sat for a while, sadly, and then I thought I might write a book.

That book became – after many, many rewrites – a story for young readers called Rainbow. Writing it got me through some difficult days – and I enjoyed making it, although I quickly began to realize what very hard work it was.

The story involved a boy, busy climbing a tree. Without warning, he is struck by a falling rainbow holding an enticing, many-coloured rope with which to climb to adventure. The only connection with reality was the old apple tree I was looking at when I had the idea. The finished book held echoes of practically everything I had read as a child.

Maybe all first books have to be like that, especially those written by young people. Writing is not an easy craft to learn and – like most crafts – it has to be learned by doing it. I know where the images come from of a potential author gazing out of a window, quill pen in hand, and suddenly seeing how the spring time garden can be turned into a host of golden daffodils. The image lingers on of writing as some sort of inspiration that descends without warning, taking the writer by complete surprise and resulting in a splendid story, or the beginning of a trilogy.

Rainbow undoubtedly surprised me, but it was a long hard slog to write. It was useful mostly for the things it taught me, the many things I didn’t know. Because to write successfully, you really have to examine what the poet Mary Oliver once called ‘the machinery of your wits’. You need to offer yourself up completely to the process. Many years later, when I had practiced for a couple of decades, I once again wrote something that was, really, just for me, about that same time of change and disruption in that garden where my first book began.

Here it is …

I remember one day going to our old house, empty of everything now, and sitting alone in the garden on the wheelbarrow, which was neither worth selling nor worth taking to South Africa. It was a very still early summer afternoon and clouds of midges spiraled in the faint sunshine. I was quite comfortable in the wheelbarrow, swinging my legs idly and contemplating the future. Maybe I wanted to distract myself from the unknown, but there suddenly came to me, quite out of the blue, an idea for a book. It would be about a boy who climbed up a rope he found in a rainbow one day. It would be called, I decided after a pause for thought, Rainbow! Nothing more happened to the subsequent manuscript for about twenty-two years, but it took my mind off things very effectively.