Episode 2 show notes
To view or buy the books featured in this episode, please see the links below.
- Recommended children’s and YA books released in August 2022 – buy from Amazon UK.
- Recommended children’s and YA books released in August 2022 – buy from UK Bookshop Org.
- August 2022 school book club recommendations.
As an Amazon Associate the School Reading List earns from qualifying purchases. Disclosure: If you buy books linked to our site, we may earn a commission from uk.bookshop.org.
This podcast is supported by its listeners. If you choose to purchase something using links on our website or podcast notes we may earn a commission. No books were warped, dogeared, underlined with purple pen, eaten, cursed, cancelled, burned, or otherwise harmed in the making of this podcast.
Listen and subscribe
To listen to all the episodes in this podcast and to subscribe, see the School Reading List podcast page.
Episode 2 transcript
Blast from the past – Nicholas Fisk
In this episode, we’re looking at an author whose books were a mainstay in upper primary and early secondary school libraries from the late 1970s and 1980s into the 90s. His titles were prominent in the children’s sections in bookshops, and libraries; and being one of few true science fiction books published by Puffin, always featured in travelling school book fairs.
Accessible, due to the shorter length and dialogue-heavy plots, these books weren’t quick reads – they required thought and use of imagination – but they tended to appeal to intelligent children that didn’t particularly want to – either due to time or inclination – engage with epic length books.
In this episode, I’m checking into a world of ultra-realism and thought-provoking science fiction.
Born in 1923, Nicholas Fisk’s first children’s novel, Space Hostages, was published in 1967. Trillions, published in 1971 was the first Fisk novel to pose questions about what we know and what we don’t – and whether the unknown should be embraced, feared, or treated with distance and respect. It follows a boy who investigates a strange shower of crystals that fall from the sky, which change shape under the microscope. In Fisk’s world, the bright and resourceful child is just as likely to work out the mystery as the government-level boffin scientists.
Fisk’s best-known novel, Grinny follows a seemingly normal family who encounters a visitor – an old lady who no one seems to know, but the longer she stays, everyone seems to remember and accept. The children – but not the adults – notice strange details – her mannerisms, her clever games and the fact she has no smell. It’s a highly intelligent examination of taking a lie, developing it, duping people and repeating it so often that people accept it without reasoning. As a children’s novel, the sentiments and perceptiveness of Grinny couldn’t be more at home in the world of 2022.
Wheelie In the Stars, Time Trap, Antigrav (great cover by the way) and Star Stormers followed. But the book I’d like to recommend the most is 1980’s A Rag a Bone and A Hank of Hair, which is featured on our Year 7 book list. It imagines a world where people can be recycled to save the dwindling human race in the aftermath of nuclear winter. And there’s a savage twist ending that students and teachers will not see coming. It’s a book that will linger in the memory, and in today’s climate of risk from wars, political conflict, economic and environmental turmoil and climate change, this book is the ultimate what if.
Another reason to seek out Nicholas Fisk’s work is to expose students to a style that no longer seems to exist in the middle-grade market. These novels are short, sparse and make you think.
In today’s ‘golden age of kid lit, novels are awash with authors painting vivid worlds and complex characters with richly descriptive writing and cunning indirect characterisation and illuminating dialogue attribution.
This is often perfect for teachers looking to model and analyse writing, but often children just want to focus on the story and revel in their own imagination. Sparse writing that poses questions seems to be out of vogue.
Middle grade and YA novels, or novellas, that rely on one lingeringly memorable idea condensed into less than a centimetre of book spine are currently quite rare.
Nicholas Fisk’s novels are based on sharp premises, explanatory and perceptive dialogue and twisting plots.
They contain Terse writing that contains nuances and plot clues that, if skim-read, might lead to later confusion.
It’s a great formula for those children that read more slowly and meticulously but don’t want hundreds of pages to pore through.
The ultra Realism, that colours the created worlds has more in common with Philip Pullman’s imagined worlds than traditional science fiction.
There’s no rich descriptive language, overuse of metaphors, and aspects of Kidlit that often appeal to KS2 and K3 teachers, but often less so to readers that struggle to get into a book.
Some critics have levelled Accusations of cardboard characters. But who cares? Sometimes this fires the children’s imaginations. Try a creative writing exercise asking pupils to describe in detail a ‘cardboard character’. The results will all be different. And interesting. Perhaps cardboard characters allow children to reflect on their own realities more convincingly and more often than meticulously presented and described people and places. When children tackle a complex story, the characters need to breathe, and perhaps less is more if imagination is to interact with the reading process.
Similarly, the dialogue Attribution is sparse. He said, she said. Less is more. The definition of Stephen King’s advice in On Writing.
Instead, the author provokes the imagination, asking moral and philosophical questions to challenge the reader’s thinking. And there’s reassurance through subtle confidence building. It’s a running Theme in Fisk novels that children above all others have the innate values to safeguard the world and spot fakery.
Fisk based his stories on developing a sliver of truth and then stretching the resulting possibilities to unexpected but still – just – plausibly logical – conclusions. He “called his stories “believable realism”, arguing that everything must make sense once that allowable lie has been swallowed.” He added: “How much more interesting the possibility than the fact; the drawn conclusion than the stated premise; the freedom of fantasy than the chain of present circumstances!”
In a time of fake news and culture wars, where sickly saplings of truth are meticulously into unimaginably twisted proclamations, Fisk’s brand of convincing ‘what-if’ realities linger in the mind with a resonating freshness.
With artistic covers that strangely haven’t particularly aged – Nicholas Fisk’s most popular works are widely available second-hand. The most successful – Grinny – is still in print with Hot Key Books. The Nicholas Fisk canon is highly recommended for inquiring minds in Year 6 through to Year 9. There’s little like them in the present-day market, and children who enjoy being forced to imagine, challenge their opinions and consider the what ifs… will enjoy these shorter science fiction novels.
Should we have wall displays in the classroom?
Well-intentioned academic studies with peer-reviewed findings and a high standard of rigours research. often report very precise and nuanced findings.
But something strange can happen when these findings reach a staffroom. Improbable inferences are drawn, convenient straw man arguments are concocted and implausible non-sequiturs are described as research-backed evidence.
For example – wall displays. Over the last month on Twitter, a contingent of opinions announced that wall displays are bad. And there’s been something of a Broo Ha-Ha!
If I ran a study to find out of there was a correlation between teachers who thought displays were a bad idea and teachers who didn’t like putting up, changing or creating displays, what would it show? Would there be a statistical match found between teachers who didn’t possess a staple removal tool and teachers who had presented evidence in staff meetings that wall displays were bad?
Perhaps that’s going too far. I wouldn’t know, because I don’t have the evidence.
But what is the motivation for teachers to decide that colleagues should stop creating wall displays? Does turning a classroom into a puritan, sparse, minimalist space improve the student experience? Is there any evidence to suggest that reducing the possibility of one distraction increases the concentration on the teaching?
An example. I’ll admit it. I was one of those pupils who was often distracted. And I did look at the wall displays and the objects in the classroom. I can describe in detail my form room in 1984, the geography room in 1986, the german greetings and posters on the wall of the German room in 1990 – including King Ludwig’s castle in Bavaria which I later tracked down and visited as an adult. (All of this, even though I never studied German at school. There are many more memories.
Does that mean I was distracted by the displays? No – and this is why. Because I can also describe in detail the rooms that didn’t have displays or anything interesting in them. I can describe the slow decay of a fly stuck behind the TV screen that was never used in the history room in 1988, the particular chalk stick colour each teacher preferred, I can tell you which doors squeaked and which didn’t in 1987, I could draw you’re a picture of the peeling plasterwork in the English room that looked slightly rude during the spring of 1988, the precise location of the Science teacher’s box of Kleenex tissues in 1989 and piano in Form 4 that had Tippex in place of the ivory on E3 in 1985.
So the question is, would you rather I’d been distracted by those details or instead by potentially useful information on wall displays? Because students that are going to get distracted will simply get distracted by something else if you remove displays.
I’d like to put forward the Concept of positive distraction.
We know that some children are going to be distracted. So can we take advantage of that distraction for a positive educational outcome?
Consider this. Book posters on the walls to promote reading for pleasure. Spelling rules. Behaviour reminders. Timetables. The wonderful What on earth wallcharts by Christopher Lloyd, literary characters displayed around the classroom as life-sized card standups.
So what is the evidence to suggest displays are bad? Nearly all the noise derives from one small study in the USA with 24 kindergarten pupils being taught 6 short science lessons on new topics. They were then tested after the 6 sessions. (Kindergarten or K is equivalent to year 1 age pupils, but is the first year of formal education – so learning expectations are more in line with Reception, certainly at the start of the year. There’s a link to the study in the show notes.
So how reliable is this? Note, pupils in K (5-6-year-olds) in the USA do not routinely experience formal testing. This might well have been the first test of this type they had experienced.
Delving further into the study, it also becomes clear that neither the decorated classroom nor the undecorated classroom was the pupils ‘homeroom’ – ie the classroom base they were familiar with. It’s also not clear, whether the student’s normal teacher delivered the lessons, and if the delivery across two control groups was to be scientifically fair, it seems likely it was not the regular teacher. Remember these are 5-6-year-olds working at Reception level. How disruptive is that?
Now I must be clear on this. I don’t blame the impact of the study in the UK on the authors of the study. Lead author Anna Fisher said: that additional research is needed to know what effect the classroom visual environment has on children’s attention and learning in real classrooms … Therefore, I would suggest that instead of removing all decorations, teachers should consider whether some of their visual displays may be distracting to young children.”
This is all fair comment. It’s sensible and limited advice from a small-scale study.
But this one study has been translated by senior leaders in some schools I’ve seen into a binary contention that all displays are bad. Displays detract from teaching. Displays must be removed in both primary and secondary classrooms. And even we must have a no display policy. There’s an article on Teachwire that proclaims that displays for 12-year-olds in Year 7 are a “waste of time” and should be torn down – all underpinned by this same small study carried out in a very different education system with 5-year-olds.
And there are even consultants offering expensive courses on how to ‘zen’ your classroom to make it free from distractions.
Consider the motivation of the original study versus the motivation of those who seek to use it to underpin policy. Could it be that some SLT teachers don’t want the hassle of putting up displays? Might it be that the exacting wall display policies from 20 or 30 years ago are too much work or too much expense, and schools just want to save time, money and effort? Who knows.
Now why I am talking about this on a children’s literature podcast? Because during my 20 teaching of classroom teaching, posts and displays had a huge impact on reading. How do I know this? Because the books displayed on posters, and in displays were taken out of the library, read and reviewed more than any others. And these weren’t the books pushed in library sessions, book tastings or teacher recommendations – they were simply advertised in the form of posters on the wall, reviews on wall displays, cardboard cut-out characters – sometimes lifesized and outward-facing book covers on the shelves. The pupils had to seek out and borrow the physical books, and they did – year on year.
There are so many variables in teaching a class over the course of a year, the children, their circumstances, the teachers, development, and pupil behaviour. The variables and how they interact and change is almost innumerable. A wall is just one of these factors. And when it comes to analysing and predicting the outcomes of all the knowns and unknowns, the more powerful intelligence out there is still the classroom teacher. I think schools need to relearn the art of trusting the teachers they employ when it comes to learning spaces and how to tailor them to the children they teach.
If I want to pimp my plasterboard with purple metallic bordette with sparkles, that should be my right as an educator. Especially since more often than not, I’ll be footing the bill. The sparkles are a custom extra, by the way. Hard to find. And as for the lilac milskin roll with translucent shimmer, good luck finding that after I secreted the remaining rolls in a secret under-cupboard compartment.
Also, Surely wall displays are a form of art. What is art? Shouldn’t we appreciate our classrooms? Shouldn’t examples of creative skill, imagination or knowledge be celebrated?
How can a puritan cell of four white walls be more conducive to enthusiastic teaching than a lively and loved learning space? When children take ownership and care about the classroom, surely they are more likely to own and care about their learning.
After all, if we shouldn’t look at art, Why should we look at anything?
Episode 2 chapter markers
- A rundown of recent book post.
- Top 30 recommended children’s and YA books coming out in August 2022.
- A blast from the past. We time travel to a second-hand bookshop and profile children’s adventure author Nicholas Fisk.
Episode 2 credits
To see full details of licensing information, creative commons, GNU license credits and other attributions that apply to every episode of this podcast, see our School Reading List podcast credits information page.
Credits specific to this episode
- Background classical music sourced from https://www.chosic.com , licensed under CC Public Domain: https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/ – Mozart – Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492 by Mozart – https://www.chosic.com/download-audio/25961/
Ask us a question | Leave us a voicemail shout-out
Click the button below to leave us a voicemail via Skype, if you would like to ask a question for one of our listener’s messages slots, leave a shout-out or be featured in a future episode.
Buy me a coffee
If you found this free podcast useful and you would like to help – please consider a donation through the ‘Buy Me a Coffee’ service. Thanks.