The following article was published in Teaching English, Issue 14: Summer 2017
Nottingham – where this summer’s NATE Conference will be held – has been named a UNESCO City of Literature. David Belbin explains how the project aims to boost literacy in the city, and introduces the digital comic Dawn of the Unread, one of the ways in which the city hopes to bring Nottingham writers to a new generation, and encourage other cities to celebrate their local authors.
UNESCO’s World Cities of Literature is a prestigious network for cities that combine literary heritage with outstanding present day creative activity. An author and educationalist, I chair the company that Nottingham set up to bid for the status and run the organisation should we win. City of Lit is a permanent designation. Few of us expected us to achieve accreditation at the first attempt. Fundamental to our surprising success was the company’s commitment to an area where we acknowledged the city was failing: literacy.
One of our board’s first big decisions was to become an educational charity. Nottingham has lots of great writing and literary events but, partly because our council area consists largely of the inner city and former council estates rather than the wider city, it also has below-average literacy rates. A year ago, when I attended an annual get-together of world cities of literature, I asked the others how they tackled literacy issues. I was surprised by the answer. They didn’t. Those who’d considered literacy had come to the conclusion that it was just too hard.
Literature and Literacy
We won UNESCO status in December 2015, making us one of a total of 20 World Cities of Literature. Within six months, we had raised enough money (via a partnership between the city council and our two universities) to hire a director. The City of Literature quickly became involved in the city council’s mission to improve literacy. We are a small organisation but wanted to act a hub for the city’s literacy efforts.
Dawn of the Unread: the background
The USP of our UNESCO bid was the city’s strength in digital innovation. In particular, our bid talked about Dawn of the Unread, an online digital project by James Walker and Paul Fillingham, which used comics to bring Nottingham’s literary legends to a new generation.
James is a focused force of imagination who, in addition to teaching and writing, is the literary editor of local free monthly paper, LeftLion. He came up with the idea of Dawn of the Unread, raised the money (largely from Arts Council England), then put together combinations of writers and artists who ranged from their sixties to their teens.
The comics featured fifteen stories, published in the traditional monthly fashion. Playwright Michael Eaton got the most distinguished partner, artist Eddie Campbell (best known for illustrating Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper opus, From Hell). Campbell’s is one of a huge array of styles that range from former Judge Dredd artist Gary Erskine to illustrator Corrina Rothwell’s quirky figures and collages.
Sometimes James suggested the subject, but many writers chose their own. I, for example, wrote about my late friend and neighbour, the prolific novelist, Stanley Middleton, who won the Booker Prize for Holiday in 1974. As the story developed, I also included writers who had passed through Nottingham, like Graham Greene and JM Barrie, who found his inspiration for Peter Pan here. After his death, I inherited many of Stanley’s bookcases, and I ended the script with a set of shelves holding one book by every Nottingham novelist I knew of. Hence the title, Shelves.
James Walker paired me with eighteen-year-old Ella Joyce (daughter of novelist Graham, who I worked with on NTU’s MA in Creative Writing until his 2013 death), She did a fine, painterly job and is now studying Fine Art at Ruskin. Novelist Alison Moore (The Lighthouse) was paired with Corina Rothwell to portray Mary (The Spider and the Fly) Howitt. Nicola Monaghan (The Killing Jar) had her take on Hitchcock screenwriter (and wife) Alma Reville, illustrated by Judit Ferencz. Artist Conor Boyle drew poet Panya Banjoko’s story about George Africanus, Cartoonist John (Brick) Clarke came up with the art for his own story.
The Original Concept: Dawn of the Unread, libraries and reluctant readers
Library closures were what inspired James to start Dawn of the Unread. Its first story was published on National Libraries Day in 2014. Paul Fillingham did the digital formatting. Dawn of the Unread’s website is, in part, an interactive experience. When you read the comic on a tablet or computer, you can go off on tangents, choosing your journey. There are embedded essays and videos, accessed by clicking on star icons that appear, together with web-links, on many pages. 120 students from Nottingham Trent University were involved with the project, which, in 2015, won first prize for Teaching Excellence at the Guardian’s education awards (it was also shortlisted by The Times education awards).
Underground legend Hunt Emerson illustrated DH Lawrence – Zombie Hunter. Zombies were there to draw the target audience (teenagers, and, in particular, reluctant readers) in. The series title Dawn of the Unread suggested that writers from the past are revived to help us in the present day. Zombies are used as a narrative conceit to raise awareness of what happens when people stop reading books. There were plenty of other sweetners. Poet Andy Croft, for instance, came up with Byron Clough, pairing two city legends, while Young Adult author Alan Gibbons managed to bring together our most famous children’s author, Geoffrey Trease, with Robin Hood.
Taking the book into schools
While the stories were being published, James, along with some of the authors and illustrators, went into schools to talk about Dawn of the Unread. He was committed to producing a book of the stories which could get into schools and libraries. By the project’s end, however, there was little money left. Publishing a book, even if you have much of the content, is a time-consuming business. This is where the City of Literature came in.
James – a former City of Lit board member – gifted us the educational rights to Dawn of the Unread. He and I met with Spokesman Books, the Nottingham-based publishing arm of the Bertrand Russell Peace foundation. We agreed to jointly publish the book. The City of Lit devoted several thousand pounds from our Arts Council start-up grant towards printing costs. We also funded a development worker to go into schools, talk to teachers and look at how to use the book with students.
The book was published last November and free copies sent to all city libraries. We held back on sending it to schools until our strategy was in place. Rebecca Goldsmith’s brief was to develop resources for using Dawn of the Unread in schools and find ways to encourage schools and other places to make use of the book and website. We want to encourage schools to use the stories as a bridge between lessons, school libraries and independent reading. Teachers have been enthused about how the stories can act as a transition text from KS3 to KS4. We will shortly be producing a sample scheme of work with activity sheets, quizzes and interactive content that can be tailored to a school’s curriculum.
Using Dawn of the Unread
Dawn of the Unread: the book provides all sorts of possibilities, most of which aren’t tied to its Nottingham content. It can, for instance, be used as a springboard for developing research into local landmarks and, indeed, dialect; as a starting point for discussions of language and register; and as a basis for numerous kinds of creative writing activity. The free availability of the digital version means that students can access it at home (with those additional starred embeds) and teachers can display it onscreen while students look at the book or a tablet.
Rebecca and Sandeep Mahal, director of the City of Literature, will be speaking at this year’s NATE conference in Nottingham. We hope to encourage teachers to use the book and its accompanying website in schools and give us their ideas about the best way to do this. One way, of course, is to get students exploring the literary heritage of their own area and create comics which use that heritage, with the DotU approach as a model. Students can make links with other cities of literature. We’d like to see DotU create paid work for authors and artists in schools.
Nottingham sums up its UNESCO mission in six words: building a better world with words. Part of that mission is to share work with the world. We have sent copies of the book to other cities of literature. We hope that our book will ensure Dawn of the Unread’s legacy: creating comics that celebrate literature, literacy, libraries and the written word.
Dawn of the Unread may be read online at www.dawnoftheunread.com. The Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature site is www.nottinghamcityofliterature.com. James Walker’s article on Dawn of the Unread and literacy can be found at leftlion.co.uk
David Belbin is a novelist and Chair of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. His website is www.davidbelbin.com Twitter: @DBelbin