#30WildBooks to read in June

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Dawn of the Unread was created in 2014 to raise awareness of Nottingham’s local literary history and to support libraries. We were concerned at some very alarming statistics from the OECD that positioned England as being the 22nd most illiterate country out of 24 industrialised nations. The Literacy Trust supported these findings, declaring 35% of boys found books boring. For this reason we positioned illiteracy as a form of child abuse in our manifesto because there is a strong relationship between literacy and social outcomes. Those who don’t read are less likely to become home owners, vote, or, most worrying of all, have a sense of trust in society. The latest report from the Literacy Trust suggests this trend is getting worse, with a major drop in reading for pleasure after primary school.

We love books and we won’t give up encouraging people of all ages to read which is why we are throwing our full support behind a reading campaign with similarly worthwhile principles. Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust are hoping to increase our understanding of the value of nature and issues facing wildlife by suggesting 30 books to read throughout June.

Speaking about the initiative, Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s Audience Development Manager Trish Evans said: “Nottinghamshire is rich in literature heritage and creative literature programmes. We have links to world renowned writers such as Byron and DH Lawrence, celebrated events such as the Lowdham Book festival and vibrant popup poetry events across our county. With Nottingham also being designated as  UNESCO City of Literature we thought the time was write to celebrate nature writing and we believe that 30 Days Wild gives us a unique platform to explore the diversity and power of the genre.”

The list includes two of my all-time favourite books. Moby Dick by Herman Melville was once described by D.H. Lawrence as “the greatest book of the sea ever written”. One strong theme running through the book is perception, none more so in “The Doubloon” chapter where the personality of crew members determines how they perceive the Spanish coin. The wonderfully imaginative The Life of Pi by Yann Martel sees a young Indian boy called Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel stranded on a boat with a Bengal Tiger, Hyena, Zebra and Orangutan. His survival is dependent on his understanding and acceptance of the nature of these animals. Underpinning this adventurous spiritual narrative is an exploration of the relativity of truth as the reader has to decide whether events are true or not.

What both of these books do is challenge our belief systems. They ask us to think about where our ideas come from and the consequences of perceiving life from these perspectives. This is a pertinent moral in terms of conservation as our behaviour is having a profound impact on the environment. At the time of writing it looks as if Donald Trump is ready to withdraw from the Paris Climate agreement, convincing himself that America does not have to reduce its carbon emissions. This would be disastrous for global warming and in turn wildlife (as well as humans!). But if you convince yourself that these things don’t matter, you have the freedom to do as you like. Like the Life of Pi, we chose which narratives we want to believe.

The book I will be reading in June is A Sky Full of Birds by Matt Merritt. I’ve met Matt a few times during my previous tenure as Chair of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio and I follow him on Twitter. This project gives me an excuse to read his latest book. I spend a lot of my life staring into a screen creating digital literature projects so I try to offset this with walks in the wilderness whenever I can. On one such excursion I was circled by two swallows who darted around my head, making me aware of their presence. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I want to learn more about swallows and other birds and the #30wildbooks has given me the perfect opportunity to do this.

If you want to get involved, please select a book from the list here and then share your reviews using the #30Wildbooks hashtag on Twitter.

Nottingham Wildlife Trust website

#MondayBlogs Bringing literature back into social media zombies lives

In his fourth guest blog, James Wood discusses how we can use Social Media and digital interaction as a new platform for literacy development.

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In my last blog I talked about how interactive media might be effecting literacy skills and becoming a problem of addiction for people. Well, what if I told you that, in some ways, it could actually be very beneficial for literacy skills as well? The Dawn of the Unread series has a YouTube channel with over 50 videos that include ‘how to create a comic’, and the Nottingham essay series. The app includes games and competitions that inspire proactive reading in young people. Moreover, the social media presence of Dawn of the Unread on Facebook, Twitter, Storify, Tumblr and, most recently, on Instagram (thanks to placement student Connie Adams) aim to have a positive effect on literacy levels. In using a wide variety of formats and platforms, the project offers numerous access points to all types of readers. The instagram blogs, for example, have a small synopsis under each image, so that education operates in small incremental ways. Used constructively, social media can create gateways into reading.

Dawn of the Unread’s online comics are an example of how literature is increasingly being published online and utilises interaction to enhance learning and concentration on reading. This use of the online world to publish books and texts of all kinds is dramatically on the increase. Digital downloads are a massive part of authorship and publication now, and by encouraging this, writers can broaden their reach and develop their own audiences. The interactive world is a massive part of the future, so why shouldn’t authors use it to their advantage? It’s great for engaging people who don’t often read, to be pulled in by online publications that interest them. It’s becoming increasingly easy to share and publish online, as well as advertise.

However, as my last blog suggested, some interactive media is a hindrance for literacy development, such as those cat videos that feed us with a rush of Dopamine! So what can be done to social media so that it educates and develops literacy skills?

Well for starters, adding more educational posts to social media sites, or even creating a bespoke social media site could help better direct learning. There may be room within the market for a kind of hybrid educational tool that blends the principles of Google scholar… but on Facebook. This will give online users the chance to filter their social media experiences to make them more educationally beneficial.

Another way interactive media could be used to educate young people and develop their literacy skills, is through games. Large numbers of young people play computer games or own a gaming console. This entertainment system could be adapted online to create games that are perfect for learning yet fun, without making the player feel they are just for educational purposes. This is an idea that has already been experimented with, for example the Dawn of the Unread app originally used games to encourage reading and set readers tasks that sent them across the city. (Now this functionality has been stripped out and the app just provides information on the literary figures featured in the comic.)

Pokemon Go is a game that many young people enjoy and spend many hours on, and the reason for this is they get a sense of achievement when they catch and build up their collection of Pokemon. Well what if a game could be created that produces a sense of achievement in ticking off books that you have read, that the game or app recommends? To find out more about how gaming is beneficial for learning and literacy, follow scholar and author James Paul Mcgee’s work or read his book What Video Games Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy.

Using rewards which still provide that rush of Dopamine is another way the interactive world can encourage reading. Like with games, social media websites could provide online competitions for young people, such as taking a photo of you reading a book in an interesting place, writing a 100 word short story in which the winner gets their work shared and published, or other incentives. Or how about the reward of reading itself? Social media could encourage reading by rewarding young people for finishing a book, and online software could work to match young people to their literacy skill level so that they enjoy reading and develop at the same time. I once led a year 7 reading scheme which aimed to do that same thing. After a book was read by a pupil, they did an online quiz which helped to tailor individuals to their literacy level, and I saw students more engaged in reading as they were rewarded with a sense of accomplishment when they finished a book and got to move up a grade in difficulty as well as being merited by teachers for doing so.

Another problem is books are ‘going out of fashion’. However, some books such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, have always been in fashion, why is this? Well, it appeals to young people and creates a fan base as well as a trend in itself. The more time we spend online, the more we turn to ‘trending’ topics in order to help direct our leisure and learning. By sharing pictures of yourself reading on social media sites this would help to normalise reading and potentially help to make it a more attractive option for leisure. The hashtag #Fridayreads on Twitter is one such way in which readers from around the world are able to share their favourite books.

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Dawn of the Unread editor James Walker uses #FridayReads to keep a record of books he’s reading and posts a favourite quote from the book.

By using some of these methods it might be possible to re-established reading on these digital platforms. Some sites are already starting to do this. The digital world offers an infinite array of distractions, all vying for our attention. Therefore, it’s important that we find ways of scaffolding learning to help direct younger readers. Social media is full of words, people write posts, and others read those posts, it could even be argued that people are reading and writing more than ever, albeit in byte-sized chunks. But what is the nature of what they are reading? In the opinion of some, the content of social media websites is not educational. As someone who has helped mentor pupils in schools, I believe that tailoring social media experiences to become more academic, yet fun, is really important for their intellectual and emotional development. Interactive media is a major part of today’s society, and so we should explore ways to harness this engagement to help develop literacy levels. Dawn of the Unread editor James Walker is so appalled at literacy levels in the UK he described them as “a form of child abuse” in the project manifesto. If you have ideas on how we can address this together, or want to respond to this or other posts, please leave a comment. We are always listening.

Further reading:

#Mondayblogs The importance of being a reader

In his second guest blog James Wood, a voluntary reading mentor in schools, explains why he believes reading is so important to children’s development.

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In issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread we see a teenage boy in Nottingham bored of reading and unwilling to pay much for a book, but as soon as he discovers there are stories set in his home city, he is hooked on reading. This youth is also on his mobile phone, engaged in a world that is often seen to be annihilating serious reading once children reach adolescence. In today’s society, children and young adults spend more time reading snippets of information, such as skimming through online articles, status updates, and social media messages. This has led to concerns that millennials are finding it harder to engage with ‘deep’ reading, which has clear implications for our ability to concentrate.

Literacy levels in the UK have been seen to improve in recent years according to the National Literacy Trust, with roughly 86% of eleven year olds meeting a level 4 target in reading, with a lower 67% in writing. Although these levels do seem fairly good, its clear work is still needed to increase pupils reading and writing skills. In Nottingham, the statistics are a cause for worry, with only 77% of pupils gaining a level four or higher in level two SATs, the worst ranked city in the East Midlands with 79% being the average. This is also a national problem. Six out of ten teenagers in Nottingham are leaving school without five A* to C GCSE grades, including English and maths.

To help address this issue, Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature team has commissioned Rebecca Goldsmith, a freelance consultant, to develop Dawn of the Unread as an engagement tool for KS3 level. Editor James Walker said: “Legacy is the most important factor I take into consideration when putting together a project. Dawn of the Unread was the beginning of a conversation about the importance of reading, and the role of libraries and bookshops in the 21st century. To know that it is now being utilised to explicitly address literacy levels is something I am intensely proud of. Rebecca is absolutely perfect for this role given her previous work with organisations such as First Story.”

Another issue facing literacy levels in Nottingham is that there are less publishers in the Midlands than many other areas of the country as the UK book industry statistics 2015 suggest. The ambiguity of the future for Angel Row Library is another concern, after the selling off of the Central Library site in December 2016. But has this really got anything to do with the levels of people reading? According to the National Literacy Trust it is difficult to measure weather children today are reading less than in the past, as although literacy levels are on the increase, children don’t seem to read so much for enjoyment, but this is hard to prove. What seems clear is that it is becoming harder to engage pupils in reading inside and outside the classroom environment. I was involved in a reading scheme for Year 7’s a few years ago while studying my A levels, I was surprised how difficult it was to get children to concentrate on reading books. The children seemed more interested in the use of technology such as using social media and playing games on consoles and tablets. The interactive world is replacing books, this means new ways need to be found to engage children in literacy and reading. Schemes such as Dawn of the Unread work to achieve this by offering multiple ways into the text through a comic serial, embedded content, YouTube videos, an App, and of course, a physical book.

So why is reading so important? Well firstly, the 21st century, although an interactive world, still requires people to be literate. Information online is still published using words, is it not? With the exception of videos (which often still includes subtitles or information), the interactive world requires people to be more literate than ever. This is one reason why schools use online resources so much now in order to prepare students to be able to use the interactive world while reading and learning. Moreover, reading stimulates the mind, creates ideas, and helps the imagination to thrive, as well as teaching people in a variety of ways. Those who are illiterate in the 21st century have little or no chance of success, however even those who don’t make an effort to read but are still literate have little chance of doing particularly well, reading is a major part of 21st century life. Language structures our world and so is clearly extremely important for children to learn and develop through reading.

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Social media and the online world are slowly replacing the physical world of reading – as this blog is testament to. This makes good literacy skills more important than ever in an interactive world. Every waking moment of our lives involves language and literacy. We use the internet to search and learn, we need language and good literacy skills in order to use it successfully.

Although all these things are of extremely high importance, one thing is often overlooked in the 21st century… reading provides children and adults with recreation and escapism from the constantly bustling and busy modern world. Reading teaches us about the world through non-fiction books.

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Fictional reading however provides imagination and escapism that is essential for dealing with stress, and creates enjoyment and entertainment. Reading isn’t only essential for learning and being literate, it is also essential for its positive effect on the brain by stimulating imagination, and its effect as a relaxing, recreational form of entertainment.

Relevant links:

#MondayBlogs Literacy – A Journey to Justice

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One year ago I attended a meeting at the Galleries of Justice with 25 people about a project called Journey to Justice (JtoJ). The day was planned with our partners: Sharon Monteith, Founding Co-director of Centre for Research in Race and Rights (C3R), Rosemary Pearce then of C3R and Bev Baker (Senior Curator and Archivist at GOJ), Tim Desmond (CEO of GOJ) and Midlands 3 Cities with PhD student Scott Weightman, JtoJ local organiser.

The remit of JtoJ is “to inspire and empower people to take action for social justice through learning about human rights movements.” This voluntary organisation initially focussed on the US civil rights movement, taking Dr. Martin Luther King’s timeless message of solidarity, “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” as their mantra. The first major project of JtoJ was a touring exhibition that focussed on the principles of the U.S civil rights movement. This has slowly developed and spread around the globe, linking with other activists to promote and educate about issues that specifically relate to local communities.

We were shown case studies of how other cities had got involved and I was quite taken by the scope and ambition of the project, particularly the ease with which organisations were able to collaborate and promote various causes. Nottingham, as a former ‘factory city’ with a real mix of identities and ethnicities, has a long history of activism so we were pretty spoilt for choice when trying to find causes we could promote. Some of the issues raised were: Nottingham’s refugee history; Streetwise Opera – homeless and non-homeless performers; Sash (Salaam Shalom) a Muslim/Jewish weekly soup kitchen and food bank; October Dialogues – Black History; Polish homeless men project; History of the 1958 race riots and colour bar; Child Migrant Trust HQ in Nottingham; Radical Walks; Women’s History Group; Bread and Roses Theatre group; Creating a school and FE resource packs; Nottingham’s first UK Black Lives Matter chapter. I was there as a representative of Nottingham UNESCO city of literature and Dawn of the Unread.

When Dawn of the Unread was created in 2014 I positioned illiteracy as a form of child abuse. Therefore, it is a human rights issue to me. It has been proven through countless research that an inability to read or write has profound effects upon a person’s life from their ‘trust’ in society to whether they become a home owner. Nottingham is below the regional and national average for literacy levels and so there is additional reasons to fight this cause.

Within the Dawn of the Unread comic serial we have championed other identity politics, from the Operative Libraries of the 1800s that empowered workers to self-educate and demands rights from employers to the #readwomen campaign that addressed gender inequalities within publishing. We explored the lack of representation of Black history in our final issue via George Africanus and George Powe, poiting our readers towards the work of Nottingham Black Archives (who were at the JtoJ) event as well as inspirational figures such as Norma Gregory.

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On Friday 24 March, Aly Stoneman  was invited by Bradley Phipps to host a workshop at Galleries of Justice. She was there as a representative of Dawn of the Unread and as a PhD student as part of Midlands 3 Cities. In issue 10 Aly explored the imaginary life of Ms. Hood, updating the Hood legend to a modern setting where activists are protesting at fracking and the greed of banks. Written as a poem, it takes inspiration from Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife. Of her workshop Aly said:

“The idea was to present a poem and talk a bit about the context of the piece and how it links to present-day social justice issues. Ms Hood seemed a good match, as the poem explores how contemporary social, political and economic situations might create 21st Century ‘Hoods’ and how challenging inequality and marginalization of vulnerable people is as relevant today as it was a thousand years ago. Topics I addressed included authority and anarchism, war, land ownership and the feudal system, race, feminism, education, police brutality, and environmental crisis. Robin Hood may be a myth, but it’s what he stands for that counts: Truth, Freedom and Justice.”

The ability to connect and provoke conversations has been one of the greatest successes of Dawn of the Unread. We have offered small glimpses into the lives of Nottingham’s literary history, created awareness of other organisations through our embedded content, and then left other people to continue the conversations. At the time of Aly’s workshop Rebecca Goldsmith is drafting lesson plans so that schools across Nottingham can use Dawn of the Unread as a learning tool, our student placement James Wood is writing blogs for us and mentoring in schools, Connie Wood is developing and managing our Instagram account, and the recently published book by Spokesman Books has been sent out to libraries and schools across Nottingham as well as UNESCO cities across the globe. And in the background, over many cups of coffee and bus and train journeys, I’ve been putting together Dawn of the Unread II which will be called Whatever People Say I Am. Amelia Sharland has been assisting me with the research. Another journey will begin very soon …

FURTHER READING