#MondayBlogs DAWN OF THE UNREAD Nottingham: City of Literature, City of Literacy

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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.  

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David Belbin in issue 14. Artist: Ella Joyce

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

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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

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Issue 11: Books and Bowstrings featured Geoffrey Trease and Robin Hood. 

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.

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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

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Artwork Izaak Bosman 

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   

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#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.

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#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

#Mondayblogs NTU’s ‘Students in Classrooms’ Mentoring Scheme

 

In this first of four guest blogs, Nottingham Trent University student James Wood shares his experience of mentoring in schools and why he believes this can help the development of literacy skills.

Nottingham is a city which has been struggling with literacy levels and attainment over the last few years, with many children in Nottingham living in relative poverty. According to Nottinghamshire County Council in 2014, 17.1% of children in Nottinghamshire were living in poverty. This means 27,920 children aged 0-19. Work needs to be done to help improve education and access to learning and literacy for pupils, and mentoring is a great way to do this.

Mentoring can be great for encouraging development in pupils through one-to-one sessions. By taking the time to privately mentor pupils, a great deal can be discovered about the way that individuals learn, and sessions can be tailored to help improve their skills, attainment and educational experience in a way that suits them best.

In the last few years Nottingham Trent University has set up a scheme in order to encourage pupil’s development in literacy, academic subjects and skills based development through mentoring in local schools. The mentoring scheme also aims to create an awareness of the benefits of higher education and encourage pupils to pursue university, apprenticeships, sixth form or college. I have been lucky enough to be a member of this scheme for the last two years.

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Mentoring can help pupils to find out the best way for them to read, revise, work and learn. 

The scheme involves each mentor tutoring four pupils in local Nottingham schools for one hour a week each in a variety of academic and personal skills subjects. I have sessions in subjects such as CV building, dealing with stress, organisation, revision skills, speech skills, aspirations, higher education and GCSE topics.  Planning is required for each session to ensure it runs smoothly and meets the specific needs of individuals.

Through this scheme I have realised the importance of mentoring in education to schools and children’s development. And for good reason! Mentors from higher education backgrounds bring recent experiences of school life that are relatable to the mentee, allowing them to connect with their mentor better than with many teachers. University students understand the hardship of the current education system, as well as the life of a pupil, which is appreciated, as it reassures these young people that university students can relate to their situation.

However, some pupils may feel threatened by someone from university, they may see successful students doing a degree as a nerd or ‘one of those’. These pupils feel like they are very different to their university mentors and so may feel alienated. However, schemes such as Nottingham Trent’s ‘Students in Classrooms’ can help to promote the relationship and similarities between mentors from university backgrounds and mentees. I have mentored students with behaviour problems, something I have never had, but the pupils can relate to me in others ways, as I understand the pressures and stresses of school life. Through conversations with me they have hopefully come to realise how interesting and exciting university life is, often asking questions about what it is like to study a degree, the costs, what it is like to live on my own or pay rent, as well as how I got to university.

In schools there isn’t much time prioritised for developing non-academic skills. Instead, teachers tend to focus more on writing, reading, maths and scientific skills. Although teachers do improve pupil’s literacy skills, in certain cases teachers find it hard to encourage reading. Mentors, who are not constrained by performance statistics and the everyday pressures expected of a teacher, are able to offer support to pupils that goes beyond the curriculum.

Mentors can use their own experiences to suggest reading that pupils may enjoy, such as the Dawn of the Unread comic book series which isn’t on the curriculum, but which offers snippets into the lives of local literary figures, with the aim of encouraging pupils to go out and discover more about these writers for themselves.For example, I had one student who likes to write his own poetry and wants to write books, so I recommended he read some romanticist and modernist poetry as well as get some experience in what good literature looks like by reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Mentors can also pass on and demonstrate the skills they have developed and can use in everyday and working life, which will encourage pupils that reading a wide variety of books, is massively beneficial.

After two years of working in schools I firmly believe that mentoring can massively improve individual student’s attainment levels and literacy skills, as well as encourage reading. Therefore, I feel it is important and should be co-operated more into the education system, not just in Nottingham, but in other areas in which attainment and literacy levels are low, or access to satisfactory education is limited.

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FURTHER READING

#MondayBlogs Nottingham’s Big City Read

Big City Read is a national initiative where a city is encouraged to select one book and encourage the public to read it together. The underlining intention is to combat illiteracy, and bring reading to those who might otherwise miss out. The UKs appalling literacy statistics, combined with a survey that found 35% of boys no longer find reading interesting, were a driving force behind the creation of Dawn of the Unread. So, the City Read is a project I fully endorse.

I’ve been asked numerous times what my favourite book of all time is and I always reply, I’ll tell you on my deathbed when I’ve read a few more. It’s an impossible question to answer. So selecting a book that represents your city is equally problematic. In 2013 Bristol and Glastonbury chose Gavin Extence’s Somerset-based novel The Universe Versus Alex Woods. It’s notoriously difficult for debut authors to get the same kind of media exposure as established authors and so was a great way to help kickstart his career. This resulted in 1,000 free books being distributed. The publisher Hodder and Stoughton benefitted from the additional publicity and audience engagement by giving out free copies to people for the most imaginative readers feedback. There was also book groups created at libraries, a twitter account (@thingsalexknows) as well as a dedicated website. The book would go on to be a Richard and Judy Summer Book Read as well as win Waterstones 11 literary prize.

This year London opted for Ben Aaronvitch’s Rivers of London which was published in 2011. It features Peter Grant, a young police officer who encounters a ghost and is later drafted into a specialist Met unit that deals with magic and the supernatural. To promote the book, Aaronvitch visited 33 libraries (one for each borough) in 30 days. A blog and map detailed this adventurous book tour and was complimented by an interactive performance from award winning theatre Look Left, who trained wannabe recruits as sorcerer-detectives in Westminster Reference Library. The library is the site of Sir Isaac Newton’s house.

Nottingham has wisely decided to get in on the act thanks to the City of Literature team and is promoting ‘Nottingham Stories’, in conjunction with Five Leaves Bookshop; Bromley House Library and Nottingham Writers’ Studio. This is a short story collection showcasing seven local writers, two of whom have produced comics in our serial: Alison Moore (issue 13: Will You Walk Into My Parlour) and John ‘Brick’ Clark (Issue 2: My Long Walk With Slav). The others writers are: John Harvey; Shreya Sen Handley; Megan Taylor; Paula Rawsthorne; as well as a short story from the late Alan Sillitoe, specially selected by his widow, Ruth Fainlight. Alan, of course, features in my contribution to Issue 12: For It Was Saturday Night.

There will be a dedicated website where readers can share their stories or submit their own take on Nottingham life. The authors will also be reading their stories and offering writing workshops at schools, prisons, reading groups, community centres, libraries and a wide range of other venues. You can catch all of the writers at Lowdham Book Festival in June; with Nicola Monaghan reading the Sillitoe story.

John Harvey, author of the Resnick series , said: “Any way of getting good writing, good stories into the hands of new readers has to be a good thing, surely? And the Big City Read should do exactly that. And not simply good stories, but stories, by and large, about the city, written by people who live, or have lived there and who know it differently but know it well. I was chuffed to be asked to take part; just as I’ll be chuffed to be there in print alongside Alison, John, Megan, Paula, Shreya and the indomitable spirit of Alan Sillitoe.”

John Harvey

John Harvey

Defining Nottingham as a city is difficult. It’s traditionally a factory city but now a lot of the large employers have left, as have the communities that got flattened during inner city developments during the 60s and 70s. We’ve never been particularly good at bigging ourselves up either, though we have no problem telling others what they’re doing wrong. We’re built on sandstone, which is what made us master breweries before other cities. But now it’s coffeeshop chains that dominate the horizon. And then there’s our multiculturalism, with Pakistan and Poland accounting for our highest levels of immigration. How do you define a schizophrenic, contradictory city like this? Perhaps short stories are a good start…

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