Children get involved in publishing project

Publisher Verna Wilkins has worked on a number of projects where children have been involved in creating a published picture book. Here, she tells us more about her latest project with children, A Visit to City Farm.

Verna writes: 'A Visit to City Farm is the third picture book I have made with children.

The first, Abdi's day, resulted from a call from Joy Collins, Head of EMAS (The Ethnic Minority Achievement Services), Harrow. Producing this book was part of a bigger Harrow-wide project called Narrowing the Gap, to improve attainment in English for disadvantaged children. A meeting with the steering group identified a dearth of picture books with images of Somali children and families.

Before writing the story, I consulted Somali parents to acquire details of family life. I spoke to the children who supplied the details of how a typical English school trip worked, as my experience of going to the beach in the Caribbean was very different. I named the main protagonist Hassan, which they changed to Abdi. "Abdi is a cool name!" I was informed. They read the story to an audience of parents and dignitaries at the book launch at the main Harrow Library.

The second book we created with children was A Very Busy Day. I was invited to speak at a Teachers' Conference in Masindi, Uganda, by the education charity Redearth Foundation. There was a lack of books of any sort in the classrooms I visited and the very few donated books had white images.

I offered to write a story and kept in constant contact by email with Emmanuel Odeya, the teacher, as the work progressed. Again, the children were very involved and read and collaborated on the text. I had included a dog running across a rugged road causing an old man to fall off his laden bicycle. I was told in no uncertain terms that they did not have a problem with dogs but with goats, and I should make that a herd and not just one goat.

A recent report from Uganda states that A very busy day is now being used in Education Programmes by many schools throughout Uganda.

Speaking at a Brent Teachers' Conference, two years ago, I described my work with Harrow and my visit to Uganda. I showed the two books, explained how the children had participated and what we had all learned from the experience. The English coordinator for Chalkhill School in Wembley, Bethan Mentore, asked me to speak with the head, Rose Ashton. They agreed that it would be a good idea for their school to be involved in such a project.

A visit to City Farm began with a whole school assembly participating in What's in a Book. This is an illustrated workshop that demystifies the entire process of how a book is made, from the first scribblings to the finished product. The demonstration of the colour separations on huge sheets showing how each colour is superimposed to make the finished product, brought gasps of wonder and the boys gathered around to have a look at photos of the huge printing presses which spit out hundreds of sheets by the minute.

Chalkhill school decided they wanted a picture book for Year 1 and Reception children and chose the children of Y5 to work with us: myself, Simona Sideri as chief editor to the Year 5 junior editors, and Karin Littlewood, chosen by the staff as illustrator.

The project involved the Y5s considering the needs of the younger children. One group suggested we put rhymes in the text. "Little ones like nursery rhymes and stuff", I was informed. The music teacher was inspired and came on board, putting the rhymes to music so the story could become a performance.

However, when asked to name the characters in the book, every child put English names to all the characters even though there were very few children of English heritage among them. They had to be actively encouraged to include names like theirs. It helped when a girl picked up Abdi's day and found her name, Samira, in it. With both hands covering her cheeks, she could hardly express her joy.

Karin visited and did workshops demonstrating how she worked her illustrations with the text. Simona then organised the entire editing programme. It was an incredible and enjoyable journey, culminating in he pupils performing at the launch of the book at Wembley Civic Centre to 150 invited guests.'

Letterbox Library, says:

'What a special book! A wonderfully UK-specific, thoroughly relatable story of a group of children and teachers out on a city farm trip. Littlewood’s warm, sweeping illustrations take in alpacas, pheasants, lambs, ponies and great big slumbering pigs. There are little bursts of rhymes, perfect for children to join in with – 'Cows mooing, Llamas chewing'; a fact box sorts out those tricky differences between lambs, ewes and rams; the comical narrative perfectly captures the organised chaos and energy of a school day trip.

85% of the pupils at Chalkhill Primary have English as an additional language; the rich multicultural makeup of this school has been translated seamlessly into this book, so it's no wonder that the finished product has, in the words of the school's head, helped "develop a strong sense of identity and belonging".

The creation of this book and the final, high quality finish is diversity in action. Firetree books don't just talk, they really are in the business of enabling children to see themselves through fabulous stories.

28/11/2016Children get involved in publishing project
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