This week, Write On! looks at how we can fuel creativity at both ends of the spectrum, with Amy Turtle from The Reading Network explaining how you can donate pre-loved children’s books to schools, spreading the joy of reading, and Hugh Prior + Iesha Denize reporting back from their performance at the Guild Of Experience, Studio 3 Art’s creative approach to providing inspirational activities for the over 55’s.
First up, Amy Turtle at The Reading Network, introduced to Write On! by page editor and Pen to Print regular, Eithne Cullen.
The Reading Network – A Way To Pass On Pre-loved Books To Be Enjoyed Again
We are a growing organisation in Hackney and Islington based around the simple but powerful ambition to circulate children’s books in our local communities. We take them from the homes of those who have enjoyed them, putting them into the hands of families who don’t have adequate access to books.
With backgrounds in primary and secondary education and education welfare, we already knew how special and important children’s books are. But it’s only as a Mum, after a long day with a delightful but demanding toddler, that I realised those ten minutes of bedtime reading, with a small warm body on your lap, are pretty magical, for both parties. Being able to pluck a book from the shelf is a luxury I had taken for granted.
Whether it was something I’d grabbed for 50p in a charity shop, or a well-meaning gift from an auntie, all the children’s books I have hold value. A different image, idea, colour, word, rhyme or viewpoint, gives a new perspective on the world and a starting point for a conversation. What I realised is that children’s books bind the two worlds of education and welfare together. As each page turns, it brings with it a greater sense of well-being, a stillness amidst the clutter of a day and a window onto a world of possibilities waiting to be explored.
It’s no surprise that decades of research has linked childhood reading to future success and is, in fact, a more telling predictor than a family’s socio-economic status. How is it fair that some children are being given this immeasurable advantage in life, but stark book poverty means many more are denied this same chance to change their future?
That sentiment led me to the question of what to do with your children’s books when your child has outgrown them?
For sentimental reasons, I kept a couple of books to go in memory boxes, but was then left with more books than shelves to put them on. I’ve been in a number of London Primary schools and have unfortunately witnessed the sad and depleted book corners children now have access to. I was shocked to learn that, while libraries are a statutory requirement in prisons (a great thing), this is not the case in schools.
So often, it’s the children who need books the most who are not catered for with even an adequate school library, let alone a good one. With budgets tight, books are tired, worn out and rarely refreshed. It seemed obvious to create a network in which parents could clear out their cupboards, pass the books to us and, acting as middle-women, we could then make links with schools who need them.
Our first school in Islington was a referral from a friend and was met with such enthusiasm (in fact, a cheer went up in the staff room) that it was hard to believe this wasn’t something people already do. Receiving pictures of the children reading our 300+ donations was a lovely moment.
“Your book drop could not have come at a better time. There was such excitement in school when the children found the books under the tree and they could not believe that they could actually take the books home to enjoy.” (COLPAI)
The importance of book ownership is central to what we do. Having your own books to read and treasure increases motivation to read. But it’s more than that; books in your home create a connection to a moment in time, they can be a companion on a difficult journey or a way to travel without restrictions. As physical objects, they are both reassuring and comforting; a feeling that only increases the more the book is read.
Alongside the gift of ownership, we hope to create a sense of community around The Reading Network. Of course, nothing in 2020 was straightforward and we quickly realised schools could no longer take in anything from outside and that we would need to change tack. Covid did us a favour, in that it forced us to look at our local communities and find new ways to get the books out to families.
Since then, food banks, community centres, a refuge and the Hackney Health Visitors’ service have all been beneficiaries of the generous donations we receive.
However, we don’t just give out a pile of random books. A library has been created, in an unused cupboard at home, divided by age and genre and we handpick each donation depending on what is required.
Schools tend to be the most specific when asking for donations and it’s been really interesting to understand where their needs lie. Book series are in demand. In the best of these, children are drawn into complex imaginative worlds and engage with characters they care about, while the clever plotting reveals just enough story in each episode to leave them satisfied and still keen to discover more. Reading ‘the next book’ in a series reduces the angst of choosing and the anxiety of trying something new. It’s reassuring for children to know what to expect in a book and feel confident they’ll like it. We tend to receive the series altogether and we try to keep them together for the schools where children can enjoy them as a series.
The response to our work has been extremely positive. Elizabeth House, a multi-purpose community centre in Highbury, now has a regular Reading Network box in its entrance hall.
“The service your charity provides has made a huge difference to our community centre. Parents, children, and a lot of grandparents now come especially to our entrance to pick up books from your donation box. We also have parents dropping off donations of books for the box. The general feeling is that exchanging books saves our residents unnecessary expenses and allows them to offer more exciting reading opportunities for their children and grandchildren. Every day, the box is almost emptied out. We can’t get enough books in to keep up with demand.”
Now that Covid restrictions have been relaxed, we have schools requesting a permanent Book Box in their Reception area, so that parents can dip in when they are there. The challenge for us is keeping the donations flowing in, so that these boxes can be replenished. Social media, word of mouth and community sites such as ‘Nextdoor’ help to spread the word. You can find all our links below.
Now, we hear from H. B. O’Neill and Iesha Denize, Pen to Print and Write On! regulars, who performed together at the finale of the Guild Of Experience event run by Studio 3 Arts.
During the pandemic, Neesha Badhan of Studio3 Arts had a creative approach to providing activities for the over 55’s here in Barking and Dagenham. On the menu was clay work, watercolours, painting to music, dance through Zoom and, more recently, life drawing and graffiti as well as theatre and museum visits across London. There was laughter – no, let me rephrase that – there was hilarity throughout those classes, as participants approached tasks with a wonderful sense of freedom and produced some very impressive art. All the while proving our sense of wonder and curiosity is not age-dependent. Lifelong creativity is not only possible, but ought to be actively encouraged.
Experience can enhance any artistic endeavour. An older mind is not by default a narrower mind. Any assumption that it is only the youth who can turn their imagination into tangible creation, were blown away by the participants, who thoroughly enjoyed expressing themselves. There was enthusiasm, passion, support and a sharing of knowledge and experience in a seamless and selfless way; through a fondly nurtured sense of collaboration and co-creation… a community.
The sense of collaboration evolved further still as we (Iesha and fellow Pen to Print contributor H. B. O’Neill), were commissioned to perform together at the finale of the Guild Of Experience. Our paths had crossed at many a workshop over the years; more recently, we overlapped at the Becontree 100 festival Poetry Takeaway Van. Now, we would bring our paths and minds together to paint poetry in celebration of life after 55.
The experience was memorable. It’s incredible how you respond to a fellow artist’s work and how intently your listening becomes: intimate in its search for nuance, rhythm and pattern, for the essence and intent in another’s observation of the world. You search for synergy, you search for difference of expression all the while, especially admiring insight from a perspective that you yourself don’t have. You learn that, before you can respond you have to listen well, in order to gain your own understanding and appreciation of what has been presented. If this is successful, an audience will hear it, see it or experience it.
We decided that Hugh would read one of his poems written especially for the occasion and Iesha would paint as he performed. Then, Hugh would read a piece by Iesha and Iesha would paint about her poetry as she and the audience heard and perceived it live. It would be an experiment in distinguishing if the artist views their art differently when it is performed by another artist. An investigation into an aspect of the process of art – a nudge at the boundary – the artist creating art from her own art being delivered by another artist. Live and in front of a large audience. It was a somewhat complex idea, veering from the mainstream. But it was a challenge we relished; it would be interesting and, perhaps just as importantly, fun. The preparation was enjoyable, too (though not always useful), with long discussions about famous collaborations. Could we possibly emulate the synergy of The Krankies?!
Below are the two poems we delivered. First, Hugh read his own poetry while Iesha painted. Then, Hugh performed Iesha’s words, while she focused on transferring onto the canvas whatever inspiration filtered through from hearing another speak her words.
Shared Thoughts And Spared Thoughts
Often my poems are sweary and lairy
and very irreverent
But I didn’t want to be sweary and lairy tonight.
And I certainly didn’t want to be irreverent
So I did a lot of thinking
I thought about the shared thoughts and the spared thoughts
I thought a lot about the pandemic and all that we’ve been through
I thought about the fear and the stoicism in the face of fear
I thought about the bravery and the determination not to yield
I thought about the sacrifices that had to be made and the lack of complaining
I thought about the new skills learned – the zooming and the teaming
I especially thought about the teaming
I thought about how we teamed up online
And how we vowed to team up again in person
Like we are tonight
I thought about how we spared thoughts for others
And I thought about how we shared thoughts
And how we never gave up on the thought that there’d be nights like this again
That there’d be life like this again
That we could smile and laugh and live our lives again
I thought about the losses suffered and the bravery shown
I thought about the compassion and the empathy and the determination
And I thought about loss
I lost two friends – two good people – and I couldn’t attend their funeral
I know many of you will have lost friends and family too
I thought about the ache of loss
And I thought how everyone has suffered
I thought about how we’d been through a lot but we we’re still here.
We’re still here.
We’re here tonight
I thought about The Guild of Experience and I smiled
I thought about how life goes on even after loss
I saw how the old set example for the young
I see it every day
I see it tonight
I thought back on the moments
Moments of fear and anger and confusion
But moments of comedy too
And most of all determination
Determination to continue to have fun
To enjoy life
To grab it
To not let age narrow any horizon
To try new things
Like graffiti and abseiling
I thought then about achieving and enjoying. Living life to the full
I met Neesha and she told me stories of the group
The dancing, the fun, the laughter
I met Mealanie and we discussed abseiling and daubing tower blocks
with Guild of Life graffiti
I thought of all the blank canvas made colourful through imagination and friendship
And I felt honoured to be asked to be a part of this celebration
I thought about art created in supportive environments
I thought about the art of understanding and friendship
I thought about the strength of community
I was inspired by the collective attitude
People confident in their own skin – prepared to take up new challenges
Mature, optimistic and eager to step out of their comfort zones
Brave people with a creative rage aimed against adversity
I thought about the pride in community and the strength in experience
I thought about it all and I felt inspired
I thought about spray cans and attitude – positive attitude
I thought about all of that – all that you’ve achieved
And I felt proud. Proud to be witness to that
Proud to be part of this
(c) H. B. O’Neil, 2021
We have grown beyond
Beyond the rules
Of the order
Outpaced ceaseless change
With lived experience
There is courage in our
There is strength in our
There is beauty in our
There is simplicity in our sorrow
There is capacity in our care
We know that time is a meticulous
So We leave that wisdom in our wake
Well, we walked
The road of years
And past some
Now with gratitude
We get up with vigour
Fine tuned to our
Every year gifted
Gives us fresh eyes to see
To take life force
With the glint in the eye
The peak of the ear
Quickening of the heart
Spark of enthusiasm
Wrapped in a grasp of
For those who
Still have eyes to see
As we celebrate
(c) Iesha Denize, 2021
You can connect with the Guild Of Experience and Studio 3 Arts here: www.studio3arts.org.uk/guild-of-experience
Fuelling creativity at both ends of the spectrum: Amy Turtle from The Reading Network explaining how you can donate pre-loved children's books to schools and Hugh Prior + Iesha Denize on the Guild Of Experience, Studio 3 Art's creative approach to providing inspirational activities for the over 55's.