On World Book Day this year, I had the pleasure of visiting Fortismere School again as their Patron Of Reading. I was invited by the brilliant school librarian Gill Ward to talk to Year 7 about their Inter-College Reading Champions Competition, which the school is running again after it proved hugely successful last year.
I started by asking Year 7 to tell me some of the things they loved about books. I was delighted to hear many different reasons to love reading: everyone had a different reason, and a different favourite book! I think that's fantastic, because I believe everyone is potentially a reader. Anyone who thinks they're not just hasn't found the right book yet – the one that's going to become their favourite.
So we then talked about the various ways that people find their favourite books. The most powerful is personal recommendation. If someone you know tells you they love a book, it makes you want to read it too. And that's the idea behind the Reading Champions Competition. Everyone in Year 7 will be championing their favourite book, and trying to get other people to read it.
But what are the elements that make up a great book? What are the things you want to hear about if you're hearing about a story? The first one is surely characters. You can't have a story without characters. They are so important, books are often named after them.
Characters don't have to be human, of course. They can be cats, like Varjak Paw, or aliens, like Bixa Quicksilver in Phoenix, or anything at all. But the first thing anyone is going to want to hear about a story is: WHO IS THE STORY ABOUT?
The next thing a story needs is a setting. The story needs to happen in a particular time and place. This is true of all stories – not just books, but also films, TV, comics and so on.
The very first words we see in Star Wars tell us about the setting: the time and place where the story happens. So anyone who is championing a book is going to have to say something about: WHERE & WHEN DOES THE STORY HAPPEN?
The next thing we need is action. Characters have to do something in this time and place. The action can be anything: from very ordinary, everyday actions, to the most amazing magical things you can imagine. Harry Potter has both of these, and everything in between!
So now we have a third element: WHAT DO THE CHARACTERS DO? Between characters, setting and action, you've got the bones of a story, and when you're championing a book, those are probably the main things you'll focus on.
But there's one more thing you'll need to mention. This one is a bit more elusive. It's the meaning of the story, and it's to do with why the characters do what they do, and why the story matters to the reader. This touches on the story's deeper themes and metaphors. These things might not be obvious on the surface, and you may have to step back a bit to find them – but all stories have them. Even the simplest stories are underpinned by this question: WHY DOES IT MATTER?
And now you have what journalists call The 5 Ws: : Who, Where, When, What, and Why. These are the elements that all stories have. You can look out for them when you read, and you should mention them when championing a story. But of course there are many different ways in which you can express these things, and if anyone from Fortismere would like some ideas for how to go about championing a book and making a presentation, here's a blog from last year with lots of suggestions!