A group of 16 Renfrewshire women have helped conceive and write a beautiful children's book as part of a Scotland-wide scheme to encourage parents to read to their little ones, discovers Claire Black
"…seeking to appoint a published picture book writer and illustrator to embed a love of book sharing with young children, giving parents confidence in their own reading and ideas for their own storytelling and creative writing."
THAT was the job advert that Alison Murray spotted a year or so ago. It was those words that started a project that was celebrated last Thursday, which was Bookbug Day, the first anniversary of the programme which last year gifted 420,000 free books in the shape of Bookbug packs, to every baby, toddler, three-year-old and Primary One pupil in Scotland. Organised by the Scottish Books Trust and funded by the Scottish Government, Bookbug doesn't have a motto but books galore would be as good as one as any.
Why? The aim is to encourage parents to read to their children because it's an activity that benefits them both, bringing them closer, helping them to bond. But it's also about fostering a love of books in young children that will last throughout their lives. Research shows that readers are made young so the message that it's never to early to begin needs to be broadcast far and wide.
"There is no better gift that you can give your child than to read to them," says Anna Gibbons, the Early Years Programme Manager at the Scottish Books Trust. "There's a lot of research that shows dedicated time devoted to sitting down and reading with your child is so good for them. It's good for their communication and literacy skills, but it's also good for very basic things like attachment which is good for babies' brain and development."
As well as these benefits, the Scottish Government has placed the emphasis on early intervention since it's far more cost-effective to promote literacy in the home from day one than it is to try and undo the problems of poor literacy later in life.
Nine months on from replying to that advert, Murray is sitting in an office in Paisley with two young mothers and support staff from the town's Home-Start project, a support group for parents with children under five. Between cups of tea, Kit-Kats and lots of laughing, the women are explaining the unique project they've been working on.
There's no doubting how proud and excited they are about what they've achieved: Little Mouse.
A beautiful children's picture book, illustrated by Murray, Little Mouse was made – conceived and written – by Murray, as writer-in-residence, and a group of 16 Renfrewshire mothers who attend their local Home-Start group. The group worked together for 16 weeks to come up with their story of a little girl, called Mouse, who loves to read with her mother. But that was only half the battle, they then had to get a deal with a publisher to produce the book commercially in order that it can be included in next year's Scottish Books Trust Bookbug packs before going on sale in bookshops.
They did it, an amazing achievement, and Little Mouse will be published in 2012. But that's only half the story.
The fact that reading together is an activity that is shared is what makes it an important activity for families where parenting is experienced as a daily struggle. Paisley is an area of social deprivation, part of the criteria for the funding from the National Lottery through Creative Scotland's pARTners fund, but the only criteria for being part of the Home-Start group is to have a child of five or under. This means that the group has parents in it from mixed backgrounds. In a sense, whether you love or loathe the phrase, it's the Big Society in action.
Joanne Blair, 30, a mother in the group with three sons under-five (Jay, 5, Jack, 2-and-a-half, and Ben, 18 months) knew that reading with children was important, but struggled to find the time and would often rely on a DVD at bedtime to get her boys settled. "I'm a nursery nurse by trade so I should have already been making time to read with my kids," she says, "but having three young ones I'd sort of put it aside. Doing this has given me a kick up the backside to get going again.
"It was when Alison read a Michael Morpurgo poem that really made the difference for me. It was about an adult looking back and remembering what books had meant to him. My mum had dyslexia so she never read to me at all. I used to help her with her reading. Now I read to my boys all the time."
Blair says that the project has given her and her boys a new-found love for books since it's made them aware of the amount of work that goes into creating one.
"None of us really knew what goes into writing a book," she says, with a smile in Murray's direction. "Most of us thought it was just about flinging a couple of pictures and some words together. But now we've got an end product that shows it's much more than that. Even things like looking at who the author is and who the illustrator is, my little boy thinks that Alison is a such a celebrity because she's an author."
Murray, who was selected by the parents in the group, created exercises to help the parents understand how language works, how similes or onomatopoeia might be used. It meant that the project was very much a learning curve for the parents.
"Being away from school you forget how to put words together," says Stephanie Barn, 24, who has two sons, Joshua, 6, and Harris, 11 months, and who was involved in the project from the beginning. "The exercises that Alison did allowed us to use our brains. There were weeks when it was tough working out what to do. It brought you back to what it was like being at school. But it definitely built our confidence."
For Joanne Blair, it was a challenging experience but it was also rewarding. "There were weeks when things went above my head," she says. "Onomatopoeia? I struggle to even say it. But I'd ask the person next to me and they'd help. It's about letting your guard down and giving it a chance. If you got it wrong, you'd got it wrong, we'd just have a laugh."
Murray used rhyming games and got the group to write poems together. They also talked a bit about why reciting rhymes is good for babies, teaching them sounds and the pattern and structure of language which is the foundation they need for learning to read.
For Barn, creating the book really brought the group together, helping the parents to support each other but also reinforcing just how important reading is for all children.
"My older son, Joshua, 6, is a book lover and I've always read to him," says Barn, "but when the wee one came along you try to make time to read to them but it can be hard. Sometimes you just forget or you're too busy. Working on Little Mouse really opened my eyes. It made me take time out to make sure I was getting a chance to read to my kids. It made it so clear just how important it is to read to them, how much it brings them on, helps them with their vocabulary.
"I think it gives you a stronger bond with your children, too. I definitely think they feel that you're taking time out to spend with them. Reading a book is about one to one time and sometimes it leads on to other things, they might tell you about their day at school because it's a bit of quiet time and it's an opportunity for them to tell you about their day."
It's clear that the creation of Little Mouse has had an impact on the parents in the group. But for Emma Richardson, the Paisley group's co-ordinator, what was significant was that each member of the group responded in a unique way. "Everyone's journey was really personal," Richardson says. "There are people in the group who've had difficulty with spelling and who were really sensitive about that. It had never come up because that's not a conversation that you usually have.
"For one parent although she's got a good job, she really felt as though it had held her back and she's absolutely determined that her three children won't have the same issue. This project has given her the confidence to raise it as an issue with teachers or others, explaining that she's anxious about it. I've seen an improved confidence in all the parents who took part in the project."
Joanne Blair agrees. "I wouldn't stand up to read at school. I'd make every excuse under the sun to avoid doing that. I ended up being taking out the classroom so that I could just do it on my own with the teacher. And yet I feel so confident with this book I want to go to Jay's nursery when it comes out to read it to the children there."
The Little Mouse project has been evaluated by Edinburgh Unversity's Education Department with findings being produced in August. But without waiting until then, as far as Anna Gibbons is concerned, the project has been a triumph. "We are so pleased with how successful it's been and we'd definitely want to think about how to develop it."
For Joanne Blair and Stephanie Barn, the results are clear too. Both are considering a return to education, Blair to study social work and Barn to do a course in photography.
"People probably think I'm quite outgoing but when it comes down to it I can be shy," says Barn. "After doing this, I definitely feel like I can speak out more."
• Little Mouse will be published by Orchard in 2012 and distributed to every toddler in Scotland as part of the Scottish Book Trust's Bookbug pack. For more information about Home-Start including how to be become a volunteer, log on to www.home-start.org.uk or call 01259 729819. Alison Murray will be appearing at an early years event at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Sunday, 14 August.
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