Authors Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore have always been experts in reaching out to children through their witty and accessible books, so it comes as no surprise that they are once more at the forefront of new developments in reading and literacy. With the anarchic Vernon Bright titles leading the way the Steves have launched their first range of revolutionary eBooks. Steve Skidmore and Steve Barlow kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in November 2009.
In September the Vernon Bright titles became available as eBooks, a format that can be viewed on both the iPhone and the iPod Touch. Has there been an encouraging response to this move?
We’ve been showing kids all our titles, including Vernon Bright, on the I Phone/I Pod Touch during our school visits, and they love the idea of reading on these devices – for the disaffected readers they’re not reading a book, they’re using an app (there’s a world of difference!) and everyone enjoys the rolling text on Star Bores and the quizzes.
On a scale of 0-10, how concerned are you over the standard of children’s reading and literacy in the UK today (with 0 being not at all concerned)? Also, do you believe that there has been an improvement over the last two decades or have you seen worrying signs of decline?
About a 5 or 6. We’re not desperately concerned because there are still a lot of committed readers out there – but with so many different forms of entertainment competing for kids’ attention, there’s clearly a danger that reading could lose out. This isn’t helped by the fact that publishers and booksellers are currently obsessed with publishing books ‘written’ by celebrities (many of which DON’T do what it says on the tin). If we look at reading in the widest possible sense (ie reading on screen, reading text messages etc) we don’t see a decline, but we have to be aware that for kids the world is changing and the book business has to change with it.
How important is it that a parent reads to their children and what advantages will a child who is read to have over those who are less fortunate?
It’s absolutely vital, especially that dads do their fair share. Boys need male role models and for most, literacy is taught and mentored by females (nursery, infant and primary school teachers, librarians) which unfortunately gives some the impression that reading is a girls’ thing. Blokes need to get more involved. Reading is vital to everyone. This is why we’ve always argued for literacy to be delivered right across the curriculum, in secondary schools as well as primary. There’s no point in being the world’s greatest practical scientist if you can’t read your colleagues’ work or accurately record your results.
What advise would you give to parents of struggling readers?
Don’t be panicked by government dictates into pushing your child too far too fast. Let them read what they want to read and feel comfortable reading. Encourage them to explore alternatives to books. Let them listen to stories on audiobooks. Read to them. Find out who is publishing titles that cater for those with reading difficulties (Barrington Stoke springs to mind). NEVER say, “Why are you reading that rubbish?”
Have you a case study of how reading has significantly improved a youngster’s life?
One of the problems of no longer being full time teachers is that we don’t often get to see the development in individuals who discover reading. But we do sometimes get comments from parents: “Since he met you he’s been writing stories non-stop…” “He never reads but last night he went to bed with your book and wouldn’t put his light off until he’s finished it…” “Thank you so much for the work you’ve been doing with my son. This morning he wanted to go to school for the first time…”
You are both ex-teachers. How good were you at reading stories to your pupils? Is there a future in audiobook narration awaiting either of you?
Steve Barlow mostly taught post 16 students, so didn’t get many opportunities to read stories! Steve Skidmore did a lot of work with younger pupils and has always been convinced of the power of a good story and the necessity of reading it with passion and conviction. A dry, uninvolved delivery is awful, and reading around the class with poor readers stumbling over every other word is deadly!
What experience did your time teaching in Botswana give you that teaching in the UK could never have? (Steve Barlow)
Mostly huge respect for my students who had to do their Cambridge Overseas School Certificate examinations (equivalent to GCSE) in their THIRD language (their first two being Sekalanga, the local language, and Setswana, the national language. I don’t know how they did it (I’m mortally sure I couldn’t have).
Your first book was I Fell in Love With a Leather Jacket. How does it hold up 16 years later? (Steve Skidmore)
Not very well – because most of the environmental issues of the time that it deals with have been settled. Burgers are no longer made with MRM (Mechanically Reclaimed Meat) for example and fox hunting, as we write this, is no longer legal. Other issues have come to the fore. The book is still funny, but it is outdated, and when we were looking at titles to put on the I Phone/I Pod Touch we decided not to include it. That doesn’t mean we won’t return to the subject at some time in the future – maybe with different characters.
If the government passed a bill making the use of puns illegal would you be able to avoid breaking the law?
We wouldn’t put it past them: and no, probably not. Our trial would be fun. “What’s that big grey animal with tusks doing in the dock?” “That’s irrelevant.” “You’re right, that IS a relephant…” We’re hopeless. Lock us up now.
Which author has influenced you the greatest and is there a book that you really wished you had written?
Oh, there are so many. TH White. AA Milne. Shakespeare. Terry Pratchett. Charles Dickens. We think there are some marvellous books about for kids these days. Which books do we really wish we’d written? All together now – “HARRY POTTER” – then we’d be rich. But we like the books we write, even if we don’t sell as many as JK.
What do you hope readers’ experience while reading your books?
We just hope they’re enjoying themselves – whether they’re laughing at the funny bits, tingling at the scary bits, gasping at the adventurous bits or crying at the sad bits, we hope they’re having fun.
Did you learn anything new during your collaboration with media company Sleepydog?
We’ve started to learn about the possibilities of e books being interactive as paper books can’t be (the quizzes were Sleepydog’s idea). We’re experimenting with “choose your own adventure” titles on this format, which we think will work very well as our readers won’t have the opportunity to turn back to the previous event if they’ve made a wrong choice (Ie cheat!). We’d really like to see sales taking off in a big way because we’d like the financial footing to explore even more inventive ways of having our readers interact with the texts.
What does the remainder of 2009 and 2010 hold for the 2 Steves?
A lot of writing! We’re commissioned to write two new series for Usborne and two more fighting fantasy series for Hachette. We’re got a lot of school visits lined up, too, including one to Qatar. Skidmore is going to the Hong Kong Sevens to watch the rugby and Barlow is going to Glastonbury to watch U2. After that, we’ll wait to see what turns up. Something usually does.
For more information on the 2 Steves, visit http://www.the2steves.net/.