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Neil Griffiths – For the Love of Stories and Reading

March, 2013
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neil-2Neil Griffiths was a Primary School head teacher for 13 years before taking on the role of director of a National Literacy Project for the Basic Skills Agency. This agency believed in Neil’s highly original Storysack idea and allowed him to promote it to schools and communities throughout the UK. Storysacks are about making books fun and bringing stories to life. After six years, Neil began to devote all of his energies to the project and set up what is now the worldwide, highly acclaimed, and award-winning Storysack® phenomenon. Neil also finds time to write his own children’s picture books, and he has published more than 30 picture books exclusively with Red Robin Books. During his recent visit to Western International School of Shanghai, Neil had a coffee morning with the parents and told the small children stories from his new books The Pelican Who Couldn’t, The Best Present Ever, Messy Martin.

LittleStar also had the chance to talk to Neil about how to help children discover they love reading and the art of storytelling. 

LittleStar: How different is it being a teacher and being a children’s author and storyteller traveling around the world?

Neil Griffiths: There is little difference between working with children and working with adults. It is just that I used to be working at only one school, but nowadays I am working with schools worldwide to influence more people. This is my 16th year on the road to promote the Storysack and reading. Most of my work is going around the world to meet with parents and teachers, giving talks on how to support their children’s reading at home. I love the opportunity to work with different age groups from kindergarteners to grandparents and to work with people of different social backgrounds.

LittleStar: How often do you publish a new book?

Neil Griffiths: I have already published more than 30 children’s books; and I am still writing about three books each year. I was brought up by my father. He was very creative with stories when I was young. I got that imagination from him and later turned it into different storybooks. Wherever I go, I see those small things that give me inspiration for new books. I am always on the lookout for the seed of new ideas. 

LittleStar: What is the most difficult part in writing a book? Is it finding a good story idea?

neil-3Neil Griffiths: For writing a book, the hardest thing is to have a nice ending. You can often come up with a story idea and know how to begin a story; but you may not be able to give it a good ending. Many published books are not good because the stories seem to go nowhere. As the stories in my books are quite short, it is even harder to make a decent ending because people will finish reading it in a pretty short time.

I don’t find story ideas hard, or thinking of the characters hard, but I do find it hard to have a good ending that will surprise people.
LittleStar: There are many talented writers among the students. What advice do you have for them regarding writing stories and even a book?

Neil Griffiths: I would say to the students you don’t become good at writing stories without a lot of good practice. You have to have great imagination, and imagination comes many ways, especially reading. Good writers must be good readers. Through reading you can broaden your imagination. If you don’t read a lot, you will not know how stories work.

One of the things I find frustrating is when students practice writing in school they would write story in an hour. However, no one can write a good story in one hour. It sounds ridiculous because a writer needs time to think, draft and edit his stories. Sometimes, I find I have no story ideas in an hour at all. So I tell students they have to become a broad reader to enhance their imagination and they have to constantly look at things around them. I have told the children to be nosy – listen to people’s conversations and watch people. One thing I love doing is sitting in a café and watching the world go by. I pick up ideas from different people. Use your imagination and be aware of the world around you.
LittleStar: What books do you read usually? Do you have some recommendations on children’s books?

Neil Griffiths: My reading habits change. At the moment, I read many children’s books because this is my world and I love to read books by other children’s authors.

I used to read a lot of biographical works because I love to learn about real people’s lives. Then in the last 3 years, I became a non-fiction reader. For example, I recently read a book on every breed of cow in the world that may not be appealing to many people. Why would I read a book about cows? The reason is that I went to an agricultural show, where a woman standing next to me took me as a staff member and asked me a question about the cows. I answered it, and then her second question… I realized I actually know something about the cows. I decided to read books about cows. Likewise, I recently read a book about all the railways in Britain. I do love to read historical fiction as well. My subjects may change as I always move onto new facets of reading.
LittleStar Magazine: Parents want to encourage their children to read and teach them a love of reading, but how can they choose books for their children?

Neil Griffiths: No, the parents should not choose books for their children; on the contrary, the children choose their own books. The reason why so many children get switched off reading is their parents constantly change books for them. Ask yourself one question: would you like someone else to choose a book for you to read? We must let children to choose their books. Thus, they can find their own interests in books and reading.

LittleStar Magazine: Do you have some book recommendations for the children? What is your own favorite?

Neil Griffiths: There are a lot of good books for children. What I might love is what you might hate. If the book is a bestseller it must be good because people want to read it. Classical books must be good because they have become classical. My all time favorite book is a children’s book called Wind in the Willows.

LittleStar Magazine: Do you have some advice on what parents can do to help the kids foster good reading habits?

Neil Griffiths: There are three things parents need to do. Firstly, parents need to love reading themselves, and provide a good reading environment at home. Children must see us adults reading ourselves for pleasure because imitation is so powerful. 

Secondly, they need to be great sharers of books and keep reading to their kids or reading together with the children every day. Research evidence shows us that reading aloud to children is the single most important activity for creating motivated readers.
Thirdly, parents need to help their children discover what they love reading and let their children choose their own books. Children find their own passions and parents can then feed that passion. If they find books their children love to read, they will see the children become good readers.
LittleStar Magazine: You are a great storyteller – can you share with us your skills in storytelling?

Neil Griffiths: To become a good storyteller, the most important thing is to have big facial expressions. Remember that your face "says it all" so exaggerate your normal expression three times.

Meanwhile, make good use of your voice and use your body to the full – move about to express mood, use arm gestures, and act out as you tell the story.
Do not begin the story straight away, give it a ‘red carpet’ build up and tempt them in. Plan questions you might ask and get the children involved.
Have fun with the children during the process.  


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