Saturday 29 February 2020


My doomy, gloomy February mood was lifted by a large envelope that dropped through the letterbox. Looks interesting, I thought. 

The handwritten address suggested that the envelope didn't contain a brochure or catalogue. It was real-life post from a real-life person - or persons, as it turned out. 

Then came an even brighter moment. The envelope held a set of individual letters. The top sheet was a typed letter from the teacher "and her class".  Every other letter had a small image of a book cover in the top right-hand corner, because they were writing to me about a mid-grade novel, A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E, a story I'd written a while ago.

What? Why?  How could the book have worked with a Year 5 Class?

A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. by Penny Dolan — Reviews ...At this point, all the occasional worries I still have about MOUSE started shouting back at me.  

Yes, the Eeyore syndrome arrived.
Something about the lovely letters was not quite making sense. Though I love my MOUSE novel, I know that it is long and needs an amount of reading stamina, especially inr a KS2 reader. The plot is complicated. Emotionally, the book contains bright times, friendship and happy, triumphant moments but it also has dark places, with villains and tragedies and sorrows and deaths.

The setting of MOUSE, too, is unusual. Not only does the last half take place backstage in a large theatre, the plot also involves a production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream".  Now that many schools have no drama lesson or theatre outings, how could this theatre theme even work for a reader?

Moreover - I carried on fretting - MOUSE is "historical fantasy". Though set during Queen Victoria's reign, it has no curriculum-friendly link to a national anniversary.  How on earth, I maundered, as I stood there with the letters in my hand, could a book like MOUSE connect with young readers at all? Or even many teachers?

Yet as I started reading the letters, all the gloom began to lift. I have read many school letters before and am quite good at recognising a genuine underlying mood. 

To my delight, these young writers really were full of enthusiasm: they had loved A BOY CALLED MOUSE. They had enjoyed the plot and the settings and some said it was the best book ever. One or two even said they had not been interested in reading until they heard MOUSE.

The children told me they had been excited about all the different characters:  that they'd listed and discussed all of them, even added RIP when necessary. They had laughed at the funny bits, cried at the occasional sad parts and had even cheered when the worst villain of all met his end. They were even predicting what might happen to their favourite characters next and begging me to write the idea. (Was that what was meant by the buzz word "Empathy", I wondered?) In addition, the children also liked discovering new words and the way my book helped them learn more vocabulary, or so they told me. 

Furthermore - and this seemed to be some kind of key - they had loved listening to the book and the way the story always stopped on a cliff-hanger. They were writing to me because they had all loved A BOY CALLED MOUSE, even though it had taken their teacher a whole three months to read it to the the end . . .

Aha! These children, no matter their own individual reading ability, had all heard the story read aloud to them. 

That was the magic ingredient I'd sensed hidden in their enthusiasm and the level of their comprehension: A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E, had been their CLASS READING BOOK! 

How odd. How strange. Up until that moment, I had always thought of my book in the hands of a solitary reader, someone staring at the pages absorbed and all alone.

But I had been wrong. Here, in these rather well-written letters, was evidence of a whole other existence for my book. Now I saw the story as something that had - that could, that might - be read aloud, I saw my lone story could become part of a memorable whole group experience. 

At that moment, I was hugely satisfied as well as thankful to this unknown class teacher. I knew from my own past life how wonderful such shared storytime experiences could be.

Moreover,it was clear that she had tread the book well and taken time totlak to the children about the book. I felt as if my writing had been honoured by that teacher's voice and her time and her care for my story and my characters. She is clearly, as one of the children said, "a really, really good teacher." 
In addition, how wonderful it was to know that "reading aloud to the class" - a practice that seemed to have faded somewhat -  seemed to back now: alive, encouraged and in general glorious use once more. 

Suddenly I had the most cheering thought of teachers everywhere making the most of all sorts of books with "their" children: certainly a most excellent way of reading and listening for pleasure. The arrival of the lovely letters that day had certainly lifted my spirits and widened my understanding.
A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. by Penny Dolan — Reviews ...

Huge thanks are due to a particular teacher and her pupils for sending a bright light into my writer's cave.

 I hope, by now, that my own envelope has dropped into your onw school letter box in return.
 Penny Dolan


Joan Lennon said...

Lovely! And well deserved!

Pippa Goodhart said...

A combination of a brilliant book and a clearly brilliant book-loving teacher = magic for children. Hooray!

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, Joan and Pippa.

Obviously I did know that all novels could be "Class Reading books" but I'd never, ever thought of MOUSE being used that way. It was such an inspiring moment.

Interestingly, on a set of recent teacher tweets asking about things one should do when a supply teacher will be taking your class, one of the suggestions was "Hide your Class Reading Book!"

I did laugh because those words really captured the way that reading experience is, hopefully, a precious moment for teacher and class.

But it also reminded me of how absolutely annoying it is when you, the class teacher, have been savouring some brilliant moment just coming up in the pages - or even reaching the emotional The End.

Then, by not hiding the Book, you return to class and find that a supply teacher (who may only have been in for that single afternoon) has read on in the book.

It feels as if, wantonly, they have stolen that special story moment from you and possibly from the children, as well as making casual use of all the pages that the teacher will have read and worked through before that point.

Not a generous thought,perhaps, but a true one.

Susan Price said...

So glad for you, Penny, because MOUSE is A REALLY TERRIFIC BOOK!

Enid Richemont said...

It's quite some time since I read MOUSE, but remember how much I loved it at the time - great old-fashioned (meant as a compliment, not a crit!)storytelling.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for the kind & generous words, Sue and Enid.

Cindy Jefferies said...

Yes. It’s a great book. I’m so glad you felt good about it all over again. Good for you! (And that teacher and pupils).

Anne Booth said...

How wonderful. It's hard to think of a greater compliment. I remember 'Charlotte's Web' in a very special way because it was read out to me in Year 6 by a teacher called Mr Groom. Those children will remember that book for the rest of their lives - and I must get hold of a copy and read it now!

Lynne Benton said...

Lovely story, Penny, and how well-deserved! Makes it all worth while when you get feedback like that, doesn't it? And what a treat to discover that there are still some teachers who will read a whole book they love to the class!