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Headmaster’s Blog

It was an honour and a privilege earlier this week to meet a most distinguished visitor. He had terrible claws, very knobbly knees, orangey eyes, and what looked very much like a poisonous wart on the end of his nose. The purple prickles all over his back meant his visit required a heightened risk assessment, but we followed regulatory compliance in the usual way (it turns out that getting a visitor’s lanyard over terrible tusks is quite tricky), and we welcomed him to Hall House. The Gruffalo did a wonderful job of cutting the ribbon to officially open our new Pre-Prep Library, and children from Nursery to Year 2 were thrilled at the chance to meet him and read some stories together. If you haven’t yet had a chance to see the new Pre-Prep Library, do pop in. It’s an absolute gem – a bespoke library in the Pre-Prep managed by our School Librarian Ms McConnell – and is the result of some exceptional vision, hard work and joined-up thinking from Mrs Bowles and her Pre-Prep team, Ms McConnell, Mr Crocker and his maintenance team, and the FECS Committee. How fitting that our cosy and shiny (can something be both?) new resource to celebrate our love of reading, story-telling and creativity should be opened in the week of World Book Day. How fitting, too, that our Head of English & Drama – and published children’s author – Miss Emma Cox should be the writer of this week’s Guest Blog.

The Power of Storytelling

I was in Marks and Spencer in Paddington Station about seven years ago when I looked over my shoulder and thought, ‘That man looks a bit like Philip Pullman.’ I glanced back, checked. It was Philip Pullman. For years children had asked me who in the world I would most like to meet, and now he was standing behind me. I had to do something – but I couldn’t talk to him, could I?

Pullman has spoken a great deal about the power of stories in our culture: ‘the great democracy of reading and writing.’ In Daemon Voices – Essays on Storytelling he says: ‘When I was in the business of helping students to become teachers, I used to urge them to tell stories in the classroom – not read them from a book, but get out and tell them, face to face, with nothing to hide behind. The students were very nervous until they tried it. They thought that under the pressure of all those wide-open eyes, they’d melt in to a puddle of self-consciousness. But the brave ones tried it, and they always came back next week and reported with amazement that it worked, they could do it. What was happening was that the children were gazing, not at the storyteller, but at the story she was telling. The teacher had become invisible, and the story worked much more effectively as a result.’

Storytelling to children, whether by heart or from a book, creates a certain alchemy in a classroom or library. Reading to small children holds a particular kind of joy, and there is something beautiful in the children’s wide-open-eyed reaction to a brilliantly crafted story, and the ensuing warmth in the heart of the storyteller. There is also a fascination in a new person coming to read, and that is what has been happening this week in our Pre-Prep. Beginning with a visit from the Gruffalo (the eponymous hero/antihero of a story about the power of the imagination) to open the new Hall House library, our Nursery and Pre-Prep children have engaged in a week-long celebration of books, including a Readathon, story sessions in the Woodland Garden, open library drop-ins, and costume parades. Over in the Prep School we too have dressed up as book characters, held quizzes and treasure hunts, and absorbed ourselves in sharing books in our library – for we have two libraries in one school, run by a dedicated and inspiring librarian (Ms McConnell), which surely is a rarity.

There is a sense of magic around World Book Day: the feeling that imagination is king, that creativity is palpable, and that the teachers you think only love science love stories! (I had to wrestle one of my picture books from Mrs Ball this morning: we were in An Important Meeting, she was reading The Day The Crayons Quit.) Of course they do. What are we without stories? We all remember entering Narnia for the first time, with those mothballs and fur coats and the crunching underfoot, and the dawning realisation, and the cold air, the snow and the lamp post and Mr Tumnus waiting for us. When Smaug missed the cup! Learning that a dragon knows his hoard to an ounce. I can still hear the thrush cracking the snail shell on the hidden door. What children’s imaginations bring to a story give it an extra twist of magic. The pictures put stories in the child’s mind, while the words paint pictures there, and the imagination catches fire. Every children’s book is read by adults. The best of them are loved by all, the ones we remember are part of our identities. I recall reading Pauline Bayne’s obituary. She described illustrating the works of Tolkein and C.S. Lewis as ‘treading on the capes of giants.’

I would love to feel the way I did when I first read those stories that formed me, to step once again into the worlds I stepped into when I was seven years old, but I can’t take that journey now – the stories feel a bit thinner, the worlds a bit less real when I look. Now there are new discoveries. Today, reading Salt to the Sea (Ruta Sepetys) with Year Eight – discussing human nature: life and love, brutality, compassion and strength with students who display such a profound sense of justice, such depths of kindness – I gain something altogether new and I find myself with a different journey to be transformed by. Reading my own book Malkin Moonlight with Year Five is a dream come true, receiving copies written in Simplified Chinese in January was quite extraordinary, picturing children in China reading my words was a joy.

I spoke to Philip Pullman, of course I did, how could I not. The question mark fell off the sentence. His wife was kind and gentle and she understood why I was shaking. He signed the Paddington Bear postcard I had in my hand and told me he was writing The Book of Dust. We talked about it, what it might be. That postcard is looking down at me from high-up on a shelf, for now I have a little boy who has just learned to move his chair to reach my rare treasures, sensing there is something wonderful about the forbidden, and I have learned the pleasure, the magic, and the transformative power of storytelling to a child of my own.

8 March 2019
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