WE READ - my DIY documentary of what children are reading and why

WE READ is a mini documentary in which I asked children what they read and why. It's 25 minutes long -  you might want to view it in widescreen on YouTube.

The children are a random sample - I set up a booth at the Guardian Open Weekend and interviewed passing people, I swapped a free school visit for the opportunity to film in Yerbury School, I filmed at Young Music Makers, a weekend music school, I interviewed children at a holiday camp where my family and I were camping (in the rain). It was really difficult to edit because I loved every expression on the faces of my young interviewees, and every word they said was loaded with meaning.

I am not a professional cinematographer by a long shot, so it's a bit DIY - my microphone failed at several points (some of the clips had to be subtitled), you can hear the wind whistling when I was filming outdoors, and I'm so shortsighted that at some points the focus is not great. But I loved doing it, and I loved what I learned from it. WE READ was screened at the Pop Up Festival last week

What was the last cool book you read? Who's your favourite author? How does that book make you feel? When you were a baby, what was your favourite book?

These are questions I love asking children because the answers are always surprising, fascinating, wise, and all-around-awesome. HOW children respond to such questions fascinates the author in me - when they describe what thrills them about a book I ask myself, am I doing the right things? Am I writing my best for this enthusiastic reader?

It is easy for frustrated authors to disparage the big guns of the children's book world - JK, Stephenie Meyer, Anthony Horowitz, Jacqueline Wilson. Oh but it's not truly GREAT writing, we complain. 

And yet, look at the love and enthusiasm and joy, their books bring. How did they do that? What secret alchemy made that happen? What a precious gift they've handed to these young people. How utterly wonderful to move children in a way that they will never forget. 

It calls to mind that quote from the Meg Ryan character in the film You’ve Got Mail - when she describes her mother, a seller of children's books:

It wasn’t that she was just selling books, she was helping people become who they were going to be

There is a big lump in throat sequence in WE READ when I asked the children what books they loved when they were really little. When they talked about their best beloved picture books, they became emotional - and not just in a nostalgic way.

One 10 year old talked about Owl Babies and how he loved it but he used to get nightmares, worrying that like the baby owls in the book, his mother might leave him. And the 12 year old who talked about The Velveteen Rabbit - the rabbit who believed that if he was loved, he would become real, only for his owner to throw him away. 

And then there were the children pushing and pushing at the boundaries, reading beyond their prescribed reading ages, trying things out, exploring, looking, searching - for what? Well they will know when they find it. And it might just be in a book.

The children were exploring, looking, searching - for what? Well they will know when they find it. And it might just be in a book.

Here's a small memory that came to me when I was making the film.

Twenty five or so years ago, I was on assignment in a nowhere village in the Philippines interviewing villagers who'd suffered from hamleting - that's when the military targets civilians in villages seen to be sympathetic to the enemy.

It was a tactic used in Vietnam and in those days, widely used in the Philippines in strongholds of the Communist guerrilla movement.

I'd just walked through what was left of a village, ruined houses, some still smouldering after soldiers had set fire to them, chickens and pigs loitering aimlessly. I'd found the village's residents gathered under the banana trees, their faces blank.

After some prompting, one of them agreed to an interview. He explained how it was a no choice situation. Whenever the revolutionaries knocked on his door, he really couldn't refuse them.

'What did they want?' I asked, busily scribbling in my notebook.

'Food and toothpaste,' the man replied.

'How did it feel, mister, to lose your home?' I asked.

The man didn't reply and I looked up from my notebook. He was staring at his bare toes, covered with jungle mud. For a moment, I thought he was going to burst into tears.

Finally he looked at me. He wasn't crying. He just looked surprised. 'Nobody's ever asked me how I felt about anything.'

I've carried that moment with me ever since, and I'm careful to remember it when I'm working on a story that involves interviewing anyone. There are many times and places where people don't ask people how they feel.

How do you feel? What do you think? What do you want? What do you get out of it? It seems to me that we - parents, authors, librarians, teachers, educators - all advocates of children's reading - are good at talking about our passions, studying it and discussing it and figuring out the best way forward and telling children what's good for them. 

But we need to spend more time actually talking to the young people we hope to entice into reading. Just asking them the what and the why. Which is why I made WE READ.

Yes, I admit it. I had an agenda ... and my agenda was this: 

I really, really needed to hear children say that - even in this world of ipads, smart phones, games consoles and social networking - books still had an important place in their hearts.

Which is what they did.

With many, many thanks to the inspirational children who appeared in the film.