Librarian of the year: how I brought books to life with my Gruffalo tea party.
The Guardian’s Lucy Ward meets an award-winning school librarian who increased library visits with a bit of imagination
- Tracey Needham brings stories to life by hosting tea parties and turning her library into Narnia. Photograph: Sacred Heart primary schoolPush through the furs in the wardrobe – or perhaps the coats on pegs in the cloakroom – and children can be found enjoying a Gruffalo tea party (complete with Gruffalo piñata), decorating hot chocolate mugs at a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory celebration or creating their own Spiderman comic strips.The whole school – Sacred Heart RC Primary in Barrow-in-Furness – is involved: Needham, a higher-level teaching assistant who has responsibility for the library, herself makes sure the children see her reading, and wall posters show reading choices of every member of staff from teachers to lunchtime helpers allowing inquisitive pupils to check just how often everyone changes their books.It’s this joyful, school-wide immersion in the world of books, driven from the ever-busy library, that has won Needham wider recognition with a School Librarian of the Year Award 2014, presented by the School Library Association (SLA). The association noted how loans from the library at Sacred Heart, where 35% of pupils receive free school meals and many don’t have easy access to books at home, rose 75% in the last school year, having rocketed 111% in 2012-13.It wasn’t always like this, however. Until the library was given its own designated space two and a half years ago, the shabby and outdated book collection – much of the non-fiction dated back to the 1970s and 80s – jostled for space with computers, musical instruments and “anything else dumped in there”, says Needham.The increased profile of the library ran alongside a school-wide focus on reading for pleasure. In the classrooms, book boxes are changed regularly and book boards promote a current class novel. Recent choices include Sky Hawk by Gill Lewis and the much older Furthest Away Mountain by Lynne Reid Banks – typical of Needham’s efforts to encourage pupils to try a range of books from contemporary children’s literature to classic works (including her beloved Narnia stories) which may offer new perspectives.Growing up in Barrow, Needham had wanted to be a teacher, “but coming from a working-class background we were not pushed in that direction at school – it was expected that you would work in the shipyards”. She developed a love of reading, however, and remembers her parents and aunties would always inscribe personal messages in books they gave her. She can still recall receiving her first hardback – Five Go To Treasure Island.Needham is proud to receive her SLA honour, but adds: “I feel privileged to be in a job that I absolutely love doing. Hopefully if we can set the children off with a love of books before they get to senior school, even if they waver a bit, they are more likely to return to reading.”
- Needham’s passion for reading has been passed down to her daughter – now 23. “I look for a link with books – I’ll do anything to capture the children’s imagination. I’m just thinking about it all the time – my daughter says I have library OCD.”
- The creative activities and competitions have flowered alongside the increased interest in books, with the school’s senior management team allowing Needham free rein to use her craft talents and fund of ideas. A literary Come Dine With Me contest to create a menu for a favourite book character was won by an apple-based meal designed for a gullible Snow White, while 80 children out of 195 pupils entered a competition to create a Halloween witch’s hat.
- Granted a clear room at last, she set about updating and expanding the stock to almost 5,000 books, organised using the Junior Librarian computerised system. There are clear sections divided by age and topic, and cushions, a rug and a small sofa to encourage curling up with a book.
- Last term, Ofsted inspectors praised “the well-stocked and exciting library” and students’ enthusiasm for reading, quoting one pupil’s comment: “Reading a good book is like dreaming. It takes you into new and fantastic worlds.”
- All pupils are encouraged to read at Sacred Heart primary school. Photograph: Sacred Heart primary school
- Amid a constant buzz of craft activities, which are especially wonderful at pulling in less confident readers, Needham is encouraging pupils in a lifelong love of reading: running book groups, organising young library helpers, setting much-anticipated competitions based around books, literary anniversaries or current events such as the World Cup.
- As a child, Tracey Needham’s favourite book was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the library she now runs at a small Cumbrian primary school offers the same sense of entry into a magical world where anything is possible.
- The Guardian’s Lucy Ward meets an award-winning school librarian who increased library visits with a bit of imagination
SLA School Librarian of the Year Honour List 2014
Helen Cleaves – Kingston Grammar School, Kingston Upon Thames
Liz Millett – Weatherfield Academy, Dunstable, Bedfordshire
Tracey Needham – Sacred Heart RC Primary School, Barrow–in-Furness
To read their profiles visit the SLA website. In alphabetical order, the first will go live on 8 September.