John Townsend

John Townsend was a secondary school teacher who was concerned that many of his pupils couldn’t or wouldn’t read books. Titles on classroom shelves were often old, tatty and dull so he set about writing his own short, punchy and teenage-friendly books. Writing for all ages followed and keeps going. His latest book Operation Code Cracker is out now.

Q: What books did you read when you were a child?
A: Anything about animals and the big outdoors (the wilder, the better). That meant anything from The 101 Dalmatians (I loved that book and my favourite villain ever is Cruella Deville) - to White Fang by Jack London.

Q: If you could be a storybook character who would you be?
A: Don’t tell anyone but I was once Scrooge all day for World Book Day and I loved it. I could be as grumpy as I liked and thoroughly unpleasant! But the wonderful thing about Ebenezer Scrooge is that he changes completely and becomes compassionate and generous. I’d like to be more like the NEW Scrooge! (From ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens)

Q: What is the best thing about reading?
A: The pictures in your head. The times I have been disappointed when seeing the film of a book I have read - because my pictures, voices and characters look far better than those on the screen!

Q: What is your all time favourite book?
A: Hmm this is tough. I guess the book I grew up with and have never tired of is Alice in Wonderland because it’s just so wacky and Lewis Carroll plays around with words and logic so skillfully. The book somehow keeps fresh after 150 years (not that I quite remember it being published!)

Q: Other than reading books what is the most important thing a parent can do to help develop their children’s communication skills?
A: Talk and laugh! A love of words inevitably develops from playing with language. Word and alphabet games, playing with rhymes and rhythms, puzzles, puns and poems are great ways to nurture a love of language and communication. I’m old enough to remember a children’s radio programme called ‘Listen with Mother’ which I adored as a toddler. There were no pictures to distract from the sheer wonder of spoken language. Listening to stories or nursery rhymes and sharing them with others is one of the oldest forms of communication/entertainment/education, and children exposed to regular storytelling cannot fail to develop all manner of skills and imagination. Having fun with words and telling jokes can do wonders, too!

Q: How big a part did your parents play in encouraging your writing skills?
A: They were interested without being too judgemental – and that is so important. We master skills by growing in confidence and being prepared to take risks. I’m sure my parents and others humoured me when I continued to churn out ‘comic verse’ of dubious quality. But I loved rhymes and rhythms (such as limericks) and still do because I was allowed to try them out on any visitors who called! I also wrote and performed plays in the back garden to any neighbours who were kind enough to watch. I still remember one of the little ditties I wrote at primary school. It was hardly great literature but my parents smiled patiently and so I kept writing. Here it is, I feel embarrassed to include it – but hey-ho, we all have to start somewhere...

Mr Rich slipped in a ditch,
And fell right on his face.
You should have seen his messy clothes...
A terrible disgrace!
He staggered home and got the phone
To call up Mr. Bond.
The trouble was, he couldn’t help
As he was in a pond.

I think I’ve written better since! My concern, with the current ‘testing and measuring’ culture, is that writing (i.e. the expression/recording of ideas) can be discouraged by the emphasis on the mechanics of spelling and punctuation, rather than content. When I work in schools with children of all ages, there is often a reluctance to write for fear of ‘getting it wrong’. I think parents and teachers can encourage writing just by showing delight in a child’s imagination and celebrating it.

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