My children's novel Viking Boy was published in 2012 by Walker Books. It's the story of Gunnar, a boy who has to flee his home after it's burned down in a Viking raid, and it includes all the things I thought should go into an adventure story set in the Viking age. There's a legendary sword, a sea-journey in a dragon prowed Viking ship, some very cool Viking warriors (both good and evil), lots of fighting, Valkyries riding on winged wolves and even a couple of appearances from the chief of Norse Gods, Odin himself.
It was a lot of fun to research and write, and it got some great reviews. I did my best to promote the book on social media - I'm a relentess Tweeter and also do lots of posts on Facebook and Instagram. Of course I was aware the National Curriculum says primary-age children should study the Vikings, and I was hoping the book would find an audience in schools. I've done hundreds of school visits in my 30-plus years as a writer of children's books, and have seen teachers use fiction to support children's work in really innovative ways. I had a feeling Viking Boy might turn out to be useful in that respect.
The book sold well, and I always mentioned it in my school visits, but as a professional writer you have to move on to other projects, new books. So I put Viking Boy behind me and did just that. Then out of the blue last year, a teacher called Andy Johnston tagged me in a tweet that said his Year 5 class had been learning about the Vikings and had really been enjoying Viking Boy. I've been tagged about other books, and I always reply to say I'm pleased. But this time I did more than that - I offered to send the class some pictures of pages from the notebook I'd used when I was working on the story. These included lists of names for characters, research notes, outlines of the plot, early drafts and so on.
Andy took up my offer, and soon we were engaged in quite a lengthy electronic correspondence. He told me what the class thought about the book and tweeted pictures of the amazing work that they were doing, tagging me in the process to make sure I saw the tweets. I could then respond (and relentlessly retweet!), so I was able to tell the kids just how impressed I was. Eventually Andy did a detailed lesson plan based on Viking Boy, which helped the children do some even more amazing work. It was clear the children were really engaging with the subject of the Vikings through a fictional character they could relate to. It gave them the chance to get into the world of the Vikings through their imaginations, something that can't always be achieved with just a textbook.
I've seen plenty of displays of work based on many of my other books when I've visited schools, but this was different, somehow. It felt instant and very direct - interactive for the kids and me. That wasn't the end of it, though. I soon discovered that lots of teachers have Twitter accounts. Friends and followers of Andy quickly picked up on the Viking Boy tweets, and other teachers tweeted to say they were using Viking Boy as well. I offered to send them pictures of my notebook, but I also offered to do short Skype sessions (usually half an hour or so) with their classes, and so I found myself talking to children all over the country, answering their questions about the story, the Vikings, my other books with historical themes, my favourite authors...
I learned several lessons from all this. The first was that using fiction to support children's learning can transform a subject for them. It can be difficult for all sorts of reasons to help children feel engaged with a subject. But by introducing them to the right kind of fiction - stories with fascinating characters and gripping narrative - you can make a genuine difference. If your class is struggling to find their way into a topic, then why not make it easier and more interesting by using a work of fiction to get them started?
The second lesson was that social media can really help to connect authors and readers. I began to realise that up till then I'd seen social media through an old-fashioned, analogue lens - I'd thought of it as a form of advertising, a way of letting people know about my work. But this took promotion to another level. I felt I was really connecting with my readers. That happens with school visits, of course, but that's just on one day. Through social media I was able to follow the way teahcers and students responded to my book and got value from it over quite a long period of time. I also saw their work in detail - lots tweeted pictures of stories and pictures inspired by what I'd written.
I saw that this kind of connection can be enormously useful for teachers and classes. Most children's authors have Twitter accounts and use other social media too. So you can almost guarantee that the author of the books you read to the children in your class is little more than a click away. Most authors love to hear from their readers, and I have a feeling that if you Tweet to an author that your class is enjoying his/her book, you can almost guarantee a response of some kind. And if you're lucky, that author might be like me and offer you something more than just a reply.
About the Author
Tony Bradman has written many books for children of all ages. He is also chair of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), Co-Chair of CLA, and Chair of The Siobhan Dowd Trust.