Working with Bali Rai is like being around a fizzing ball of energy with a completely infectious enthusiasm for books, reading and writing. Spend 10 minutes with him – it is impossible not to get drawn into his world. In 2013/2014, Bali and I ran a book club for year 7 and 8 students from three Camden schools. They ‘didn’t like reading’ – it was going to be a tough gig. But we started with the intriguingly-titled Revenge of the Number Two by Bali himself – who wouldn’t want to find out more about that?
Bali speaks to his readers in words they understand, through situations they recognise. His books are no-frills, real life tales about being a young person right now. Whether it’s that embarrassing thing you did in year 7 that the school bully won’t let you forget (Revenge of the Number Two), kissing someone your older brothers don’t approve of (Kiss of Death), or the seriously messed-up stuff that can happen online (Web of Darkness), Bali writes about locations, characters and issues that young readers can empathise with.
The mission of the book club was to inspire a love of reading in the students. Bali’s books definitely did this, but working with him in person did it even more. Through writing activities based on newspaper stories and students’ own experiences, Bali connected with the young people. He helped them expand their ideas and we could see their confidence and sense of achievement growing session after session. Bali also knew exactly which other authors and books to suggest based on what would best engage the students.
Many of the students who came to book club faced a variety of challenges at home and at school. One of the most volatile members turned out to be one of the most committed, even coming to the final session under his own steam when the school was closed for building work. In his words, “since I started [coming to book club] I’ve been more interested in books than my TV”. And his opinion of Bali? “He’s the brilliantest guy!”
Abi is the Learning Programmes Manager at the British Library. Her role involves the development and delivery of a core programme of onsite workshops, conferences and events for Primary and Secondary students and teachers. In addition, Abi runs major exhibition-linked initiatives and other projects, such as the Teachers’ Network, Book Club, Young Researchers and Youth Forum. More information can be found at www.bl.uk/learning