Reading the Forest's Lorna Theophilus has been finding out all about the book, and its hugely successful author, Andy Seed.
Award winning Blakeney-based author Andy Seed teamed up with the Forest of Dean Local History Society (FODLHS) and illustrator Ursula Hurst to produce The Story of the Forest: A children’s history of the Forest of Dean. The book - aimed at children, teachers, Foresters, and everyone interested in the history of the Forest - is part of the Foresters’ Forest landscape partnership funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
The book took Andy two years to research and write. As well as FODLHS he was also helped by local Freeminers, the Verderers, The Deputy Surveyor and officers of The Forestry Commission, as well as other local people with an interest in the history of the area. Speaking about his approach to the book Andy says that he, “Very much wrote with Forest families in mind and adults who probably know a bit of Forest history, but may not know as much as they’d like to”.
Laid out in bite sized chunks the book is packed with facts and questions to get children thinking. Readers can find out about living in the Forest through the ages, starting with the tools left behind by Stone Age ‘Foresters’ in 9000-4000 B.C., through to the establishment of the Forest as a royal hunting ground by the Normans and right up to the modern day. A particular amusing device employed by Andy throughout the timeline in the book is the use of lists of things people didn’t have in particular periods, such as, bricks, cabbages and rabbits in the Bronze Age and aeroplanes, teddy bears and ice cream sellers in the 19th Century. Living in the Forest as it is today it is easy to forget how much has changed over the last few hundred years, for example how industrial it was in the late 18th century and into the 19th century, and how unpopulated it was prior to that. Readers might be surprised to learn for example that Cinderford largely didn’t exist before the ironworks opened there in 1795. Children reading the book can also learn about the Forest when it was home to bears and wolves; compare their school experience with that of Forest children in the Victorian period; and find out about hard lives of hod boys who worked in Forest coal mines.
Andy explains that, whilst he wants his book to be enjoyable for all ages, “First and foremost it is a children’s book before it is a history book because if it isn’t right for children it doesn’t work as a book”. However, as a former teacher he also had an eye on its ease of use for education purposes. Copies of the book have been given to local schools as part of the project and the book was launched with the help of pupils from St John’s Church of England Primary School in Coleford. The history of the Forest is approached chronologically in the first chapter before moving into themed chapters; an approach Andy took because he knew would be useful to teachers. The themed chapters cover aspects of Forest history you might expect such as coal, iron and trees and timber, but also a variety of other topics such as crime and punishment, entertainment and community events, and a chapter recommending places to visit. There are photos and illustrations of Forest wildlife both past and present, a wealth of photos of local towns and villages and there is even a chapter to help you brush up on your ‘Vurrest dialect’. Andy was keen to ensure he included things that would draw children in, such as the connection to Harry Potter author JK Rowling, which features prominently in a chapter about notable people. He was, however, careful not to dwell on aspects that might mean less to children, admitting that, “In the end I took quite a few things out because it would have been too long”. Commenting on the brief he was given by the Forest of Dean Local History Society Andy explained that the Society wanted, “A children’s author to get the children’s aspect of it right”. Working with the Society went well, with Andy recounting that, “They were very happy with what I proposed, there was very little argument about changes… and they’re thrilled by
the way it’s turned out".
It was really important to Andy that the book also looked right, explaining that, “If it looks good then kids will pick it up and then they’ll read it”. The spreads were designed by Sarah Fountain and are beautifully laid out with a river, modelled on the Wye, depicting the timeline which flows through the pages of the first chapter. Helping him achieve the right look was illustrator Ursula Hurst, who Andy says, “Understood exactly what I was after”. The book contains a wealth of photos, and pictures, many provided by local people and groups. There are wonderful original illustrations by Hurst throughout, particularly notable is a Tolkienesque map of the Forest at the beginning. Andy worked collaboratively with Hurst sending her ideas of the type of images he wanted to use and sharing examples of his other books. He is certainly pleased with the results declaring that, “I was able to get [the book] exactly how I wanted it.”
Andy Seed is the author of over 30 books including the international bestseller The Clue is in the Poo and The Silly Book series, winner of the Blue Peter Book Award in 2015. His titles for adults include the hugely popular All Teachers Great and Small series. He left teaching to become a writer in 2000, but he hadn’t really thought about writing professionally until after a chance conversation with poet and children’s author Wes Magee. Magee, who was also a teacher turned writer, supplemented his writing with school visits and by happenstance visited the school where Andy worked around the time he (Andy) had started writing some poetry for children. Magee encouraged him, “He said, ‘Send it to an editor, what have you got to lose’”. Andy started his writing career creating content for an educational website and writing educational worksheets to pay the bills, but on his second attempt, his poetry was accepted by a publisher. This was followed in 2003 with his first non-fiction children’s book. Besides his writing, Andy has followed in Magee’s footsteps and he now specialises in school visits promoting reading for pleasure and says his books are the style they are because they’re very good at getting kids reading.
Andy is passionate about children’s literacy and says it should be at the heart of education, “It’s a building block, going through the stage of enjoying books, stories, having books read to you, physical books and the great thing about a physical book is you can borrow it, you can lend it, you can share it, you can take it off the shelf, it’s there’. He also argues that reading is an engine of social change and social mobility stating that, “There’s a beautiful correlation between the physical number of books in a house and the educational attainment of a child and that’s regardless of the social group”. For Andy it’s essential that children have reading role models and he is concerned that children are increasingly seeing their parents using screens, whereas in the past they might have been reading newspapers, books or magazines and therefore normalising reading.
It was Andy’s family that first introduced him to reading for pleasure. His grandmother bought him his first novel, Stig of the Dump, which he describes as, “one of those books that has a kind of magic in it… you’re transported in the story”, and which he read late into the night under his bedcovers by torchlight. Dr Seuss also strongly influenced him as a child with The Cat in the Hat introducing him to word play; a device he frequently employs in his own writing.
Many of Andy Seed’s books are factual books, which is a genre he was also attracted to as a child stating that, “The book that really I went back to time and time again is The Guinness World Records because I just love facts, stats… that got me into factual books and that’s probably why I write them”. Yet, despite being an enthusiastic reader as a younger child, Andy fell away from reading when he went to secondary school becoming a bit of a tearaway and, according to his website, getting up to lots of naughty pranks. However, a memorable English lesson was to change that and, with it, the direction of his life. He explains, “The usual English teacher was away and we had… the hardest teacher in the school… and he was really cross that he had to cover this other teacher’s lesson”. The substitute teacher told Andy’s class to get on with some work while he marked some books and, finding that he did not have anything to keep himself out of trouble, Andy took a book off the bookcase at the back of the room, “I got this massive thick… book out of the glass cabinet… it was awesome, absolutely awesome… I’d picked up the Iliad… and I was grabbed, absolute grabbed by it… I just got back into reading”. Andy went on to read Homer’s second ancient Greek epic, the Odyssey and he still describes both books as his favourites. His renewed love of reading lead to him experiment with writing, much to his English teacher’s surprise, “I wrote this story… she couldn’t believe I’d written it because up to that point I’d just messed around”. As Andy points out, when it comes to his writing career, “It’s all down to the books really”.
The Story of the Forest: A children’s history of the Forest is available from the Forest of Dean Local History society’s website: www.forestofdeanhistory.org.uk/ as well as local outlets including Taurus Crafts and Choice Cards in Lydney and the Dean Heritage Centre in Soudley. You can find out more about Andy Seed on his official website: www.andyseed.com.
And...Andy's busy right now completing his latest book all about the fascinating wildlife of the Forest of Dean.