Chipmunk helps launch the first children’s novel to be read on a mobile

Getting children to read books is like trying to  take the water to the donkey or the mountain to Mohammed: it just won’t happen.” So says Terry Deary, one of the most popular British children’s authors of all time.

But the prolific writer, whose Horrible Histories have sold more than 25 million copies, believes this does not mean the game is up. “Children will read; they just won’t read books. We have to reach out to them in the media they’re comfortable with – the electronic media of Kindles, iPads and mobile phones.”

That is why, inspired by the Evening Standard’s Get London Reading campaign, Deary has hooked up with hip hop rapper Chipmunk to produce what is apparently the UK’s first Keitai novel, also known as a mobile phone novel, a concise literary form pioneered in Japan.

The Perfect Poison Pills Plot was written on a Nokia E6 Qwerty phone and has been narrated by Chipmunk in a series of five short video clips.

A total of 1,600 words long, it is written as 16 chapters of 100 words, each the length of a text message. Users can download them direct to their mobile free, either as successive texts or as a series of video clips.

Nokia hopes to reach young people aged seven to 17. The story is launched today, and an exclusive excerpt is on the opposite page.

“The greatest writers write for the medium of their time,” said Deary, 65, during a break with Chipmunk on the film set in Spitalfields. “For Dickens it was magazines, for Shakespeare it was theatre in the round. If Dickens were alive today, he’d be writing Keitai novels for mobile phones.”

The 20-year-old hip hop artist, whose debut album I Am Chipmunk went platinum, tells how he saw few people reading books when he was growing up in Tottenham: “I was lucky because my dad forced me to read, refusing to let me out to play football with my friends until I had done my reading, but if you gave a kid a book for Christmas, he’d be pissed! What the Standard is doing is amazing, but we’ve got to broaden the message and the medium.”

Nokia has also given £10,000 to the Get London Reading appeal, taking the total so far to £185,000. Its donation will fund an additional 20 reading helpers with our partner charity, Volunteer Reading Help, and provide one-to-one support for 60 pupils at primary school who have fallen behind. John Nichols, marketing director at Nokia UK, said: “We are delighted to support the Standard’s campaign.

“We believe electronic media, and mobile phones in particular, have an important role to play to create, read and share stories on the go, and we’re delighted to see Terry and Chipmunk using our technology to such good effect.”

Deary is “not at all surprised” by the Standard’s revelation that one in three children does not own a book: “It might shock the middle classes, but I grew up in the slums of Sunderland and today I live on the edge of a pit village with 50 per cent unemployment, and when I go into a working men’s club and speak to 19-year-olds, they say, ‘Oh, I read a book once.’

“We’ve got to meet young readers on their terms, not on the terms imposed by book publishers. Frankly, publishers are on the Titanic. They’ve already hit the iceberg but they believe they can continue sailing.

“Maybe it’s because they are so arrogant that they can’t see the writing. They just don’t get it. Books have had their day. Not even I read books any more.

“These days I use this,” he said, pulling out a Kindle. “It’s gorgeous, it’s great, and I’ve got 40 novels on here, though I could have 1,500.”

He admits he is frustrated that despite being the 10th most borrowed author from British libraries last year, only eight of his 215 books are available on Kindle.

“It’s absurd, but there is nothing I can do about it because publishers control the electronic rights. I had actually retired from novel writing after a 35-year career but I was tempted back because this project – with Nokia as my publisher – is the future, and because I refuse to give up on young people learning to read.

“I found Keitai very challenging to write. Usually my short stories are 5,000 words long, but to get character, plot and humour down to 1,600 words, that takes skill. Keitai offers the young reader a digestible bite-size chunk that can whet the appetite for them to attempt the larger meal of a book.”

Deary says he has “a sneaking feeling” that his daughter, international eventing horse rider Sara Burdess, who has just had twins, “might be teaching them to read on iPads and mobile phones… For my grandchildren, books will be like vinyl LPs – collectors’ items”.

Chipmunk, real name Jahmaal Fyffe, says books were an integral part of his youth, but not any more. “A lot of what I learned as a kid is from books, but if I’m honest, I don’t read books now because I’m too busy and on the go.

A lot of people speculate on the link between the riots and literacy, but you have to live inside the circle like I did to know what it’s like.

“I am pretty much on track considering the negative environment I grew up in: seeing drugs from an early age, youngsters carrying weapons, almost nobody interested in books. I got my bad nickname because as a kid I was short and fat with big front teeth and the name stuck, but I wasn’t that cute.

“I was kicked out of Highgate Wood School [in Hornsey] at 14 for fighting and throwing a bottle that hit a teacher by mistake. Then I went to Gladesmore Community School in Tottenham, where they had a big positive impact on me and I ended up with five As and four Bs for GCSEs.”

Chipmunk’s career took off at 15 when he visited the Crouch End studio of music producer Sammy Baffour, 31, aka Baff, who recalled: “He came in and told me he was the best for his age, so we put him in the booth and he spat some rhymes. Then he went on radio and did a freestyle rap and the following week had a million viewers on YouTube.”

The rapper’s first album sold more than 300,000 copies and produced four top-25 singles, and one, Oopsy Daisy, that debuted at number one. Chipmunk is booked to back Snoop Dogg on his UK tour next month.

He says his father, who came to Britain from Jamaica, taught him to read and gave him the lesson that “education is the key to life”. The rapper adds: “At the time I felt oppressed by him, but in hindsight I’m grateful because you can’t just rely on school to pull you through if the parents are not on board.”

Deary, too, was taught to read by his father: “I was born immediately after the war in a very poor area with outside toilets and where lots of houses had no doors because they had been burned for firewood. My dad was a butcher who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and I worked in his shop until I was 15.

“I never went to university. In those days it was ‘pass your exams, get a job’. But as a kid my parents did their job, teaching me to read before I went to school, and later I was able to go on and make something of my life.”

Electronic media aside, what does Deary believe is the answer to the literacy crisis? “This is the beauty of the Standard campaign,” he said.

“It’s not only sparking huge debate, but also harnessing the untapped resources of the community. Getting adults to volunteer as reading helpers to augment teachers and parents is brilliant.

“It is waking us up to the fact that schools cannot be held wholly responsible for teaching children to read – we all are.”


Exclusive excerpts from Terry Deary’s novel The Perfect Poison Pills Plot


For free access to “The Perfect Poison Pills Plot” by Terry Deary or to watch a free video narration of it by Chipmunk go to:

1. Herbert bustled his way down the busy street, bumping and barging people out of the way. He’d the face of a bad-tempered parrot.

‘Here! Watch where you’re going!’ a man shouted.
Herbert stopped, turned and glared. ‘What is your problem you grumpy old geezer?’

‘You bumped into me,’ the man moaned.

‘Excuse ME,’ Herbert sneered, ‘but YOU bumped into ME you short-sighted senior citizen! It’s YOU that should be saying sorry! It’s YOU that needs his ancient eyes testing. It’s YOU that shouldn’t be let out of your old people’s home to go clattering into helpless young gents like ME!!!’

2. Herbert looked pleased with that little rant. The old man was lost for words. He didn’t know what to reply so he didn’t reply anything. He sort of said, ‘…!!!’

Herbert turned into a small, gloomy archway between two bright shop windows. It led into a quiet alleyway off the High Street. There was just one dusty shop down there. A faded sign said, ‘Silas Scrunge and Son – Chemist.’

Herbert was the ‘son’. And, in case your brain is asleep today, that means his father was Silas the Chemist. Got that? Good, then let me get on with the story.

3. Scrunge and Son was an old-fashioned sort of chemist shop and had very old- fashioned glass jars in the window. The window was glowing with three, large, round glass bottles, one with red oil, one with blue and one with gold.

Mr Scrunge was old-fashioned too. He wore a black suit and a black tie. Mr Scrunge had the face of a bad-tempered parrot, just like his son. People passed them in the street and said things like, ‘Goodness me, Mr Scrunge doesn’t half take after his son! Amazing! Remarkable! As like as two parrots in a pod.’

For free access to “The Perfect Poison Pills Plot” by Terry Deary or to watch a free video narration of it by Chipmunk go to:

Nokia is also encouraging budding writers to submit their own keitai short stories via for the chance to win a brand new Nokia QWERTY smartphone plus signed copies of Terry Deary’s book, Put Out the Light and Chipmunk’s latest album, Transition.

Source: David Cohen, Evening Standard.

Deb McKoy