Children's fiction Education Prose Readings Skelton Yawngrave

Taking Magnificent Grace into schools

A90BE577-EF30-4610-BF72-71E75A1761B4They say it is good to leave your comfort zone, and recently I have been doing that and found myself loving it. For Skelton Yawngrave was invited to several schools to talk about Magnificent Grace during the week of World Book Day.  Instead of an immaculately-dressed skeleton man, however, the children got his alter ego: me.  Creating an alter ego is one of the things I talk about with the children — and they love the idea. 

On 28th Feb I was in Bolney Primary School meeting some strong writers. The glamorous head teacher there happens to be my wife, and we asked the children add the imaginary to something they were familiar with. My example was of adding a skeleton to a swimming pool.  In one child’s story the protagonist was riding into the nearby woods, on a bicycle that sank and sagged as it had transformed (with hallucinatory clarity) into a machine made of confectionaries. Children seem to add magic naturally.

The 3rd March saw me at Downs Junior school in Brighton, with my minder for the day Dawn Daniel. I am really indebted to Dawn who helped me to reach out to children readers as I was writing the book. My assembly included a reading of the first chapter, to which the children (thankfully) listened with rapt attention. Dawn and I then went to four classes to talk about themes of prejudice and unfairness and importance of editing.

6th March was World Book Day itself. Through relentless rain I dragged a  wheeled suitcase full of books to Preston Park station. Getting off at Balcombe I forded the running muddy stream that was the tarmac path. I received a warm welcome and a cup of tea at Balcombe School, and was told that the children had been playing indoors because of the deluge.

I spent the afternoon with two year groups in one class room, reading from the story, and talking about everything from talking dogs to racism. After trundling to Balcombe station I waited for a half an hour as it poured more. A mother and two kids were on the platform, and one of them produced his copy of Magnificent Grace which he had bought at school and began avidly reading it. A moment that was worth the whole trip. D00928AA-C84A-4068-AE52-56FD96813589

Friday 7th March was Balfour School, luckily just a few flaps of a seagull’s wing away from my house. Two readings and Q&A sessions in the gym. Full of brainy children and a warm and friendly welcome from the staff.

Then in the afternoon, I returned to Downs to sign a few more books, and offer my thanks again to Emma the English subject leader there.  As I was walking home, I passed two children from Balfour, who said hello to me and told me my book was brilliant.  Another wonderful moment.

By the end of the week I had signed so many books as Skelton Yawngrave, that I am beginning to prefer his signature to my own.

Education Writing

On floweriness

Les Fleurs du Mal

My wife pointed me to a piece in The Guardian about the UK’s National Curriculum and the tendency for primary school teachers to steer children’s creative writing towards “too elaborate, flowery and over-complex” language to meet assessment criteria. An issue raised by a large group of children’s book writers including at least two Carnegie Medal winners.

I have worked with children in schools recently, talking about poetry and advertising with ‘more able writers’ at Downs Junior. I was really impressed by the teaching there, and the vibrant word choices some of the children were able to call upon, and how they were taught to reach for interesting words.

I was at my godson’s school, where I was asked by his Dad to pop in one day to be with him while we worked on his literacy in an after school club, that I experienced what the childrens’ authors were talking about.  As I sat with him, the lad had produced what I thought to be a crisp and pacy paragraph. It was found wanting by the teacher, however, as it was not sufficiently larded with adverbs and adjectives. Precisely the kind of flowery language the children’s authors are talking about.

Of course children’s vocabulary must be increased, but this can be done in a way that does not diminish the import of the sentence as a whole. Despite my poetic shenanigans I have a workmanlike approach to language. I believe its primary function is to communicate, rather than prove how clever the speaker or writer is. To communicate well you have to be entertaining and hold people’s attention and get to the point from time to time, rather than ambling endlessly, lengthily, ponderously about in the cul de sacs of floor-waxed, saw-dusted, labyrinthine – That IS a good word Peter. Thanks Miss! – educational dogma.

Luckily, nobody owns the English language. What is considered good writing is culturally assigned, and the opinions of these authors may come to seem outmoded. In my day job as a copywriter, for example, I have had to reassure a two or three French clients that I was not underselling their products because I had use fewer adjectives than my French counterparts would have used. They expected a floweriness that most English readers would find insincere and over the top. When you are selling something too hard, the customer begins to smell a rat.

The Guardian article quotes Cecilia Busby (who writes children’s fantasy as C.J.Busby).

The way writing is taught in primary schools, she said, is the opposite of how it is taught in MAs in creative writing, “where you’re taught to strip out the adverbs, remove all adjectives, and write in a simple, direct way”.

I think that just because this is how it is taught for MA courses doesn’t make that automatically right either. It feeds into the suspicion that there is a generation of writers who have been taught the “correct” way of writing. Interestingly, their way of writing may be at odds to the generation of readers spawned under current teaching methods. Now that IS interesting.

Advertising Education Poetry

Among School Children

Inside the shelter underneath the playground in Downs Junior School in Brighton.

Last week I spent a day working with 32 more able 11-year old writers from schools in Brighton. This was organised by my friend Dawn Daniel with Clare Blencowe at Downs School.

The day was themed around contrasts, and I worked with them on poetry in the morning session. The warm ups were about locating words in unusual places, such as wrappers for chocolate bars, and finding words to describe a table of assorted smelly things and a series of boxes, filled with cold jelly and cold spaghetti, into which they inserted their hands through a hole in the side. Activities useful in getting the children to think of using all their senses when they are writing.

Then we were taken down into the labyrinthine reinforced concrete WW2 bunker that’s underneath the playground, and the children listened to sound effects of a bombing raid. Dawn and Clare explained that during the war children were sometimes kept down there for hours on end. We asked the children to imagine what this could have been like, and to contrast this with how it made them feel about the normal day they had left behind. The children shared some amazing vocabulary and ideas afterwards. One boy described the shelters as catacomb, for example.

In the afternoon we talked to them about advertising, asking them to meet a creative brief and to pitch us the idea saying what would be on screen and what would be heard and written. At the end I showed them an old TV ad I had made which answered that brief. I was struck by their instinctive understanding of how and advert should work. I also talked about how poetry is open to different interpretations and it makes you think about the world, while an advert is there to grab your attention then funnel it down on the product.

I returned home to read Among School Children by W.B. Yeats. Ever since I read W.B. Yeats for my A level at school, he pops back into my head at regular intervals. Among School Children is one of his poems I don’t know so well, where W.B.Y. wanders among school children “the children’s eyes/ In momentary wonder stare upon/ A sixty-year-old smiling public man.”

Yeats being Yeats, of course all this makes him think about Maude Gonne and what she must have been like a child. I did none of that sort of thing, but more resonant for me was when Yeats dismisses this thought: “enough of that,/ Better to smile on all that smile, and show/There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.”

For me being among school children, and seeing some of their natural creativity is humbling.

The rusty remains of buckets used as toilets in the school shelter.