Children's fiction Fiction Prose Writing

Learning from children for ‘The Second Kind of Darkness’

So I am now in the ‘seeking representation’, (agent-beguiling) stage for my children’s story (age 9-12) called The Second Kind of Darkness (more about it here). After donning my imaginary pith helmet, I selected an agent to target. Mostly this was done on gut feel having seen her in the new Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook and liking her profile on the website.

The reality is that there are bazillions of people out there writing children’s books, and only a tiny percentage will be taken. So statistically it seems unlikely that the book will emerge into the world.  I can’t stop, however, feeling weirdly and uncharacteristically positive. I think The Second Kind of Darkness is the best thing I have ever written.

As it is a children’s story, trying it out on children seemed a good idea.  Fortunately my wife is a headteacher, and one of our teacher friends Dawn Daniel has been an enormous help. Dawn has fixed it for me on several occasions to read early versions to children in class. (Note: arriving at this version took ten years of bloody-minded rewrites.)

To begin with I found this a bit nerve-racking too, and my already sky high respect for today’s teachers climbed even further.

I found children quickly let you know what’s working – and what isn’t. I was soon reminded how smart ten year old children are, being hawkish about detail and continuity. Some of their questions were surprisingly technical too, such as the use of  first and third person narrators. I came to see the children’s feedback as a kind of highly useful collaboration.

Just before the summer break Dawn read the opening chapters of this final version of the story to her class. I was delighted to hear the majority of the class were engaged and keen to read on. If children are loving it, at least that’s a hopeful start.

Fibula, the six legged cat, colour sketch by my mother Margaret Hamlin


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.