Friday, 29 March 2013

Back To School - by Emma Barnes

7th March 2013 was World Book Day. As usual, the requests came in: “Would you like to visit our school for Book Week...the children would love to meet a real, live author”. This year I visited primaries in Sheffield, Leeds, North Yorkshire and Edinburgh and, now that all the rushing about is over, I’ve time to reflect a bit about what authors can bring to schools.

When I visit a school, part of it is “the talk” – often to an assembly group. In this session I’m trying to do a few things: share my excitement about books and reading, get across that reading is not a “worthy” activity but something that can take you into new worlds and generate real, edge-of –the-seat excitement; and convey that my job is fundamentally about STORY – creating narratives that people want to read, and where all the time they are demanding “what happens next?”

 It’s important for primary children to realise that this is an entirely different skill to handwriting, spelling or punctuation (which they may be bad at, and heartily dislike.) It’s not necessarily got much to do with adverbs, “openers”, “connectives” or “wow words” either. These are just parts of the tool-kit, that can be brought out when required. The aim is to create the world – the characters within it – and their story.

As well as talking to the children, I do workshops. I spend a lot of time preparing these, and asking myself the question – what extra thing can I, as a writer, bring to the children? What can I provide, that a teacher, however well-trained and inspired, might not?

....What if your mother was a witch?
Illustrator: Emma Chichester Clark
Increasingly, I focus on story. A lot of the writing that children do in class is not based around creating stories – yet for me, that is the key part of being a writer. And it’s hard, incredibly hard, to come up with a gripping story – one that holds attention, suspends disbelief and both surprises and satisfies.

Imagine Jessica's problem....

So most of my workshops are about finding different ways into a story. Whether it’s about inventing a surprising character (a mermaid who can’t swim, a dragon that can’t breathe fire), looking at a place you know and searching out the things that happen there, or thinking about a “What If...” situation...What if your mother was a witch? (Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher). What if your new dog turned out to be a wolf? (Wolfie).

Some of the most fun I’ve had in schools recently has been creating stories in groups. I start the ball rolling...”What is your character’s name?” “How old are they?” And in a surprisingly short time we will develop a story...sometimes an amazing story, in which I will be astonished by the creativity and imagination all around me. “I think I’ll steal this one for my next book” I tell them (actually quite tempted!)

Best of all are the comments from teachers, about the children who have taken their stories home, or gone on working at them at playtime or in class. Sometimes I’m sent copies of the finished versions!

Emma Barnes's web-site
Emma's latest book is Wolfie - available from Amazon
 Wolfie: "funny, clever and satisfying" - Book of the Week, Books for Keeps


Joan Lennon said...

Your events sound wonderful - and so important - long after that year with the really deadening teacher is over the kids will still remember the creative sparks flying!

C.J.Busby said...

Thanks, Emma - really interesting to hear what other people do. That's a couple of posts on school visits I've read recently that emphasised that we need to NOT be teachers, and it's a warning to bear in mind. I have found myself getting more 'teacherly' as I've gone on, partly because you feel somehow that's what they want you for, partly because it's an easy model, but of course you have to focus on what's really important and different about being a writer, rather than a teacher! I once went to a Michael Morpurgo talk, though, and he spent quite a bit of it talking about punctuation!!

Emma Barnes said...

I've learnt a lot from speaking with teachers and hearing about the activities that they are doing with children. I suppose what I meant to say is that there is no point in my doing something that they are already doing as part of a planned curriculum - I need to try and bring something from a writer's perspective. And at the moment I think a focus on the "story-bulding" side works well.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A lovely post Emma that has regenerated my enthusiasm. And a timely reminder not to fall into the 'teacher' mode which is so easy to do. As Joan said these visits will be remembered for a long time after... who knows you might be inspiring a future best seller!