I spend a lot of time in primary schools, chatting to upper primary age children about adventures and monsters, heroines and heroes, myths and legends, and my Fabled Beast Chronicles. As a writer and storyteller I get on well with 10 year olds - we seem to enjoy the same kinds of stories.
So a roomful of 10 year olds, or 9 year olds, or 8 year olds (or 4 year olds, when I’m reading one of my picture books) is not scary for me. Not even if there are several hundred of them in a large school hall. That’s my natural environment, as an on-the-road author.
However, a room full of teenagers? That’s scary, isn’t it? It’s certainly not my natural environment, or not until recently.
Because I published a teen novel this year, the YA thriller Mind Blind, and this month, I took Mind Blind on tour, chatting to widely varying numbers of teenagers in secondary school libraries, English classrooms and school canteens.
And I thought this would be completely different from talking to readers in primary schools.
I really did expect teenagers in large groups to be scary. More critical perhaps, less open. Taller than me, certainly. Wearing more makeup and fancier shoes than me…
And I’ve certainly discovered that secondary school events are very different from primary events, but not for the reasons I expected.
So long as I make it clear I’m not trying to teach them anything, that I’m just there to share my passion for ‘what happens next’, and once I’ve shown that I’m not concerned about rules or exams, that I’m prepared to admit mistakes and make a bit of an idiot of myself at the front of the room, then the secondary pupils are usually very open and enthusiastic about sharing their own thoughts, ideas and questions. Just like the primary school pupils.
One striking difference from primary events is that as young writers grow, as they read and write more, they begin to develop a good working knowledge of their own writing style and opinions, which makes for fascinating discussions about different and equally valid ways of planning / not planning stories, what makes a satisfying ending, and how to treat characters and readers.
But the main difference I’ve found between primary and secondary events is the timetable! I usually spend an hour or more with primary children. I can usually see them from the start of the school day until playtime or from the end of playtime until lunchtime, or a nice long chat after lunchtime. Primary teachers can be delightfully flexible, and are usually very keen for me to have as long as possible with their pupils.
But in secondary schools the timetable is the boss. I may be told that I can see the pupils for period 3, which is 10.48 to 11.36 exactly, and that the class will have to go to their teacher to register first, so that might really be 10.54 to 11.36, and that they have to be packed and ready to leave when the bell goes, so that’s more likely to be from 10.54 to 11.32…
So I don’t get nearly as long as I’d like. I can’t just blether on, I have to be more organised, more focused, and get to the meat of what I want to do faster. But once I have got my head round the much shorter session time, then it’s fine. Because really, wherever I am, I’m just chatting to people about stories, whatever age those people are.
So now that I’ve accepted my subservience to the tyranny of the timetable, I’ve realised that teenagers aren’t that scary at all. Not even 170 of them in an echoey old school canteen. They are equally as imaginative and enthusiastic and full of adventure as primary pupils. They may just need a little extra encouragement to step out of the confines of the timetable themselves and let their imaginations fly free.
Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.
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