Tuesday 6 October 2020

Some People Don't Like Writing Stories (plus bonus Carnegie winners) by Paul May

My grandson (aged 6) does not like writing stories. I was a teacher in primary schools for more than thirty years and I always wondered why such emphasis was placed on the ability of young children to write stories. This relates, I think, to Anne Rooney’s piece last month about the relative values placed on fiction and non-fiction both by schools and by parents. 


I am still wondering why we make little children write stories. I suspect it is because, when teaching five- and six-year-olds to do something which they would never need to do if they weren’t at school, (ie writing) you have to think of something—anything—for them to write. For this reason most tasks (‘learning activities’) given to children of this age are highly artificial. They don’t really need to write instructions on making a cup of tea, or a postcard home from a place they have pretended to have gone. They do not need to recount their visit to the safari park in writing, especially if it’s only going to be written in an exercise book and read by no one but the teacher.


But, sadly for all our futures, here in the UK we force our children into full-time formal education from the age of 5 and often younger, and if we’re going to teach them to read and write we have to think of something for them to write about. Imaginative teachers find ways to make this work by doing their best to make the children’s writing purposeful, by making books, by sharing and publishing the writing or, for example, by writing real letters to real people. 


But stories? Does a 6-year-old really know enough about people and life to start making it up? What they usually do if asked to ‘write a story’, is retell, with changes, stories they’ve heard or movies they’ve watched or computer games they’ve played, which is kind of OK if that’s what you like doing (and some would say it’s what all fiction writers do), but it’s like those display boards covered with Van Gogh sunflower copies you see in primary schools these days – isn’t it better to forget about Van Gogh and look at a real flower, any flower?


And the process of getting these young children to write a story can be so laboured and tortuous that it is hard to believe that it doesn’t put most of them off. Often it’s story writing with ‘scaffolding’, one paragraph or even one sentence at a time, following a pre-ordained structure and embellished with ‘wow’ words, so a character can’t be ‘sad’, or ‘big’ but has to be ‘melancholy’ or ‘gigantic’ in order to attract maximum praise, whether or not the child or even the teacher knows if the multisyllabic replacement means what they think it does.


Are the children’s lives enriched by this process? Is it increasing their chances of becoming a wealthy writer of fiction when they leave school? And where did it originate, this idea that ‘making up stories’ is a good thing for small children to do? This is not myth, or legend; it’s not folk-tale or fairy-tale, because these are things traditionally passed on orally, and while they may be embellished by the teller and changed subtly over time, they aren’t conjured out of thin air. 


I suspect that some time in the last 100 years a teacher was watching young children play make-belief games and reasoned that if they were so good at pretending to be mums and dads and dogs and babies and making up things for them to do, or if they were so totally absorbed int miniature worlds, then they’d be able to write stories. But writing, for me at least, is nothing like playing games. And isn’t it interesting that when engaged in role-play children so often revert to roles they know intimately (even when the ‘role-play area’ has been laboriously Star Wars themed by dedicated teaching assistants)?


For me, the act of observing the real world and the actions of people and creatures in it, comes before making things up to write on a piece of paper or a computer. The National Curriculum guidance for KS1 is actually balanced and sensible though it doesn’t, it seems to me, reflect what really goes on in schools, and also manages to sound daunting. If only I could ‘encapsulate my thought, sentence by sentence’. Maybe one day. Which reminds me that writing stories, making them up, is very, very difficult; way more so than describing what you have seen and done and thought, and goodness knows, that’s hard enough!


Frontispiece from Sea Change
by M Leszczynski 

And so to the Carnegie. I haven’t been neglecting my reading and can report that Richard Armstrong’s Sea Change, the 1948 winner, was the first YA title to win, although the category didn’t exist then as far as I know. It’s a straightforward coming-of-age story in which a sixteen-year-old boy becomes a man, saving a ship in stormy seas, recognizing his own misjudgements and mistakes and reaching the end of the story with ‘confidence in his stride and eagerness in his face.’ There is no sex in this book, and no women either. Not one. It is not Conrad and it is not Hornblower—the one more complex and the other more fun. It has a moral, too. It’s a serious piece of work, written with the best of intentions to prepare its readers for the harsh realities of the adult world, but I would not have read it as a boy and to a modern adult the writing seems laboured and the characterisation thin.


Lots of words from Agnes Allen

I also read Agnes Allen’s The Story of Your Home (1949). Hooray! It’s a non-fiction title! I enjoyed it in parts, but despite the illustrations by Allen's husband, Jack, it is very wordy indeed, and although it is good on the development of the timber-framed house it is vague about the huge developments in building technology in the 20th century. Allen makes a valiant effort to describe the homes and lives of the less well-off, but the central thread about the development of dwellings inevitably focuses on those historical buildings we know most about, mostly the homes of the wealthy.

More words but better ones

I also found the tone of the book off-putting, as it constantly addresses the young reader with ‘I expect you . . .’ ‘You see . . .’ ‘I’m afraid you would have had rather a rough time . . .’ I know it's of its time, but the Quennels’ books about Everyday Life in England are far less 'teachery' despite being written thirty years earlier, and R J Unstead’s slightly later history books are much more accessible. Unstead's writing style and layout feel far more modern, even though the history itself is suspect. Try looking for 'slavery' in the index of A History of Britain. It is entirely absent, and you will read that Britain's wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries was based on 'trade.' 

Marcus Crouch thought that Agnes Allen was ‘neither condescending nor aggressively didactic.’ He also pointed out that there was a very real danger of ‘crowding the story with detail and confusing the reader with a multiplicity of facts.’  He thought Agnes Allen avoided this pitfall, but I'm not so sure. Maybe children back then had a greater thirst for knowledge and a greater tolerance for this slightly cloying mode of address, but if any child ever read this book (‘easy to read and as absorbing as a story book’) from cover to cover, I will eat my hat. 

A more welcoming spread from
Unstead's Looking at History (1955)

Here are a couple of extracts from The Story of Your Home that indicate both the tone of the text and the way in which the book has dated.


“I am sure you have all read exciting stories of the Middle Ages in which people have hidden behind the arras and heard things they were not meant to hear.”


“What a difference such a simple thing as a box of matches has made in our homes. We wonder how people ever got on without them.” 


It occurs to me that these would make perfect cartoon captions—perhaps in the style of Glen Baxter or the New Yorker magazine. 

Paul May's website




1 comment:

Andrew Preston said...

I went to primary school from the late 1950's.  I don't recall story writing featuring in any way during those years. I do recall coasting it through most of my school days, only waking up around exam time. And for the weekly handing out of the little stick on gold stars, and Rowntrees Fruit Gums. Then it was back to sleep.

The other side of the equation was that in both of my early primary schools, in Glasgow, the norm was belting the pupils. You could hardly move without some vicious b of a teacher calling you out for some perceived infringement.

Years later, at university in Glasgow, I shared a flat with several other engineers. Across the landing were 3 women in their early/mid twenties.  They seemed hard as nails. You'd meet them going up or down the stairs. A "... Hiya.... " would be met with a sharp ".. Yes.. ?". 

One night we were all gathered round the roaring fire in the flat ( New bag of coal from the corner shop ).Someone mentioned the neighbours. "I think they're teachers.... ".
"Ah, right..".
A collective silent moment of understanding.
I don't think my primary schools were the only places dishing out the thrashings.