Monday 12 May 2014

4 Classic School Visit Questions, by Piers Torday

I believe that children, especially primary school age children, are the most restlessly creative and imaginative human beings alive. Dragons who hate going to the dentist, parrots who have learned to fly underwater, and pandas who turn pineapples into hats are just a few of the recent inspiring creations from some of my creative writing workshops in schools.

Dana Fradon (New Yorker, 1953)

But they are also children, which means they are not always either aware of this huge imaginative potential, or equipped to access it on demand or under pressure. And of course, as children, they lack the emotional maturity, craft or life experience to do much with it - but that doesn't invalidate the strength of the imagination.

Left to their own devices, an arm curved round a piece of paper and a pen in their hand, endless improvised drawings and visualisations tumble forth with an unselfconscious energy that most adults - whether they are engaged in a creative industry or not - would envy. Every school visit for me proves Baudelaire right - "Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will."

Baudelaire looking at his most unchild friendly

However in school visits, this genius (quite understandably) often deserts children, when after forty minutes or so of authorial prancing round, they are asked to function like dull grown ups at a literary festival and "ask me a question".

Too often, this places the discourse no longer in the world of castle in the clouds world of make-believe and stories, but in the constant over-the-shoulder looking world of careers, worry, tested expectation and obsessive productivity that our current cultural system irrevocably steers most human beings towards. And so, they try to function accordingly, and I'm sure many of you will have heard the questions below.

I always answer them as truthfully and as honestly as I can, because it is impossible on such brief acquaintance to separate the earnest and authentic enquiry by the next J K Rowling from the unthinking auto-response nervously asked on rote. But here are some more alternative replies I dream of on the bus back.

1) How long did it take you to write your book?

I wrote this book in forty seconds while my demon wrapped a girdle around the world 


I have been labouring on this tome since the dawn of time, when beings as yet unknown to man appeared in the sacred flame, whispering the collective knowledge of the last great civilization, and bid me decode them for your permanent improvement.

2) Do you know any celebrities?

I wouldn't say I know that many celebrities, but put it this way - Harry Styles is my chauffeur.

Harry Styles
Harry Styles has recently abandoned a successful pop career to drive children's authors to school visits.

3) How much do you get paid?

Every week, the Aka Khan, the world's richest man no-one has heard of, sends me a private jet laden with jewels and treasure beyond your imagining from his vaults, such is the value he places on children's literature.

4) Are you going to write any more books?

I will write as the muse dictates. Whether it be a book a week, or a book every quarter of century, the volume is irrelevant - what counts is the power of the story and love for life, the world and all she has to offer contained within its pages.

But of course - every fifth question can be a gem. What's the most unexpected thing you've been asked on a school visit, and what did you reply?

I think my favourite is still the boy who said "Could you make your next book a bit shorter?"

Piers Torday


Pippa Goodhart said...

It's the very youngest children who surprise, usually by telling you something rather than asking an actual question. "My Auntie Lilly's got a new fridge-freezer" was one that I remember.
I often ask what they'd like to find on the other side of a secret door, and I ban money, jewels, sweets or X boxes (because, otherwise, that's what they all tend to go for). Many struggle to think beyond those things, but once they get the idea that there could be other worlds beyond the door, many play that game brilliantly.

Piers Torday said...

Yes! I like the non-sequiturs which are quite a challenge to follow up...and asking them those questions is a lovely idea.

Nick Green said...

Question time is just a chance for the kids to poke this visiting bear with sticks to make it react a bit more. They don't really care what they ask, and aren't really interested in the specifics of the answer... they just want to prompt more action from the (by now drying-up) visitor.

Penny Dolan said...

There's huge attraction about the fantasy answers that spring into the mind at such times, Piers, though I've learned to be careful about giving in to them when the young enquirer is not in a mood for fun!

I do feel saddened when "thinking up interesting questions" has obviously been set as a very serious pre-visit task which means the questions have little spontaneity, even though the intention is good.

Do like the secret door idea, Pippa!

Piers Torday said...

I agree Penny - the fantasy answers stay in my head for that reason.

But I do think Pippa's strategy of turning Nick's dull bear poking question time on its head by asking such fun questions of them is the way forward....

Sue Bursztynski said...

As a teacher librarian I get my best questions by bribery. I offer a copy of the book in exchange for the most interesting question. That's the one I use to break the ice - once they see someone else has started, they're less shy about asking. I invite the guest to choose the question they thought most interesting.. A bit extravagant, but it works. Of course, I work with teenagers, so not likely any of them will respond to "What woud you like to find on the other side of a magic door?" because their classmates would tease them after.

Stroppy Author said...

It wasn't a school visit - I was just picking up my daughter from school - but one child asked me 'I want to be a writer. What do you suggest I do?' and to my lasting shame, after a bad day of editorial arguments, I said 'think again'. Next time I will be more imaginative, I promise!

Sue Purkiss said...

I think as Pippa says, it's the statements that are funniest - usually confided in a dreamy sort of voice: "I had a dream last night..." or "We've got a new kitten..."

Piers Torday said...

My other favourite was when, having given a talk to a class about what inspired me to become a writer, how I came up with ideas for stories, how I researched them and finished by reading out a bit of my book, at the end a boy came up and said - 'Excuse me, but are you an author?'

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Excellent! I love funny kids' questions. Especially when they're actually very relevant, such as "How do you stick all the pages together?" or "Wasn't it boring to write the same story all these times?" which can lead into interesting discussions of the printing & binding process...

my favourite one remains "Where are your boob straps?" (bra straps, I assume) one day when I was wearing a strapless dress...

Clémentine Beauvais said...

[@ Pippa: I laughed out loud at Auntie Lilly's new frigde-freezer. Amazing.]

C.J.Busby said...

I was telling a school recently about my new book, DEEP AMBER, only to get about 6 or 7 kids in a row tell me 'I've got a cousin/auntie/sister/friend called Amber'... It set me the interesting challenge of how many different ways you can find to say: "Really? That's amazing! What a coincidence!"

(The 'how is a book really made?' questions are quite good too - one girl asked me, "How do you get the writing in your books so black?")


Piers Torday said...

This is all reassuringly familiar. I also always get asked if I did the illustrations, and if I didn't, how "they got into the book" as well as how I made the colours on the cover.

I am definitely going to research the book production process because at the moment not sure I know much more than them.

My favourite question/statement: "One time, we were on holiday in Ireland, and my mum's friend had this massive dog."