Icarus, Ghosts and Top Gear

‘I am a tosser hit me.’ As I peel the Post-it off Ryan’s back and add it to the pile I have already harvested from around the hall I reflect that my first school session is not going entirely according to plan.

My brief was simple: work with Key Stage 2 boys in eight different schools to tackle negative attitudes towards reading and writing, categorised these days under the oddly abstract title of ‘literacy’. Being a children’s author I was something of a school-visit veteran; this, however, was a very different kettle of hot water: Instead of a single hour or so, I would be spending two whole days with each group. And instead of simply pitching my books as amusingly as possible, I would be – gulp – teaching. Nevertheless, as a passionate Believer in Boys, I set out with stratospheric hopes: I would transform two hundred reluctant ten-year-olds into avid bookworms and unleash their latent creative potential on their appreciative teachers. I would achieve this, of course, with no teaching qualifications whatsoever and precious little expertise of any kind beyond the ability – some would say questionable – to write books for kids.

Now here I am in Fagin’s den with Ryan and fourteen other urchins, twelve of whom who have no more interest in ‘literacy’ than your average polecat. Their teacher has gone AWOL so I have found my own way to the hall and enlisted the boys’ help in setting out tables and chairs. I have also attempted to explain the project in a stimulating manner, something akin to reading Dostoevsky to a troupe of performing fleas and made more difficult by the hall’s role as the school’s very own Piccadilly Circus – the ganglion for an endless trickle of teachers, children and a free-range white rabbit.

‘Tell me what you’re reading at the moment,’ I ask, rather optimistically.

‘Nuffink. Don’t like reading. Books is boring,’ announces a boy called Thomas and there is a muttered chorus of agreement, like the stirring of backbenchers in the House of Commons.

‘What about writing stories?’ I persist.

Thomas, Leader of the Opposition, shakes his head firmly. ‘Nope, that’s boring, too.’

I take a deep breath and plunge into their first task: writing about Icarus, whose narrative of highs and lows I have selected from story-telling millennia because all boys can connect with a hero who ignores his dad and all boys love a tale that ends in death.

Correction: nearly all. These hard nuts refuse be diverted from their missions of mischief. There is a kerfuffle in the corner and Ryan emerges brandishing another Post-it. ‘Thomas stuck this on my back, Miss.’

I glance at the offending communication. It consists of two words in a random arrangement of upper and lower case letters: ‘hiT ME’. I look at Thomas (reprovingly I hope, although this is not an expression I have had much cause to practice in Real Life). ‘Thomas,’ I say, ‘you really shouldn’t have written this.’ Thomas is delighted by the attention and puffs himself up like a Bantam cockerel. ‘Hit is such a boring word,’ I continue with a sigh. ‘Who can think of a more interesting word that Thomas could have used? Bash? Great. Thump? Wonderful. ‘Smite? Fantastic. (There’s a Sunday School boy). Now, what about an adverb? Hard? Good. Vigorously? Brilliant. See, Thomas? Do try to do better next time.’

Thomas looks confused. A bell rings. ‘Break time, Miss,’ shouts a boy. There is a stampede to the door. I have no idea whether the bell really does signify break or whether the school is burning down. As the dust settles (and in the absence of smoke billowing in) I notice that Ryan is still here, labouring with his pencil.

‘How d’you spell “sun”, Miss?’

‘S-u-n. Aren’t you going out for break, Ryan?’

He shakes his head. ‘I don’t like break. How do you spell “was”, Miss?’

I try to tell him that for today it doesn’t matter how he spells it, but it clearly matters to Ryan. In fact it matters a lot and I spend the rest of break spelling out every single word he wants to write.

The others are back all too soon but the interlude has allowed me to rethink my tactics. From now on anyone who comes to me telling tales of treachery or torment gets short shrift. ‘I really don’t care,’ I shrug. ‘I’m not your teacher,’ and I turn back to Ryan and the other three boys who want to work. Then I spot one of the anarchists taking a breather and I try to engage him as well. It transpires that he is severely dyslexic and can neither read nor write.

‘Tell me what you want to say,’ I suggest, ‘and I’ll write it down.’

He dictates the whole story. ‘Icarus flew higher and higher,’ I write. ‘It was absolutely amazing. He could see the clouds below him and he could feel the wind on his face. He was free.’

 

The Literacy Co-ordinator at my next school wastes no time in voicing her reservations about the project before marching me to a classroom where a beady-eyed teacher is taking the register in the manner of a Siberian camp guard. By the time she has finished barking out names, any accidental cheerfulness in the room has been completely extinguished and I am left wondering how two women who so clearly dislike children could possibly have chosen careers in teaching. I am quite tempted to smite them both vigorously.

The children are then told how complicated the morning will be for everybody because Mrs Jenkins has come to do something or other with the boys.

Jenkinson, I correct.

The teachers cannot get out fast enough with their flock of girls. The boys and I are left alone. I ask if any of them know who I am or why I’m there. They all shake their heads. I tell them I write books and they look very surprised. They look at the books and decide to like them. We are off. At some stage during the morning a couple of classroom assistants wander in and sit down at the back for a quiet natter but otherwise we are left to ourselves. The boys are funny and boisterous and question absolutely everything. ‘When are you coming back?’ they demand at the end.

‘Next week.’

‘Yes!’ Arms are punched in the air. I am absurdly pleased. On the way out I bump into the Literacy Co-ordinator. ‘See you on Tuesday,’ I say.

‘Oh, are you coming again?’

I don’t know what she thinks she’s co-ordinating but it sure ain’t literacy.

 

Most of the schools I visit are in fairly deprived areas, with an average of 27% on free school meals. One entrance porch displays not the usual welcoming rainbow of artwork but posters of the local police community liaison officers. But story-writing is a great leveller, especially once you remove from the equation those aspects which depend most on ‘education’ in its broadest sense: spelling and punctuation of course, but also the need for a big framework of experience and knowledge, something children from poorer homes tend to lack. So we write about football, ghosts and Top Gear. Another glaring problem is the absence of parental support. As one teacher put it, ‘We do everything for the kids except put them to bed.’ When I ask her whether the children take reading books home, she replies, ‘We gave that up long ago. The books never came back.’

But this resignation is not shared by my next teacher. Mrs Ives is in charge of her school’s low-ability Year 5 class and anyone who doesn’t read for homework has to catch up during break. Her books always come back. When I arrive she is taking the register, but instead of simply saying ‘yes’ when their names are called, the children confirm their presence by saying why they are happy. Little Sean Davies says, ‘because Ceci Jenkinson is here,’ which makes me feel like the Queen. I give him a big smile. His idea catches on and I have to keep smiling all the way to Williams, which makes me feel even more like the Queen.

We do Icarus again and I tell them my Football Formula for writing stories. They need lots of assistance with their tasks and Mrs Ives is a fount of patience and encouragement. When I return for my second session a week later she has worked on my Football Formula to make it easier for groups like hers to grasp and I have a glimpse of a perfect world in which the children’s writers and children’s teachers team up to really make a difference.

 

I arrive at the most middle-class school on my list at school-run time and find the lane jammed with shiny black 4×4’s, like wet hippos in the Zambezi. But inside it’s just a school and the kids are just kids. These ones are lucky enough to have male teachers for Years 5 and 6. And yes – it can make a big difference. Men are – obviously – more instinctive in their understanding of boys’ needs and tend to be more tolerant of noise and physical activity. The Year 5 teacher is lanky and blond and dressed in combat trousers. He is very cool and the evidence suggests he has a gift for teaching as his class read and discuss with above-average skill. They seem to be doing fine without my input, and ambivalence needles me: nearby is a school where the NSPCC officer seems to know half the kids by name, a school which surely needs all the help it can get but which isn’t taking part in this project. No doubt the head had other priorities, but it illustrates how successful schools achieve excellence partly by utilising every opportunity that comes their way.

 

The evening before my second session in Fagin’s Den I receive an email from the head teacher telling me that the Post-it miscreants have been punished. My heart sinks: now they will be seething with resentment and even more anti-literacy than before. Worse still, they will be anti-me. But I have underestimated the head: seeking her out the next morning with the aim of defending the boys, I find she has handled the situation with great fairness and skill.

This time we are in a quiet classroom and the teacher is present. Thomas stands up and apologises on behalf of all the boys. I am given a stack of sorry-letters, plus a box of chocolate éclairs from a boy called James, bought with his own pocket money. Everyone is weighed down with repentance and humility: Fagin’s Den has turned into a Cistercian monastery. Luckily this session is to start with a Top Gear task and nobody dispels sackcloth and ashes faster than Jeremy Clarkson. We read about his trip to the North Pole and the boys write about thin ice, frost bite and getting caught with your pants down by polar bears. The teacher sits with Ryan and the dyslexic boy, helping with spelling and writing. The morning flies by and there is general disbelief when the lunch bell goes. The head pops in and gives me flowers. ‘We’ve been working really hard,’ Thomas tells her proudly. Ryan gives me a hug. ‘I like you,’ he says.

 

I have selected a winner from the stories sent in by the 4×4 school. In the best tradition of literature it is anonymous. ‘Whose is this?’ I ask on my next visit, waving it about. A skinny arm creeps upwards from a very small boy. The others tell me this is George. ‘Congratulations, George,’ I say. ‘You are the winner.’ George looks alarmed. ‘Normally I read out the winning story,’ I continue, ‘but I’m guessing you wouldn’t like me to do that.’ George shakes his head vehemently. I give him back his story and everyone claps while he frowns down at his lap. A little later I give him the book that is his prize and he whispers, ‘I was saving up all my money to buy this.’

At break time the teacher fills me in on George. ‘He’s had a very rough time,’ he tells me, ‘but now that his dad has finally got custody things should improve.’

I suggest that George was a good person to have won.

‘You couldn’t have picked anyone better if you’d tried.’

Sure enough, by the end of the session the small, tightly clenched George has unfurled just a little and I have learned not to make presumptions about my superfluity in ‘middle class’ schools.

 

At one school I suggest that the parents could come and join us at collecting-time.

‘Why would they want to do that?’ the teachers ask, baffled.

‘To see what their children have written,’ I explain, ‘and to talk about reading.’

It is made clear to me that these notions are so naïve as to hover on the fringes of lunacy and, pathetically, I give up. I am not equal to the gross indifference of such parents to their children’s achievements.

But I know a woman who is. Once again the redoubtable Mrs Ives has succeeded where others have quailed: She and her class have turned our project into a stage show and the parents and I are invited to the opening performance.

There are two prize-winners. Nial, who had never before written more than five lines all together, has produced a poignant ghost story about regret and forgiveness, and Harry has written beautifully about Icarus. Harry is a tall, strong boy with a wary look – a fledgling cuckoo in Mrs Ives’s nest of little sparrows. This afternoon he is unspeakably, heart-burstingly proud to be the winner and appoints himself my minder. I am not allowed to carry my bag or find myself a pen. Harry sits beside me while I write out certificates, spelling names for me, checking them against the list and fielding anyone who threatens to interrupt our important task.

The hall has been decorated and the children’s stories colourfully displayed. They have made star biscuits topped with red icing and blizzards of hundreds and thousands. Their hugely energetic show culminates in their very own version of Britain’s Got Talent: one contestant reads a Bad ghost story (I have been forewarned about this: ‘We all wrote it together, Miss – it’s bad on purpose’) and there is much buzzing from the judges, who are then invited by Ant (or perhaps Dec) to comment on its failings. This of course is a brilliant way of reinforcing what they have learned and I stand in awe of Mrs Ives’s cleverness. Then Nial reads his Good ghost story and receives a standing ovation.

The process is repeated for the Icarus stories. Harry steps forward with solemn pride and begins reading. ‘The last thing the boy felt before he plunged into the sea,’ he concludes, ‘was a tear-drop from his father flying above him.’

Mrs Ives and I struggle not to drop tears of our own. Afterwards I ask Harry to point out his mum. He tells me she isn’t there.

‘Perhaps she’s working,’ I say.

‘She doesn’t work.’

I glance at him but his face is carefully empty of expression. Later Mrs Ives tells me that Harry had wanted to take the 2-foot ruler home overnight, to make big red BGT crosses, but she couldn’t let him because of the likelihood that his older brother would have used it as a weapon.

 

I’m back in Fagin’s Den to give a prize for the best ghost story.

‘Perfect spelling, Ryan – well done,’ I say, handing over his sheet. Ryan is pleased. The winner is James – he of the chocolate eclairs – who has written a long and ingenious tale which to my delight includes the immortal line, ‘Bryan became a ghost when he was run over by an Eddie Stobart lorry called Peggy Marie.’

But uniquely today there is a second prize and it is for Thomas, erstwhile Leader of the Anti-reading-and-writing Brigade. His story takes up only half a page but, line for line, has made me happier than all the others put together. Ignoring his protests, I read out the following extract:

‘He tiptoed through the gluey spiders’ webs and the crackling dry leaves on the dusty floorboards, with the wind creeping through the cracks in the wall.’

Who says boys don’t do ‘literacy’?

(Names have been changed.)

 

 

 

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To Write or Write Not

This is a guest post by Ernest Hemingway, although he doesn’t actually know it. It’s his advice on writing. It needs no further comment from a minnow like me:-

  1. There is nothing to writing – all you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.
  2. Boil it down
  3. Write the tip of the iceberg and leave the rest under the water
  4. Watch what happens today
  5. Listen completely
  6. Write when there is something you know, and not before
  7. Look at words as if seeing them for the first time
  8. Use the most conventional punctuation you can
  9. Tell a story in six words
  10. Write poetry into prose
  11. Read everything so you know what you need to beat
  12. Don’t try to beat Shakespeare
  13. Accept that writing is something you can never do as well as it can be done
  14. Don’t drink when you’re writing
  15. Finish what you start
  16. Don’t worry. You’ve written before and you will write again
  17. Forget posterity. Think only of writing truly
  18. Write as well as you can with no eye on the market
  19. Remember that nobody really knows or understands the secret.

Let’s Hear It for the Teachers

In my eight years as a children’s author I have visited many primary schools: huge schools and tiny schools, schools with 50% free school meals and the school Prince William and Prince Harry went to. I’ve been to a state school where the NSPCC safeguarding officer knows many of the children by name and a private school where the gates at collecting time are crowded with chauffeurs and nannies. I’ve visited schools where everything seems stacked against achievement and schools where opportunity is laid out on a plate.

One thing unites all these schools: the dedication and energy of the teachers. I meet remarkable teachers all the time and they put me, with my comfortable, peaceful working life, to shame.

I absolutely love going into schools because I know I’m going to be just as entertained by a classroom full of 9-year-olds as they are by my tales of zombie witch-doctors and farting key-rings. But I’m only in there for a couple of hours – I’m like the naughty granny who whisks the kids out for a birthday treat, spoils them rotten with toys and sweets and then returns them to their poor mother who has to deal with the consequent nuclear fall-out. The teacher is the one who has to perform the thankless task of explaining why they can’t learn about zombie witch-doctors and farting key-rings every day. She’s the one who has to teach them how to wipe their noses and their bottoms, to write the date in the top left corner, to subtract fractions, to stay safe and be nice… and she has to do it day in, day out, whether she’s in the mood or not.

There aren’t many things I take very seriously in life but one of them is my role as a parent. Our sons are older now, so I’ve let the mask slip a bit – teenagers see straight through parental artifice in any case and it does them no favours to pretend that the world and everyone in it is perfect. But when they were small I desperately wanted everything to be reassuringly fair and comprehensible, aware that all that I did was being watched by little eyes and all that I said was being absorbed by infinitely impressionable minds.

How much greater is that responsibility when it isn’t your own children for whom you’re trying to do your best but other people’s – and there are thirty of them? When you have to spend all day trying to be cheerful and consistent and practically perfect? Even Mary Poppins could only manage it with the aid of something mysterious whose side-effect was to make her fly. For the rest of us it requires an enormous effort and the teachers who maintain that effort and make it seem so effortless are utterly amazing and should be hugely admired and appreciated.

Between a Heckler and a Hardback

Who on earth dreamed up the book festival? Putting authors on stage seems, on the face of it, bizarre. Unlike stand-up or tap-dancing, writing books is not a performance art. Go to a comedy show or a concert and you will see people perform. Go to a literary festival and you will see people talk about performing. Perhaps this is just as well: writing, like other bodily functions, is at the best of times dull, at the worst messy and preferably executed in private.

So why this fascination with authors? Would you pay an estate agent to tell you how he sold his last house? Of course not. You’d pay him not to. Perhaps it’s because story-telling is such a fundamental art, requiring no tools beyond words. Everyone uses words, which makes being a writer a bit of a swizz. Nonetheless it’s a job which is held in pleasantly high esteem, despite requiring no training or qualifications whatsoever and despite the fact that most people suspect (often quite rightly) that the only thing separating themselves from published authors is a dollop of luck. Part of that luck, of course, involves the manuscript finding just the right reader at just the right moment, but part – and I would like to think the greater part – involves stumbling on the magic that turns mere words into stories. Is this why people go to book festivals – to catch that magic? But it’s an elusive thing; try to pin it down and it slips elsewhere.

As I stepped, eight years ago, into the Bedouin village that is Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square for my very first book festival, I wished that I, too, could slip elsewhere. I had just written a book called The Mum Shop and to my great surprise I had been invited to hold an event at this granddaddy of literary shindigs. In other words, thanks to one slim and rather frivolous volume, I had gone from being someone completely anonymous and dull to someone so famous and fascinating that a tentful of people could be expected to pay real money to listen to me talk for a whole hour.

I am not one of life’s extroverts. At parties I hold quiet, almost clandestine one-to one conversations in corners and I prickle with cold sweat at the mere thought of telling a joke. Yet now I was called upon to amuse a whole crowd of complete strangers for 60 minutes. I ask you – if I could be funny by the simple expedient of opening my mouth, would I go through the tortuous (and may I say appallingly remunerated) ordeal of writing books?

My ever-lurking doubt that anyone would listen to me if they had a choice in the matter was magnified a hundredfold in Edinburgh, where of course my audience would be children – children who had been dragged away from all the much more interesting things going on outside, children who knew I could not hope to provide excitement on the same scale as legendary street entertainer Big Al Katraz unless I performed with my head in a shark-infested tank and my hands cuffed behind my back.

Anyhow, into my tent they all trooped, not quite kicking and screaming but not racing forwards with irrepressible joy either. They took their seats, I was introduced, and we were off.

Of course I had a heckler. Like most hecklers, he sat directly before me, in the centre of the front row, with his arms crossed. Unlike most hecklers, he was 5½. In a doomed attempt to warm up my audience I chatted about the main character in The Mum Shop, pointing him out on the book cover. ‘This is Oli,’ I told them brightly. ‘Is anyone here called Oli?’

‘No,’ replied a firm voice.

I looked down in surprise at the speaker. He was extremely small, but wore an expression of grim tenacity that was positively Churchillian. If there were any Olis in the audience, none of them would dare admit it now.

I struggled foolishly on. ‘Oli has a friend called Skipjack. Are there any—‘

‘NO!’ My nemesis shook his head categorically. ‘Read the book,’ he commanded.

Needless to say there was no sign of a handler in the tent who could restrain this monster with a lead and muzzle or, better still, a rubber bullet. Defeated, I began reading.

Now, The Mum Shop is about a boy who swaps his mother in the hope that her replacement will be a big improvement. This notion had gone down a storm at the primary school where I had held my maiden outing: within seconds of my introducing the theme, a forest of hands had shot up from children eager to be given the exact address of the nearest Mum Shop.

Transfer this to Edinburgh, where the back row of my tent was filled with parents of female gender all paying close attention, and you begin to see my problem, viz an instant dampener on any cosy conversations I was hoping to have with the kids about how much fun it would be to exchange their mothers for less appalling alternatives.

Reader, I died. Up there on stage, with 17 minutes still to go. Those 17 minutes remain, thankfully, a blur; I only dimly remember a kind festival helper coming to my aid and inviting questions from the few adults in the audience whom I hadn’t alienated with my subject matter. Suffice to say it was the second most embarrassing event of my life, only narrowly beaten by an Argyll Ball many moons ago to which I wore a strapless dress. Unfortunately for half of the Reel of the 51st Division I only nearly wore the strapless dress, a subtle but important difference which none of the long row of subalterns in my set felt the need to bring to my attention. I now view with extreme caution any invitation to venture north of the Tartan Curtain: these things come in threes.

Decline and Fall… and Get Up Again, and Start All Over

Eight years ago, I got lucky. No, not George Clooney on my doorstep lucky, but three-book deal from a proper publisher lucky. It happened like this: I wrote three chapters for a children’s book and sent them off – without anything as professional as a synopsis (since I had no idea how the tale would end) – to 12 agents. I reckoned my little offering would sit in a dozen slush piles for months on end – time for me to dream up and write down the rest of my book. Two days later I had an email: ‘Love it so far – can I see the rest?’ How could I say there wasn’t any rest, without looking like an utter tool? I sent back an email saying I was giving my story a final tweak and then I dropped everything – work, children, husband, new-born puppy litter – sat down and bashed out another nine chapters, so fast I almost revealed my own Higgs Boson. The resulting manuscript generated offers from not one but two publishers – a bidding war! If I had realised at the time how ridiculously lucky this was I would have been swinging from the chandelier with my knickers on my head yodelling, but I thought this was how it always went. It was simply the inevitable result of my genius. Eight years on and my next book is going to be self-published. A fiver says the question now in your head is, ‘What went wrong?’ (Face to face, people tend instead to ask, ‘What happened?’ because it sounds more polite and because they’ve heard the rumour that the heavy implication of failure in ‘What went wrong?’ sends me rushing from the room, wailing. This rumour is an exaggeration: I don’t wail, I only sob.) Well, lots of things happened and in future blogs I may touch on as many of them as my therapist will permit, but the most important point is that it’s very, very difficult these days for the traditional publication of children’s books to be viable. Unless you’re an author who scaled the ladder before the Amazon/digital revolution, or a celeb, there is a strong likelihood that the remains of your book-sale pie after your publishers, and your agency, and your printer/distributor and the retailer have all had their share will not save you from the food bank. Here’s the maths. My first three books had a cover price of £4.99. My percentage was 7% (=34p) or, if the books were on special offer (and when aren’t they?) 5% (=25p). Out of that, 15% went to my agent. That left me between 29p and 21p per book. In Germany my books sell for €7.99 (£5.83), and in Italy for €8.50 (£6.20). How can European publishers ask for so much more? Because they have maintained a Net Book Agreement, which means there are no discounters or supermarkets undercutting bookshop prices. (There are additional reasons, such as a much stronger reading culture and a higher value placed on education and learning.) Now, I admit I wouldn’t mind being a millionaire but that’s not actually what I write for. (Sometimes I ask myself just exactly what I do write for, and then I go into a school and I remember.) But I do need to earn more than peanuts. Somewhere between a million pounds and peanuts – that’s where the problem lies. And the more children’s writers who face this problem, the more will have to stop writing and do something more sensible instead. And then who’ll miss out? The kids.