Young readers and writers collaborate with children’s author.
Anne Stormont: I am a Support for Learning teacher in a primary school. In early 2009 I was asked to work with a group of eight eleven-year-olds in order to extend their writing skills. This was a group of able and discerning readers, whom, their teachers felt, had lost enthusiasm and motivation in their writing and who seemed to be underachieving. I was charged with turning this state of affairs round. Simple!
I set various types of writing exercises in order to stimulate the children’s creativity – providing story starters, playing games that generated ideas and using extracts from various children’s novels. This worked to a certain extent but I still didn’t feel I was getting their best work.
By chance, I was, at that time, reading an early draft of the opening chapters of John Hudspith’s children’s novel, ‘Kimi’s Secret’. I thought it was brilliant – great story-telling, original and engaging. But I wondered what the target audience would make of it. So I read a couple of chapters to my group of somewhat reluctant writers. Their responses were amazing. They liked the characters and the story and they wanted more, but they also had suggestions and ideas of their own about the text.
And that was the start. I asked Johnny if he would like to be our ‘virtual writer-in-residence’ for a term and to engage with the children on a writing project. I would read the book to the children and they would respond chapter by chapter with critiques, suggestions and comments. In return Johnny would set Kimi related writing tasks for the children to complete and submit to him for feedback. I also asked the children if they would be up for it.
John Hudspith: How could I not? What an opportunity to experience something quite wonderful – direct contact and interaction with my intended readership – I will admit to feeling a bit wobbly at the prospect, knowing fine well that if my story was not up to scratch then I would be told in no uncertain terms and that the drawing board would surely beckon. I dived in headfirst and with fingers crossed.
Anne: Both Johnny and the children took up the challenge. Everything was done by email to and from me. Johnny sent me the chapters as they became ready. And during two, hour long sessions per week, the children listened to the story, sketched and wrote their responses, filmed their round table discussions and debates, wrote Kimi inspired stories of their own and carried out detailed reviews of characters and plot. Film clips, writing, photos of detailed sketches, commentaries – all were emailed by me to Johnny and he emailed his (personalised to each child contributor) responses back.
John: Seeing my story, characters, plot line, pulled apart and jigged about and questioned in a manner which perhaps only children can be proficient at, brought me great wonders. Listening to their interpretations opened up new areas of story. Studying their observations on what worked, what did not, and what could be expounded, was an enlightening experience.
Anne: The project was one of the highlights of my thirty-plus years in teaching. The children and I looked forward to our Kimi afternoons and the productivity achieved was astounding. I loved seeing the children drawing as I read. Most of them did this – some drawing a character – others sketching out a scene. The quality of the debate about the effectiveness of a chapter, a character, a plotline was excellent and they didn’t pull their punches if they detected any shortcomings. This, of course, fed into their own writing which they approached with a new awareness of the tricks of the trade, of techniques and of the reader’s experience.
John: One thing that became apparent as the process went on was the children’s thirst, not just for good `story` but a hunger to learn. They loved to question unknown words like `discombobulated` which they would go on to use in their own writing. Receiving an email from the mother of one pupil thanking me for making her boy so enthusiastic about his work brought a rise to my chest I will never forget, as will witnessing the squirming faces, icky gagging, and hollers of laughter as Kimi’s Secret was read out loud.
Anne: One boy sought advice about how to be original – he felt that when he wrote, he imitated whoever his current favourite author was. His concern meant he felt that writing anything was pointless as he was ‘just copying’. But, after Johnny assured him that this was a common fear amongst writers, and that it was all right to model yourself on a writing hero as long as you put your own slant and ideas into the mix, the lad had the confidence to just go for it.
John: Engaging with each pupil and critiquing his work opened up a whole new world for me. I took great care of course, knowing that my input could be persuasive towards their relationship with words, not just now but in the future, but the responses to my recommendations and suggestions were always highly positive. It is this `joy` of teaching of which I certainly envy Anne for.
Anne: Another child came up with a detailed map of the land of Heart – spending a lot of time meticulously checking the facts and then planning out their own fictional landscape on which to base an extended piece of fiction writing.
John: Yes, one of the greatest satisfactions was receiving pictures in the mail; each pupil drawing their own interpretations of various characters or their ideas for new scenes which would invariably include some of the more yucky elements of Kimi’s Secret. One drawing in particular remains stamped on my retina. And that is one boy’s interpretation of Heart and how it might look if viewed from the basket of a hot air balloon. When my brother saw this picture he presumed I had sent the pupils pictures of my original storyboards because my original `sketch` married this pupil’s `sketch` almost identically. His interpretation, `built` merely from the written words in the story, was spot on. I am a great believer in the power of writer to reader connection achieved by word imagery – that psychic connection – and to see it at work like this brought a great sense of achievement along with a grin the size of Scotland.
Anne: The group also came up with suggestions for sequel plotlines and new characters for further instalments.
The children wrote alternative scene/chapter endings and also developed their own original pieces of writing in response to Johnny’s suggestions. The level of eagerness to hear what Johnny’s response to their offerings had been was incredibly high. They really wanted to please this ‘proper’ author – his credibility being much higher than a mere teacher’s.
The children also got the added bonus of taking part in a competition set by Johnny. He gave them a scenario and a couple of suggestions and tips – and they were off. They worked on their entries both in school and in their own time (willingly) and were very excited as they awaited the results. The first prize winner received a book token.
John: Judging the competition was yet another highlight. To observe these young writers at work, unbridled of rules, stuffed with ambition and incredible imagination, was an absolute pleasure.
The whole process; the reading, critiquing, the questioning, the ideas, the drawings, the writing competition – opened my story-telling mind directly to what my reader wanted. It taught me not to dumb it down, not to hold back, that my readers wanted to be challenged. These readers were hungry and it was my job to feed them. For that insight alone the process was worth it.
Anne: We rounded off the project with a Kimi-themed party – Heart-shaped cakes and ‘Kimi’s Secret’ placemats – and party-poppers and sweets courtesy of Johnny.
I was invited by the education department for whom I work to share the experience of the project at a showcase of best practice in teaching and learning. This was something I also enjoyed in spite of nerves about public speaking.
The children are now at high school, but are thrilled that the book is about to be published and can’t wait to get their hands on their own copy. They are rightly proud of their involvement in this wonderful work and so am I.
John: With a precision that one’s peers might not be able to achieve, these pupils brought their unadorned demands and slammed them on my desk. This is what we want, and this is how we want it. And so it was. Such directness, face to face with your reader, is priceless. If you’re writing for children, find yourself a willing (and hardworking) teacher and get connected. Thank you, Anne and those apt pupils, for making Kimi’s Secret what it is.