Last year Alison Prince and 21 children aged seven to eleven wrote a book together. The project, sponsored by Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts and made possible by a contract from publisher Marilyn Malin, lasted two terms. It had an enormous impact on the tiny two-classroom school on the edge of the fen.
Chris Gudgin, a teaching head whose class Alison Prince worked with, describes what happened.
There are some people with whom you feel immediately ‘at home’. It was like that when I first met Alison Prince, at the beginning of her two-term residency at my school. A lunch-time chat reinforced first impressions and revealed that our attitude towards children’s learning had much in common.
Before turning to full-time writing, Alison had run a large Art Department in a secondary school and she liked the way our children are encouraged to use art as a way of exploring and deepening their understanding of a topic. We both felt that children should be actively involved in their learning, making decisions about what to do next and responding personally and appropriately to a variety of experiences. These, we felt, would be important elements for the success of the proposed co-operative writing project.
Alison brought two preconceived ideas to the first discussion session with the children – a title, How’s Business, and a character called Howard. Who he was and what his business involved would be up to the children to decide. As one might imagine, at first contributions came from the more confident children, but as the morning wore on many more offered suggestions. Alison listened patiently – never cutting anyone short and making encouraging comments. I remained on the sidelines, admiring Alison’s sensitive handling of the discussion and wondering how she could possibly make sense out of all the ideas.
There was a consensus that How was a collector – probably of old bones and fossils (like a number of children in the class) but really open to anything interesting. Incredibly, at that stage, he was also a punk complete with multi-coloured hair and amazing clothes!
I was anxious that the children should keep a diary of Alison’s visits and so towards the end of the session they returned to their desks and made notes so that they could write up an account of the morning’s work later. This became the pattern for the next four to five visits. The diary gave the children a chance to respond privately and individually to the discussion. The writing and drawing helped them to clarify their thoughts and gave them an aide-memoire for the next session. Alison and I had already decided that her visits should not fall on the same day each week. This would make it too much like a timetabled lesson, whereas we wanted to put across the idea that she would come only when it was necessary for her to refer to the children. This would be a more realistic model of how a writer works and make the children aware that they were a necessary part of the creative process.
As the weeks went by it was interesting to see how the children’s oral skills developed. All the children were contributing now, and what was even more gratifying was that they were interacting far more effectively – taking up and developing each other’s ideas, or firmly but kindly pointing out the flaws in another’s argument.
The children were adamant that there should be a derelict house with a secret den which could be the setting for some creepy happenings. So to help the children work out some ideas for a plot, Alison and I divided them into groups and asked them to devise a short play and perform it for the others. Before they set to work Alison explained the meaning of the term ‘cliffhanger’ and a short discussion on how to create tension and excitement followed. Drama of this sort is very little different from the games I see in the playground virtually every day and we had no difficulty in persuading the children to enter into the spirit of things. An unforeseen benefit of the exercise was revealed when the children came to record their activities. Suddenly they were confronted with the need to differentiate between dialogue and narrative. So here was an opportunity to teach the conventions.
A particularly fruitful discussion took place on one occasion when Alison asked the children to tell her everything they knew about the surrounding villages. The children realised that here was something about which Alison knew nothing and they told her all manner of things. Just down the road, near the Parish Church at Sempringham, there was once a great Abbey church which served a monastery. Here St Gilbert had founded the Gilbertines. They told Alison how Gilbert’s mother had dreamed that the moon had come down and settled in her lap and that this had been interpreted as a sign that the child she was expecting would be great. They spoke of the old railway station at Billingborough which now belongs to a seed merchant. (Perhaps How could live in an old railway building’?) They told her that the present school building was on the site of a prisoner of war camp and that during dry weather the outlines of some of the buildings appear on the playing field. This discussion led to a suggestion by James that ‘perhaps How could have some connection with the past’. I thought this an extremely sophisticated comment for an eight-year-old and wondered for a long time how this idea might have come about, until I remembered that we had read Stig of the Dump as a class story and perhaps James had unconsciously taken this element from it. Whatever the case, his comment turned out to be quite significant. Some time later, on a cold, foggy morning, Alison suggested we should walk down the fen road and try to look at the countryside with the eyes of a stranger and decide what had changed over the last hundred years or so.
The children took up the idea with a will and came back to school cold and damp but brimming with observations, ideas and suggestions. The visit convinced them that the story should be set in their own village and that perhaps How could be new to the area, finding the empty landscape strange and experiencing hostility from the local children. After several weeks and a lot of talk the ideas were beginning to take shape. A visit to the old people’s home behind the school revealed more information about the area, and how things had changed since the war.
Alison now had enough material to write the first chapter and when she brought the first long-hand draft to school, the children eagerly formed a circle and waited for her to begin. They listened spellbound as she read the account of How’s first journey across the unfamiliar fen landscape to his new school. They turned to each other and almost glowed with pleasure and excitement as they recognised features from their fenland walk – the huge sky, the lightning-struck tree, the brim-full dykes and the vague, grey shapes of Horbling and Billingborough churches. So wrapped up in the story were they that when Alison stopped there was a moment of complete silence before they burst into spontaneous applause. It was a wonderful moment and I think some children realised for the first time that they were helping to write a real book.
You can imagine how devastated they were when some time later Alison told them that the whole chapter would have to be discarded. The publisher, Marilyn Malin, had pointed out that it was very similar to the beginning of Jill Paton Walsh’s book, Gaffer Samson’s Luck. It was pure coincidence as none of us had read the book, but it was nonetheless true. Seemingly they were back to square one. This was nothing new for Alison but for the children it was a lesson learned the hard way.’ Alison searched for a solution to the problem which didn’t involve throwing away all the children’s suggestions for characters and locations and eventually came up with the idea of setting the story back 40 years during the Second World War. When this was put to the children, they enthusiastically agreed.
And so How became an evacuee from the London blitz, sent to his Aunty Cath in Lincolnshire and experiencing all the difficulties we had worked out in earlier sessions, and finding a friend in Anna, a strange dark-haired girl from Central Europe.
Naturally the children’s knowledge of the 1940s was very sketchy and so I had the problem of giving them some experience of the period in a fairly short space of time. Fortunately a small military museum had been established in the neighbouring village of Billingborough. A visit was arranged and the owner, Jim Livermore, turned out to be extremely helpful. He had been a boy in London during the blitz and was a mine of information. We mounted our own exhibition of wartime memorabilia at school and built a full-sized Anderson shelter in the corridor. Here groups of children listened to a tape recording of an air-raid and wrote letters to imaginary friends in the country describing their fears and feelings about the blitz. The school’s log book and admissions register proved useful sources of information about evacuee children who were billeted on Horbling families and provided opportunities for data collection and graph work.
Time was marching on and we had to get back to the story. I was able to organise a visit to an old vicarage which had been empty for three years. It was hardly the derelict house the children wanted in the story – but it was the best I could do. We investigated the flemish-gabled outbuilding first and here we discovered the perfect place for a den, complete with a concealed trap-door in the ceiling. Surely this was where How and Anna should have their secret place. In the house the children found much to interest them and they produced some good observational drawings. A number of them were fascinated by a metal bar which ran from the main staircase wall to support the bannister rail. The staircase and the bar feature in the story as the location for a dangerous dare when How at last begins to earn the respect of the village children.
Another visit was made, this time to the old railway station in Billingborough. Although there have been one or two additions to the building, basically very little has been changed. We were able to go inside and stand where the ticket office had been and we were shown where cast iron brackets once supported a roof which afforded travellers a little shelter in wet weather. The children were asked to sit on the opposite platform and construct a drawing of the building as it was 40 years ago. These were used later as working drawings for a model made from cardboard and scrap materials.
Alison and I had decided at an early stage that we should take the children out whenever possible. The visits became an extremely important part of the project. Educationally they were a sound idea in that they provided first-hand experiences which stimulated a range of responses from the children (discussion, writing, drawing. painting, modelling, etc.) but they were also a rich source of ideas for the story itself. What was more, the shared experiences improved the interaction within the group.
By the middle of May, the basic shape of the story was settled and we began work on a number of large-scale models. How and Anna were made life-size with the aid of broomsticks, corrugated card and some old clothes. How’s terraced house in London, Aunty Cath’s cottage and the railway station all began to take shape. Alison came to school most weeks with a new chapter which was received as enthusiastically as ever, and by the end of the summer term, the book was finished.
The value of the experience will not be lost after the book is published this summer because the school as a whole has gained a new insight into writing, so that succeeding generations of children will enjoy the benefits of the project long after How’s Business has become just another book on the library shelf.
Alison Prince, Marilyn Malin Books, 0 233 98038 5, £5.95
Alison’s co-authors were from the junior class of Horbling Brown’s C of E School in Lincolnshire.