Rosalind Kerven on an experiment in writing with children
Up to now I’ve always preferred to get on quietly with writing books rather than talking about them. But of course, having school-age children of your own changes everything. `You’ll have to come in and do some story work with the children,’ insisted my oldest daughter’s teacher, Isobel Hope, every time I saw her. Infected by her enthusiasm, how could I say no?
We live in rural Northumberland and Natasha’s school is a small village one offering a friendly atmosphere and lots of individual attention. The top class that I was to work with has only 18 pupils but their ages range from six to nine and their abilities from the barely literate to those who constantly have their noses glued to a good book.
Where to start? Our interests converged splendidly when Isobel began to plan a class project on myths and legends. I have written eight collections of these from many cultures, and traditional stories are one of my passions. She was keen to use my skills not just to share and talk about the stories with the children, but also to stimulate them into some `better’ writing of their own. One of my most successful books has been Earth Magic, Sky Magic, a collection of traditional tales from the North American Indians, and it was to these extraordinary and uplifting tales that we turned for inspiration.
We launched into the project with a couple of simple story-telling sessions. I was gratified to see how much power a good story can exert on a normally fidgety, wriggly, day-dreamy class of young children. For a blissful 15 minutes, as they listened to the strange adventures of `The Great Mystery Lake’ and then to `Moon Woman and the Arrow Chain Boys’, the room was still and silent and the children enrapt – an author’s reward worth any amount of adult reviews, I can assure you.
So what grabbed them about these tales? The words and interpretations of the retellings are mine, of course; but the plots, the characters, the settings, all come from the great storytellers of a distant place, a lost time. Firstly, in their present form they are short and to the point. There’s no room for waffle: they’re really action-packed. And the action itself is so `different’ from run of the mill fiction, this is a world where mere children set out to `prove’ themselves by embarking on long and dangerous quests, where a boy can magically transform himself into a kingfisher and back again; and where it’s possible to tame even the most terrifying giants of nature if you only treat them with the correct type of respect. The characters, sparsely yet vividly sketched, are larger than life and include an irresistible gallery of monsters, tricksters and heroes of both sexes and many species. The settings are equally dramatic: one can climb to the moon, dive to strange underwater worlds or walk to beyond the edge of the earth.
American Indian stories have another particularly useful quality: their cultural setting is the tribe, a compact, neatly defined social unit with its own rules and beliefs. Isobel agreed that this would make a convenient and intriguing framework within which the children could set their own stories.
The class invented its own tribe, which we named Thropton after the school and village. Isobel spent a number of sessions helping them work out their lifestyles and rules. Most of the boys opted to be hunters, whilst the girls generally wanted to look after their tree-houses and wigwams. (As an anthropologist I was intrigued that despite the current climate for change and a preponderance of working mums, these children still preferred the traditional patterns of work practised by virtually every so-called `primitive’ society in the world.) They agreed on a highly democratic system of rule by consensus, without formal leaders: this provided a welcome opportunity for talking about morals, and some of the ideas thrown up later formed the basis of the children’s stories, with supernatural punishments imposed on members of the tribe who broke the rules.
Quite a lot of American Indian stories feature culture-heroes – sometimes human, more often animal – a concept which I translated to the children as magic helpers’. For example there is Spider Woman, a strict but kindly demi-goddess, always ready to help and reform those who get themselves into trouble; and Coyote whose mischievously comical exploits rival Anansi or Brer Rabbit any day. Fortuitously, our own `magic helper’ was eagerly waiting in the wings, in the shape of Tigger the school cat. The children agreed she would be an excellent hook on which to hang their stories.
The ultimate aim was to produce our own, original book of Thropton myths and legends, but first we tried to improve the children’s general writing skills. As a group, and then individually, we practised describing both characters and settings in new, more evocative ways. We also talked more generally about how to go about story writing. Isobel is a great one for planning a story carefully before the actual writing. I was able to balance this formality by talking about using imagination, which of course is the creative writer’s most indispensable tool. `Imagination is like a tube of toothpaste,’ I told them; `you might think you’ve used it all, but give it an extra squeeze and you’ll be amazed how much more comes out.’ I also urged them to spend lots of time simply thinking about their ideas outside the classroom `in the bath, on a long journey, before you go to sleep …’ Thinking is another important but rather vague writer’s skill which can easily get overlooked (I’m sure I can’t be the only writer who’s spent a whole three years growing a particular novel in my head before writing down a single word of it!). Another trick of the trade we both tried to impress on them was the ability to work on a first draft, not to be afraid to change things and especially to cross things out. Anyone who’s written for publication knows that making a passage shorter almost always improves it, but of course this is a discipline that doesn’t come easily to youthful authors who feel that the more lines they fill, the greater the achievement.
At last it was time to get to work on the stories for their `big book’. I suggested a wide selection of titles to get them going, ranging from the traditional `How Tigger Got Her Magic’ to the contemporary ‘Tigger and the Space Aliens’; several of the children subsequently invented their own. The first drafts were laboriously written, then Isobel and I took turns to sit with each child and cajole them to make improvements. By the end of term we had 18 highly original tales about the Thropton Tribe and Tigger the Cat, of which even the least able could feel justly proud.
To my delight, most of the stories really did have the feel of a genuine traditional tale. The plots tended to feature a near disaster averted with the help of Tiger’s magic, and a moral message either explicitly or implicitly included. There was lots of `other worldliness’, a good selection of magic songs and a few truly memorable inventions, such as Tigger’s powers to make rain when the tribe pulled her tail; and the rainbow-coloured mushrooms that caused new trees to grow after the tribal lands were devastated by fire. Each child illustrated her/his own story, and they held a class competition with everyone voting to choose the cover picture. With a bit of amateur desk-top publishing, everyone had their own copy to keep, and we printed extras to sell at the school summer fair.
So what did we all get out of it?
The children learned that good writing always requires hard work – but the thrill of seeing yourself in print makes it all worthwhile. Isobel reports that most have continued to produce `better’ writing in the classroom. They also gained a glimpse into the totally different world of the North American Indians – a world where life was simple and close to nature, and where sadly forgotten values such as courage, loyalty, gentleness, respect and steadfastness still reigned supreme. Such insights contribute to the general ethos of looking at different cultures with sympathy and understanding. Maybe they also saw that the skilful use of words and imagination can create its own special kind of magic.
Working with Isobel made us both appreciate how stimulating it can be for two totally different types of professional to mix their ideas in the melting pot. This was virtually unexplored territory for both of us, and we let each session evolve naturally from the last. The end result was probably better than either of us had dared to hope for. It would be very interesting to repeat the exercise with older children, who would be more receptive to the myths’ deeper meanings, and more able to imitate the particular style of the traditional storyteller.
As a writer, I learned many useful lessons about my readers. Firstly, I discovered that today’s children tend to perceive many things differently from my own childhood memories, and that authors who assume they share the same language risk leaving their readers puzzled and disconnected from the story. One of our most enlightening discussions centred on the American Indians’ belief in magic. To my horror, most of the children defined `magic’ as Paul Daniels’ TV-style magic tricks! We solved the problem by using the phrase ‘mystery-magic’; but it made me realise the dangers of taking old-fashioned cultural norms for granted.
I also confirmed my feeling that beautifully produced books of myth and legend risk hanging in a vacuum unless they contain some information about the people who first told the stories. As educated adults we already have some in-built knowledge of `American Indians’ or `Ancient Greeks’, but for young children such names merely conjure up blanks. I’ve made a point of including simple but comprehensive introductions in most of my traditional collections, and I would urge publishers to insist on these for future volumes.
Finally, the project made me realise more than ever just what riches lie within the realms of traditional tales. Herein lie direct hot-lines to the great ‘imaginers’ and storymakers of all times and all places. Herein lie strange mirrors which enable us to see our own lifestyles and beliefs with new eyes. And for those in the educational world who need to see everything in terms of practicality and proven results, herein lie paths along which language and practical writing skills can be explored and developed in the most enjoyable and rewarding of ways.
Rosalind Kerven’s books of traditional stories are:
Earth Magic, Sky Magic: North American Indian Tales, Cambridge, 0 521 36235 0, £7.95; 0 521 36806 5, £4.25 pbk
The Slaying of the Dragon: Tales of the Hindu Gods, Deutsch, 0 233 98037 7, £5.95
The Woman Who Went to Fairyland: A Welsh Folk Tale, Blackie, 0 216 93263 7, £8.50
King Leopard’s Gift and other legends of the animal world, Cambridge, 0 521 36180 X, £9.50
The Tree in the Moon and other legends of plants and trees, Cambridge, 0 521 34269 4, £8.50
Legends of the Animal World, Cambridge, 0 52130576 4, £8.50
In the Court of the Jade Emperor: Stories from Old China, Cambridge, 0 521 43489 0, £7.95; 0 521 Q538 2, £4.25 pbk
In April this year Cambridge are publishing The Rain Forest Storybook, a collection of traditional stories from the original forest people of South America, Africa and South-East Asia, with full factual introductions.