In BfK 128, Peter Hollindale uncovered the unique qualities of the short story. Now Nikki Gamble discusses the place of short stories in the curriculum.
Transactions between young readers and short stories can be satisfying and pleasurable:
‘Young children hear stories from an early age … In this way … they internalise the elements of story structure – the opening, setting, character, events and resolution. Similarly they come to recognise that, in satisfying well-structured stories, things that are lost will be found, problems will be solved, mysteries will be explained…’ English 5-16. Self-contained, short stories can be readily incorporated into teaching of reading and writing but are also a useful resource for cross-curricular studies. Furthermore a curriculum which includes regular encounters with story collections and anthologies quickly introduces readers to a wide range of writers, and those still developing reading stamina may be enticed to go on and try the novels of writers such as Melvin Burgess, Robert Westall, Anthony Masters or Theresa Breslin.
Models for writing
Unlike longer fiction, which often explores several themes and subplots, short stories convey their messages simply and directly thus providing ideal models for the developing writer. The theme of Jan Mark’s ‘Nothing to be Afraid Of’ might be summarised as: ‘we learn to overcome our fears through facing them.’ To achieve lucidity in plotting proverbs might be used as a stimulus for writing; for instance ‘a mouse may help a lion’ could be transformed into a contemporary school story.
The short story’s compression facilitates a closer look at narrative structure. Although the terms beginning, middle and end are well used they do not help identify the functions that are performed by different elements of the narrative. Drama can usefully aid appreciation of structure: for example, children can create tableaux representing the most important events in a story, and evaluation of these images can direct them to consider the centrality of tension and conflict. Older children can be introduced to more sophisticated structures which draw distinctions, for instance, between the denouement, final suspense, resolution, conclusion and coda.
Roald Dahl was renowned for telling stories with an unexpected twist, such as The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar. Conventionally children plan and write stories starting at the beginning and may lose the thread before the story closes. Focusing on the sting-in-the-tale encourages them to start with the conclusion. They can investigate ways in which writers conceal the truth, leave signposting clues and critically appraise the credibility of the twist.
Creative writing exercises will not sufficiently develop children as writers (although these may usefully free the imagination). Sean O’Faolain once wrote that what his students needed was, ‘not instruction in the art of writing but in the art of living’; this is probably the finest writing lesson that children can learn. David Almond’s haunting collection, Counting Stars, illustrates the transformation of life into imaginative experience. While Susan Price’s The Story Collector and Telling Tales demonstrate that stories are harvested from daily events, overheard conversations and dreams that are waiting to be taken up and written down.
Importantly short story writing provides a real opportunity to write for a public audience. Teenagers might be encouraged to enter competitions such as the Guardian/Piccadilly which has produced two anthologies of prizewinners’ work, The Perfect Journey? and The Perfect Love Story? And the magazine Young Writer runs competitions that include younger age groups, as well as offering advice to nurture the next generation of authors.
The range of fictions covered by the short story is diverse. The ghost story lends itself particularly well to the form. In the introduction to A Century of Children’s Ghost Stories Philippa Pearce notes that the children’s ghost story is a relatively recent addition to the body of children’s literature making its first appearance at the beginning of the twentieth century but increasing in popularity and flourishing in contemporary writing. Many young readers ‘delight in the dread’ aroused by these atmospheric tales which provide touchstones for the creation of dramatic tension and sensation. Vivian Alcock’s Ticket to Heaven and Robert Westall’s Voices in the Wind are good collections of suspense-laden tales.
Comparing detective stories gives scope for analysing clever plotting. Secondary pupils might enjoy the earliest detective story, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue first published in 1841; or Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes’ debut. However, successful detective fiction is as contingent on accomplished characterisation as it is on plot: the manner in which a detective solves the crime, through use of logic or intuition, is as important as the solution.
The art of anthologising
Short stories are often published in anthologies and children can learn about the art of anthologising by producing their own either from collected examples or their own writing. This activity gives scope for; wider reading and research; producing and evaluating selection criteria; and considering the order of inclusion.
Stories across the curriculum
By enhancing learning in both the cognitive and affective domains, stories add a valuable dimension to learning across the curriculum. Historical fiction is the focus for Wendy Cooling’s anthology Centuries of Stories which comprises 20 tales for 20 centuries, providing an opportunity for looking at the way in which history is represented in fiction by recreating momentous events or depicting individual lives. A key concept for consideration is the importance of imagination in the construction history which can be facilitated by exploring what Jill Paton Walsh has called ‘the thrilling quagmire of what might have been’ and comparing to evidence from factual sources.
A study of environments can be enhanced by reading fantasy and science fiction stories. Andrew Goodwyn’s anthology Fantasy Stories includes ‘The Foghorn’ by Ray Bradbury whose skill in transporting the reader to unfamiliar settings is consummate.
Several short story collections focus on relationships notably Janni Howker’s Badger on the Barge, a reflective book dealing with intergenerational tensions. Miriam Hodgson’s anthologies Mixed Feelings and Family Tree also provide interesting stimulus for discussion in PSHE or citizenship.
Nikki Gamble is a freelance education and children’s book consultant, and project director of Live Writing:Online.
Books discussed and other suggested collections:
Badger on the Barge, Janni Howker, Walker, 0 7445 4352 5, £3.99
Best of Friends, Valerie Bierman (ed.), Mammoth, 0 7497 2597 4, £3.99
Centuries of Stories, Wendy Cooling (ed.), HarperCollins, 0 00 675415 5, £5.99
A Century of Children’s Ghost Stories, Philippa Pearce (ed.), Oxford, 0 19 288014 4, o/p
The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl, Roald Dahl, Penguin, 0 14 015807 3, £10.99
Counting Stars, David Almond, Hodder, 0 340 78480 6, £4.99
Family Tree, Miriam Hodgson (ed.), Mammoth, 0 7497 3684 4, £4.99
Fantasy Stories, Andrew Goodwyn (ed.), Oxford, 0 19 831262 8, o/p
In Between, Miriam Hodgson (ed.), Mammoth, 0 7497 2335 1, o/p
Mixed Feelings, Miriam Hodgson (ed.), Mammoth, 0 7497 3283 0, £4.50
The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Edgar Allan Poe, Pulp Publications, 1 9020 5802 X, £4.99
The Perfect Journey?, various authors, Guardian/Piccadilly, 1 85340 696 1, £5.99
The Perfect Love Story?, various authors, Guardian/Piccadilly, 1 85340 524 8, £5.99
Points North, Lindsey Fraser (ed.), Mammoth, 0 7497 4034 5, £4.99
The Rope and Other Stories, Philippa Pearce, Puffin, 0 14 130914 8, £4.99
Running on Ice, Berlie Doherty, Mammoth, 0 7497 2873 6, £4.50
The Story Collector, Susan Price, Hodder Signature, 0 340 70902 2, £4.99
A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Penguin, 0 14 005707 2, £3.99
Telling Tales, Susan Price, Hodder Signature, 0 340 70903 0, £4.99
Ticket to Heaven, Vivian Alcock, Mammoth, 0 7497 3786 7, £4.99
Truth or Dare, Tony Bradman (ed.), Cambridge, 0 521 57552 4, £5.25
Voices in the Wind, Robert Westall, Macmillan, 0 330 35218 0, £3.99
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, Roald Dahl, Puffin, Penguin, 0 14 037348 9, £5.99
Information about Young Writer from ‘Young Writer’, Glebe House, Weobley, Hereford HR4 8SD.