Friday, 9 August 2013

Just Add Children by Julia Jones

Too big
June and July have been the Month(s) of the Child as far as I'm concerned. You might expect that with five children of my own plus five grandchildren that every month would be Month of the Child – but that's not necessarily so. The older ones are now too old (youngest will soon be seventeen) and the younger ones are still too young (oldest is not yet six). At the risk of sounding like a grumpy Goldilocks (“too hard” “too soft” “too hot” too cold”) this leaves A Gap. My sailing adventure stories are intended for ten-year olds and up and – while I'm naturally thrilled to discover that nonagenarians enjoy them – if I'm not getting it right for the tens then there's something essential lost.

Too small
When I wrote first drafts of the three volumes of the Strong Winds Trilogy, my prime reader (Child Number Four ) was aged 10, 11, 12. He and his younger brother were still at the village primary school and our garden, especially in the summer afternoons, was full of excited voices and running feet. Mothers and children from the local refuge were regular visitors for pony rides round the tiny paddock and splashing in the small pool. I helped to run an after-school club where we made some of the items that featured in the stories – dreamcatchers, for instance, or the magnetised needles pushed through corks that turn magically north when floated in a saucer of water. Having fun together is such a great way to dissolve the age barriers and make friendships.


Exactly right!
This everyday closeness gave me the confidence to know that it was okay to write about subjects such as power abuse by adults, alcoholism, disability, the Care System because these things are part of many children's lives. Perhaps more familiar to more children than wooden sailing dinghies and classic yachts let alone world-girdling Chinese junks – though we all know which are more fun to read (and write) about. Fun is more intense when it includes an element of escape – and defiance, even.

The rejection and re-writing process for those first three books was a slow one. Imperceptibly the children in my life were growing up and the adult influences on my work were becoming more dominant. By the time the books were finally published I was haunted by the fear that no children would read them at all. The handful of children of friends who were cajoled into service in the final weeks of the ultimate edit were rare and blessed creatures. I knew that they weren't 'representative': I was secretly afraid that they were just 'being kind'.

In some ways it didn't matter – ultimately I was writing the books for me and I was able to take courage from Arthur Ransome (my Ghost in the Cabin) who stoutly asserted that he wrote for his own enjoyment and if children 'overheard' his stories and enjoyed them – well, that was a bonus. There's much more that could be said about the delicate balances between writing for oneself and writing for the reader, writing to communicate and to make a living and writing because a story inexplicably demands to be written. It has also felt like a gigantic compliment when adult readers have said that the stories reminded them of adventures in their own childhood or that they conveyed something about childhood today.

Be that as it may a children's story must please children – or, at least some children. This year, when story number four demanded to be written, I had no children in my everyday life who were anywhere near the right age. I didn't need them as domestic critics, I simply needed to be able to think of them. Had I grown too old myself? This has in many ways been an unusually quiet year, subtly blighted by ill-health (not mine) and anxiety. So the first job was to take courage and write the story. Then, miraculously, at the very moment when the first draft was done and I needed to stand back and get ready to revise, a spate of invitations arrived to work with year 5 & 6 children (ten and eleven year olds) in primary schools.

I wrote last year about the affirmative friendship of the children and teachers at Kessingland Primary School near Lowestoft and this year again we've had time to play and work together. I've also been hired by the Essex Book Festival to help children in some Essex primary schools to experience the fun of writing their own adventure stories. It felt as if they did have fun. They certainly took an interest in my work, as I did in theirs and I'm indebted to them for their willingness to discuss one or two aspects of the new story and volunteer suggestions for its title.

Strong Winds Vol 4
These were children from across the ability range with a skew towards the less advantaged. I realised, once again, that there are ten year olds who don't have the language skills to read my stories, others who don't have the concentration or the inclination BUT also that there are some Who Do. Those few of you who stood with all three volumes clutched proudly in your hands and beaming smiles on your faces – I rather hope you'll never know how much you meant to me! (And you others who have caused the subsequent small but perfectly-formed increase in e book sales.)

What those children gave me, all of them, readers and non-readers, was the sound of their voices (invaluable for the final revision), the warmth of their interest (never mind the literacy levels) and the freedom of their imaginations (zombies, vampires, ponies and princesses). Thank you.

There's been so much more. I've met Nikki Gamble of Just Imagine and Sarah Gallagher of the Story Shack. I'm looking forward to the arrival  of Writing Children's Fiction edited by Linda Newbery and Yvonne Coppard. I'm sure all these expert adults will agree with my basic premise that if you need creative inspiration, liberation and fun – JUST ADD CHILDREN.


KM Peyton, Linda Newbery, Yvonne Coppard
Nikki Gamble at the Just Imagine Story Centre

Sarah Gallagher, ex-headteacher
founder of the Story Shack, Suffolk

6 comments:

Dennis Hamley said...

Lovely post, Julia. I find it hard now to believe that the two six and eight-year-olds for whom I wrote my first books are now in their mid to late forties. I understood the world children lived in then. I don't now, or not so well, now I'm so far away from it, which is why my books over the years have become more and more historical. When you said that as you - and they- grew older you feared that no children would read your adventure stories, you echoed a thought I've often had. It's an interesting inversion of CS Lewis's dictum that a children's book which can only be read by children is a bad children's book, which he said he was inclined to lay down as a general rule. It's that opinion which got me into writing for children in the first place and which brought about the 60s new wave of authors, Garner, Garfield, Philippa Pearce. And, later, our own Sue Price. It can sometimes be easy to forget that the converse is true too. Luckily those writers never did forget it. Being in constant touch with more children than your own is hugely important. How I sigh for the days when they could afford it and I did about two school visits a week as well as running creative writing courses for kids.

CallyPhillips said...

What a beautiful and inspiring post Julia. And this from someone whose dictum is to follow advice on my medication bottles 'keep away from children'
There is, (even I think) something magical about 10. As good old JMB said 'nothing that happens after we are 12 matters very much!)
I am so heartened by your ongoing engagement with the 'stories' though and I am totally rooting for you to keep going to match Ransome's 12 - so my best advice is 'tell your grandchildren to grow up' (in the best possible way. Soon you'll have another crop of 10's to work on at home as well as out of the house. And you write so well for 10's (and for 50s') so keep on keeping on.

Jan Needle said...

lovely piece, julia, as always. i've got the mind of a ten year old (as you know), and i love sailing (as you know). maybe we ought to get together sometime!

Bill Kirton said...

I'm with Jan's claim about having the mind of a kid who's also a sailing nut. Coincidentally, I've also just started reading 'A Ravelled Flag'. This is a lovely post and it's so good that there are still young people who not only appreciate the magic of books but are capable of such creativity themselves.

Lydia Bennet said...

A lovely post, though perhaps as in the case of AR himself, those who write well for children are writing for the child they still are inside, so no need to worry too much if yer ackshual bairns aren't to hand! I was head of year 5 (in a disadvantaged area) before I was disabled, it's a lovely age, able to engage with the world, but mostly still free of adolescent moods and self-consciousness, and keen to learn. Glad to know the trilogy has vaulted up to series status now! Big fan of S&A, you do a great job of invoking his world yet being firmly rooted in our modern one.

julia jones said...

@Valerie - the vision of LYDIA as head of Y5 in any school anywhere (except poss St Trinians) is an enlivening one ... Dennis, Cally & Bill THANK YOU for your responses. I find it extraordinary to think that we've never met when I experience such sympathetic understanding and support. Very interesting point re CS Lewis. Didn't know he said that. Loved the Narnia books (possibly more than S&A even, though never wished to make such a comparison) and found them popping up in the mind of the hero of forthcoming story. This was a relief as it proved to me that he was differentiated from the SWT hero (an S&A child through and through) Jan - I wish you were coming to play buckets and spades down here but F has yet another operation next week after which he will be immobile again. Heigh ho.