Last month, Julia Jones posted a lovely piece about writing for and working with children. I’ve written stories for the same age group but it reminded me most of a day I spent at a primary school which held a ‘literacy day’. The classes went from wee 3 year olds to 10 year olds and I had about 35 minutes with each. It was a day of enthusiasm, engagement and (for me) high entertainment. With all but two of the classes (oldest and youngest) I read them one of my own stories about Stanley, a miserabilist, misanthropic fairy who lives under a dripping tap in our bedroom, but the bulk of the time was given over to them creating stories of their own.
My first question to the first class was ‘What do we need to start a story?’ The hands shot up, I chose one, a girl, who said ‘Once upon a time’. Incontestable. I then got suggestions about characters and locations and by simply asking them questions, which were my only input, got them to produce one or several stories. Here are just some of the thirteen they created between them.
The first was about an exploding mother – exploding not metaphorically but literally. It also had a robot mother and a mother in prison. (Lest you think this was a worrying indication that all might not be well at home, they all came from different individuals and were obviously attempts to negotiate narrative hurdles rather than cries for help.) Sam and Sally, who lived near a volcano, were bored with just wandering round its slopes and so asked their mum if they could try the crater. Mum (amazingly) said ‘OK’ so off they went. Inside they found a button. They pressed it, and the lava, smoke and ash started bubbling up, so they pressed it again and it stopped. They rushed home, told Mum about it. She went back with them and the button had vanished. Each time they went on their own, it was there, each time Mum came, it wasn’t. The explanation centred around an old man who lived nearby. He’d built a robot replica of their mum, substituted it for her, imprisoned the real mum in a cage under the lava, etc., etc. In the end, Sam and Sally tricked him, got into his cottage, exploded the fake mum, and worked the remote control so that it made another robot mum pick up the old man and start walking. She strode off into the distance and Sam and Sally raised the cage and saved their mum.
Another class began by choosing a title: The Blue Truck. It was set in
Hawaii and Scotland and involved three
(boyfriend-girlfriend) couples: a blue and a pink truck (their choice of colours); two forklift
trucks; and two fairies, who were far less interesting than the vehicles. There
was also a racing car. The class couldn’t decide whether it was male or female,
so they called it ‘he’ but, after some discussion, gave it long hair to imply
its feminine side. The owner sold the blue truck to someone in Scotland. It
was miserable there and the pink truck was bereft so she organised a rescue to
which all the others contributed.
My favourite, though, was one which began with a caveman, Ugg, sitting by the sea fishing. Not far away, lying on a rock, singing and combing her hair was a Goth Vampire Mermaid with red eyes. In the woods just off the beach lived a fairy whose intentions were evil. Ugg got a huge bite and, after much difficulty landed his catch, a shark. I asked them what Ugg said when he saw what he’d caught. One boy answered ‘Nothing. Cavemen can’t talk. But the shark said “Hi, I’m Steve”’. In the end, the fairy and the shark merged and became a merman and I suppose he lived happily ever after with the Goth Vampire Mermaid, but we never got that far because more plot strands were still being developed when the bell went.
Others had an upside down mountain in the sky, turtles from Pluto, an alien girl called Sag, but the final example is just a plane flying along, piloted by a lion and a leopard. It has only two passengers, a tiger and a spider. They’re flying from
(a bizarre choice of destination in the case of the spider because he’s doing
it to get a sun tan). I said we needed some conflict so the passengers started
arguing about who was the stronger. When some kids said that was too obvious
because tigers are obviously stronger, I suggested they think of ways a spider
might possibly win. So the spider crawled up the tiger’s nose and spun a web, then
did the same in his mouth. (An aside, there was the predictable suggestion that
the spider could also crawl up the tiger’s bum. This came from a gentle-voiced,
sweet-faced girl but added little to the plot.) The tiger was having great difficulty breathing but the
leopard co-pilot went back to investigate and persuaded both passengers that
they had their own particular strengths and should learn to respect one
Suddenly, the plane stopped and hung in mid-air. It had run out of fuel but was being held up by the hot air rising from a volcano. This gave the spider time to spin a huge web, which they could use as a parachute. They jumped out but were floating down into the volcano, so the three big cats all blew hard together in the same direction, which pushed them clear so that they could land on a warm beach.
As I left at the end of the afternoon, I was walking past a file of kids on their way to collect their coats and bags and was pleased and relieved to be invited to give several (very low) high fives. It was a nice reminder of the privilege of doing a job which involves words, ideas, relationships, and escape. Most of all, though, it was a joy to experience the kids’ enthusiasm and uninhibited creativity. They’re a high productivity ideas factory.