Three cheers for school visits!

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Demons & magic – essential for curriculum

A few weeks ago, I did one of my favourite things as a writer: visited a school. On the hottest and longest day of the year, I stood in a cool (aahhh, relief) assembly hall and spoke to two lots of 9 – 12 year-old boys, around 150 in all. Together we covered important topics that would be part of any national curriculum I had a hand in – alchemy, magical instruments, demons, Faustian pacts, corruption and abuse of power. Yup, that should equip them for dealing with whatever the world can throw at them in later life. Oh, and the crucial ingredients for what makes a good story: strong, believable characters, powerful motivation and a tight plot structure.

I involved my audience as much as possible, asking questions ranging from easy to more demanding, not because I expected them to know all the answers but because it’s extraordinary how often children can surprise themselves – and their teachers – with knowledge they didn’t know they had.

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How to draw up a Faustian pact

   

This is why I love school visits. Yes, I always hope a good number of my audience will be inspired hearing about my book (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, in this case, as you probably guessed) to queue up afterwards for a signed copy. But sharing with children the things that excite me about books, how they can not only entertain but enrich your imagination and experience with themes and images that link straight to the great classics, gives me the biggest thrill of all. You can enjoy the world of Narnia, for instance, with no idea that fauns, centaurs, dryads and naiads are all rooted in Greek mythology; ditto with the fabulous creatures and themes – hippogriffs, dragons, unicorns, the basilisk and phoenix, alchemy and shape shifting, all well-known tropes of mediaeval literature – in the Harry Potter stories. But if, having read these when young, you later on pick up a copy of Ovid or Vergil or Dante or Milton, it will feel – at least in part – like coming home.

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Hippogriff

Because my books are aimed at Years 5 – 8 (straddling the primary/secondary divide) I visit all kinds of schools, alternating between speaking to the oldest and youngest Year groups. Every school has a different – but, in my experience, always positive – atmosphere, from the most comfortable private school to the most cash-strapped state primary. I am full of admiration for the teachers who organise my visits; with all the pressures they are under already, it can’t be easy to free up several classes across a school day to attend my talk. Yet I often see from their faces – as well as the pupils’ – at the end that it’s been worth while. The experience of meeting a real, live author who takes the children on a journey they wouldn’t normally go on, can be truly exhilarating, inspiring them to take their own reading and creative writing to new levels. And that can only be good.

 Why, then, do I find it so difficult to charge a visit fee?

Initially, I reasoned I was new to this game, the main thing was to spread the word about my books while enthusing my audience with the glories of reading, and with luck, to sell a good number of copies afterwards. A few visits which didn’t quite work out like that soon toughened me up. In some schools I’d sell 60 or 70 books; in others, after talking to 120 children, only a handful. I gained in confidence that what I offer is worth having, therefore charging a fee is perfectly reasonable (I know!). But what really swung it for me was an observation by a fellow author that if we, as speakers, don’t put a value on ourselves, neither will schools. My ‘generosity’ (ok, cowardice) in waiving a fee makes it much harder for another author to charge one, and time spent away from writing needs to pay its way, or how can a writer make a living?

   The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst Cover for MATADORThus chastened, I do now charge for visits, plus expenses. It’s the piece of information I dread giving, even though the modest sum named is well below the rates recommended by the Society of Authors. Thankfully, most schools are fine with it, though I still can’t get over the brazenness of one private school in the wealthiest part of London informing me that on principle, they never pay fees or expenses to outside speakers. Needless to say, plans for my visit stopped right there and I was left hoping that the same principle didn’t extend to the school’s own teachers, administrative and catering staff.

   So if you know of any school who’d like their Years 5, 6, 7, 8 inspired by an author talk ranging from Greek mythology to the First World War (Ante’s Inferno), or from alchemy to demons and Elizabethan magic (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst), taking in the art of creating convincing characters, dialogue and story structure on the way, put them in touch with me here: 

http://www.griseldaheppel.com/contact/4587972230

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Alchemy or chemistry?

I promise their students will go away with a good working knowledge of such useful concepts as the Seven Deadly Sins and what exactly constitutes a Faustian pact.

Knowledge like that… Well, you can’t put a price on it, can you?

 

(Adapted from an article on Authors Electric Blogspot 1.07.17)
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How to get rid of the parents

What do these children’s books – or series – have in common?IMG_0097

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1905
The Chalet School by Elinor Brent Dyer, 1925 – 1970
Malory Towers Enid Blyton, 1946 – 1951
Down with Skool by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, 1953
Harry Potter by J K Rowling, 1997 – 2007
The Dragonfly Pool by Eve Ibbotson, 2008
Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke, 2012
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens, 2014

The list isn’t exhaustive. I could have begun with Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and Tom Brown’s Schooldays but that’s going a little too far back and besides, those great classics don’t generally count as children’s books. By now you’ll have got it: these are all stories set in boarding schools, a type of establishment reserved for the pampered offspring of only the very wealthiest in society – or at least, that’s how it’s seen today. IMG_0091
As a children’s author, you’d be mad to use an environment totally alien to the experience of 95% of your audience, with more than a whiff of a bygone age about it. Wouldn’t you? Tell most adults that the plot of your latest book takes place in a boarding school and their eyes glaze over. ‘Oh, that old thing again,’ is the message, sometimes spoken out loud.

Yet that’s not how children feel. Look at that list again. The first four titles do belong to a different era, or even several, dating from 1905 to 1970. But the other four are highly successful works by contemporary authors, who’ve created brilliant stories against backgrounds ranging from a bonkers wartime school deep in the English countryside, to a ghostly cathedral school in Salisbury, to a magical castle in Scotland, to a 1920s finishing school for young ladies. Children reading these books don’t care whether boarding schools are old-fashioned or divisive: what they recognize is the perfect background for a tightly structured, smooth-flowing plot, whether about ghosts or wizards or teachers being bumped off in the night. Parents (who get in the way of adventures and have to be neutralized in some way) are got rid of from the outset. Left to themselves day and night – apart from the teachers of course, who don’t count – your characters have to tackle problems, deal with enemies, fight their battles (often literally, as in the Harry Potter books), uninterrupted by school pickup time and weekends.IMG_0092
It’s the equivalent, I suppose, of sending a group of disparate adults on to an island where they are gradually murdered, one by one, or forming them into a fighting unit in a war zone. Besides, it’s hard to write a children’s adventure that doesn’t involve school in some way, unless you resort to fantasy; school is what children do. Why shouldn’t the action take place in a kind of school they don’t go to? Tuck boxes, eccentric, wild-haired teachers, talking after lights out and braving dark, shadowy corridors at midnight add to the frisson of the story.
IMG_0093So I’ll come clean now and admit it: my wip, The Fall of a Sparrow, takes place in a boarding school. Not only that, I’ve followed Eve Ibbotson’s and Robin Stevens’s example by setting the story in a different era, in this case the 1960s. Cynics may assume this is so I don’t have to bother with mobile phones and social networking but that’s not the reason. Mobiles are easily dealt with: at critical moments there’s bound to be no network, or the battery’s run out, or they’ve been dropped down the loo. For anyone who’s ever tried to get texts from their children this is all too believable.IMG_0094

Much harder to deal with is how different boarding school life is now from how it was 50 years ago, when exeats didn’t exist and school life for most boarders went on uninterrupted until Half Term. This would appal present day parents, who bring their children home at weekends and often visit them during the week as well. Phone calls, texts and emails in between times keep everyone in touch with each other. Placing your characters in predicaments that they must use all their ingenuity, courage and resourcefulness to overcome becomes increasingly challenging when in real life they’ll be home every few days, curled up on the sofa with an xbox and a cup of cocoa. A gentler, more nurturing attitude to children poses problems for the writer (though I know which I’d rather have).

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A good place for talking after lights out

So, no easy way out for my heroine, 11 year-old Ellie Cooke. Lonely, angry, terrified her past will catch up with her, she arrives at Limewood House in 1968 ready to fight her corner; only to be greeted like a long lost friend by a strange 9 year-old boy who appears out of nowhere. Who is he, and why does he think he knows her? Unravelling the dark family secret concealed under the sunny surface of Limewood plunges Ellie into mortal danger, as the house’s tragic history threatens to engulf her too.

And not a cup of cocoa in sight.