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.

 

 

 

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Why do we tell stories?

IMG_0080That’s easy – to entertain. To lull our children to sleep. To give people a way of occupying their minds on long plane journeys. And, of course, to make a living, if you happen to be the writer of that novel picked up in the airport bookshop.

It’s not as simple as that, though, is it? Because if you’re a writer, you can’t help writing, whether or not your stories ever get published. The urge to tell and listen to stories goes deep into our psyche and is common to all human societies, no matter how ancient.

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This was brought home to me forcefully – and wonderfully – on a recent visit to Arnhemland in the Northern Territories of Australia, a region of 37,000 square miles which has been returned by the Australian Government to its Aboriginal owners, the Yolngu. To visit this beautiful, wild (and very humid) landscape you need a special permit; or you book, as we did, with Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris, the only safari company allowed to operate there.

Our guide took us on boat rides through the Cooper Creek billabong, gliding through powder blue water lilies under dense sawpalm forests and swamp paperbarks, past fields of wild rice, landing us in places where we scrambled through thick grass and over stones to vast overhangs in the rock face, shelters frequented by Aborigines for thousands of years.

IMG_0082And wherever they stayed, there are rock paintings: figures of men and women, spirits, birds, wallabies, fish, serpents – shapes delineated not separately but on top of each other, the same surface used over and over again with older layers of yellow and terracotta-coloured ochre fading under the more recent (still in terms of hundreds of years!).

This is because the paintings weren’t made for their own sake: they were done to illustrate stories. The man (art was strictly a male thing) telling the story would draw as he spoke, as if the rock face were a blackboard – and the teaching image that evokes isn’t far from the truth. Adults and children may have enjoyed the stories but that wasn’t their primary purpose: as Roberts and Parker put it in their book Ancient Ochres: The Aboriginal Rock Paintings of Mount Borradaile, ‘Dreaming stories… explain and enshrine all patterns of living and behaviour, from codifying domestic and inter-clan socio-economic arrangements to delineating what is edible.’IMG_0083

A scary story about the Rainbow Serpent, for instance, woken from his sleep by the screaming of a hungry child, whom he promptly devours along with its mother and the rest of the clan, highlights two important lessons, according to our guide. First, when moving around the land gathering food, it’s good to be as quiet as possible; second, mothers need to give their children plants that will satisfy their hunger, not cause them to cry more (as was the mother’s mistake in the story).


The formidable Rainbow Serpent

Sadly, apart from a magnificent representation of the Rainbow Serpent on this overhang (clearly an important painting, since – uniquely in this area – it bore not a trace of other story tellers’ drawing over it), we found no illustrations of this particular legend. Though if there had been, we wouldn’t be allowed to see them anyway, since Aborigines are careful about giving away cultural secrets. They don’t mind our seeing these historic drawings because we don’t know the stories that go with them. Without the words, the images mean nothing.

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Wallabies

Well, they knew a thing or two, these ancient peoples. While literary critics down the ages argue over the ‘moral obligation’ question, whether the purpose of stories – children’s, especially – should be to foster virtue and good behaviour in their readers, for the Aborigines, there were no two ways about it. Stories carried a vital lesson about survival in their environment: listening well could make the difference between life and death.  

If that isn’t a ringing endorsement for the writer’s and storyteller’s art, I don’t know what is.