Charms, pacts with demons, magic spells, astrology and crystal balls aren’t normally subjects taught in schools (unless you’re lucky enough to attend Hogwarts). Yet for one hour last week, talking about my book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, I managed to squeeze such dark mysteries into the curriculum of three different schools, in groups ranging from 140 primary school children to smaller classes of Years 7 and 8.
Yup, that’s right, I’m talking World Book Week here, that glorious time of the year when authors are invited to descend on classrooms and school libraries, celebrating with young people the joys of reading, writing and dressing up as dubious literary figures. (Overheard in one school: ‘Sir, sir, can I come as Karl Marx?’ ‘[wearily] Well, Alex, if you can prove to me that Karl Marx’s work is literature….’)
Books by pupils at SS Philip and James
It’s tiring and by the end of the day my voice needs much tlc (oh all right then, several cups of tea) but I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I write stories about things that excite me and to be able to pass on that excitement to young readers and see their imaginations fired up gives me a huge thrill. Each audience reacts differently: some are bursting with questions the whole way through about magic, alchemy, and how I think up my characters; others wait patiently till the end of my talk and grill me then about my ideas and way of writing. Either way it is heartening to see so much enthusiasm for books and writing among young people: well done to them, and to the teachers and librarians who inspire them!
Last year I had a fabulous World Book Day – in fact, a whole week – visiting a number of schools to talk about Ante’s Inferno and what inspired me to write it. Being ‘in between’ books just now, with The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst coming out later this year, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day than in Oxford’s Story Museum, taking part in picture book workshops enjoyed by 150 or so very lucky schoolchildren.
First, Steve Antony read his delightful Please Mr Panda and The Queen’s Hat to a group of excitable Year Ones. I particularly enjoyed the story of a harassed Queen chasing her hat through all the landmarks of London. Then came the workshop bit: using felt tips and giant sheets of paper, Steve showed how to use a few simple lines to draw one’s own panda. The children quickly grasped the idea, creating splendid pictures of pandas wearing t-shirts, dresses, hats or fine heads of curly hair. David Attenborough would have been proud.
Meanwhile Suzanne Barton introduced another group to The Dawn Chorus, her lovely book about a bird desperate to join the choir singing in the new day. Using a similar technique to Steve, she showed the children how to draw a bird like hers, and produced a treasure trove of colourful feathers, glitter and sparkly things to decorate them.
But drawing and colouring is only half the story: the other half is… er… the story. In the next session Steve and Suzanne came together to encourage all the children to make up a tale, using building blocks of character, place, problem, solution. Their audience worked satisfyingly hard and the resulting narrative of Gumball the Alien Who Lives On Planet Triangle showed impressive streaks of originality and humour.
The children loved their day and I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in it. But it also gave me plenty to think about, not least the fact that picture books aren’t as simple as they look. All the requirements of believable characters, tight plotting, keeping-your-readers-guessing-till-the-end that are vital to fiction (for all ages) apply just as much to picture books. Both The Queen’s Hat and The Dawn Chorus have been shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2015 and you can see why: what appear to be light-hearted, straightforward stories have hidden depths that make you spot something new with each reading. As a parent who’s spent years of her life reading the same picture books over and over again I can’t tell you how important this is. It’s what makes The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where’s Spot timeless. If Steve Antony’s and Suzanne Barton’s works don’t join the rank of picture book classics I’ll eat my hat.
Or maybe the Queen’s.