A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
This week’s topic suggestion is ‘books that surprised you the most’, which is great because I’ve read a few books recently that surprised me but . . . I’m going off topic. I’m going to talk about something else that surprised me.
Last week I visited a school in a small town. The school was very welcoming, members of staff were excellent, and the students were very excited to have a visiting author. High fives and fist bumps for everyone as they filed into the hall.
I was not surprised by the warm welcome – this happens in most schools.
In the main hall I did a presentation that lasted about an hour, and the students had lots of questions, which didn’t surprise me.
After the presentation, I had the honour of cutting the ribbon to open the school’s new library. The library was filled with comfy chairs, and the shelves were lined with books that children want to read – not ‘worthy’ books that adults think children should read. The Deputy Head had done an excellent job of preparing an inviting room to encourage students to read simply for the enjoyment of reading. Future plans include ideas for expanding the library and (fingers crossed) appointing a school librarian. This didn’t really surprise me, either – most teachers are aware of the huge benefits of reading for pleasure, and my contact at this particular school is very keen to promote it. Giant thumbs up from me.
After lunch, I ran workshops for some of the students. I reminded them that there are no rules for creative writing. That’s the creativity. I shared a few tricks writers use to make their writing exciting, so we talked about some simple techniques, we talked about letting our imaginations run wild, and we talked about writing for the fun of it. I read extracts from books to highlight my points and I gave the students some writing prompts, reminding them once again – there are no rules.
‘Do we have to use the prompts?’ they asked.
‘Nope. It’s just in case you need it. Write whatever you want.’
‘Is that a crocodile or an alligator in the picture?’ they asked.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘It’s a humanoid monster from the deep if you want. It can be anything at all. Anything.’
All of the students were excited to have a go, they wrote with enjoyment, and they were keen to share what they had written. They dreamed up some fantastic ideas and produced some brilliant, imaginative pieces of writing, which wasn’t a huge surprise. Children are imaginative, and stories are natural to them.
The surprise came when one of the teachers told me how much fun the students were having. ‘They never get to write like this,’ she said. ‘All the writing they do is prescriptive.’ I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, so I asked . . .
Sentence 1 must contain a simile or a metaphor.
Sentence 2 must be a 2 pairs sentence.
Sentence 3 must contain an adverb.
Sentence 4 must start with a prepositional phrase.
You get the idea.
These students are in year six. Surely this kind of writing-by-numbers is killing their creativity? They should be writing, crazy, bonkers, imaginative stories about all the wonderful things they want to write about. They shouldn’t have to worry if they’ve used enough adverbs in their composition (imagine their surprise when I told them that writers try to avoid over-use of adverbs). I understand they need to know the rules, but there also needs to be time to break the rules and have some fun. Experiment with their writing, explore their weirdest ideas – that’s where creativity comes from. Nobody ever created anything original by following the rules and doing what everybody else is doing.
The great news is that many of those students have carried on with the stories they started writing that day, and their teacher told me that she’d like to make more time for fun writing. Thank goodness for common sense, and HOORAY for awesome teachers!