by Sam Wilding
My kids said that I would be pelted with rotten fruit, minimum, if I tried to perform an author / pupil session at their school. ‘Authors are just losers’, explained my delightful teenage daughter, a look of bewilderment on her face. This family pep talk suggested that simple survival was the order of the day, certainly nothing as high and mighty as inspiring children to write. With the release of my first children’s novel, the ominous advice from my publisher was to visit schools as soon as I could. What was I to do?
My first step was to link up with the Scottish Book Trust who matched me with a brilliant mentor-author. My daughter’s words of warning still rattling round in my head, I asked my mentor for a few tips. She advised me to incorporate a short reading from my book that ended in a cliffhanger. An old teacher of mine added that I needed to keep eye contact. Was this a class of kids or a pride of lions? My first pupil talk was already looming so I had to get some kind of presentation together.
Now, the word ‘presentation’ bothers me. I’ve sat through a few in my time and know exactly how tedious they can be. If these kids were anything like my own, they would be positively mutinous after about ten seconds. I had to get away from the usual ‘tell’ format. If I didn’t engage these kids in the first few moments, I was doomed. My personal objective was to get these seven to ten-year-olds excited about books and, more importantly, get them excited about writing.
I decided to ask open-ended questions and use large visuals from the word go. I soon found out that if I had enough ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘how’ and why’ questions up my sleeve in those first few moments, it got things rolling. As far as visuals go, I tried laptops and projectors, but soon discovered that the more gadgets I had, the more there was to go wrong. Big, colourful laminates proved more adaptable and much less prone to technical hitches. As far as the kids themselves went, it seemed to work best when I picked up on their answers, really homed in on them. When I managed to make the class laugh and learn, that worked even better.
I tend to kick off with a large laminate of my book cover. “There are five clues in this picture that tell you what the book is about. What do you see?” Once the hands go up, and they will, I dig deeper. “How would you feel if this or that happened to you...?” You can usually tell in seconds what the class dynamics are. The teacher/child relationship, who the main players are. I always make the kids, not myself, the focus of attention. I ask the class what they think about before they start writing their own stories. I suggest we share ideas and soon eek out the bones of story writing - Who is the main character? Where is it set? What is the dilemma/problem?
The kids often tell me what they’re writing, show me examples. I’ve seen some wonderful pieces of writing that have genuinely moved me. They ask me what I do when I get stuck, what they might do to get better. You begin to pick out the kids who are getting really fired up. In a typical class there tends to be three camps – those that are already good readers and writers. Those that will never really take up writing, but are captivated enough by the ‘show’ to refrain from throwing rotten fruit. Then there are the kids that never really thought about writing until the workshop. Something they hear or feel gives them that extra incentive to give it a go. The follow up letters from the last group are the ones I enjoy the most.
I love it when the hands go up and the eyes widen. I try to rehearse my reading as much as possible so that I can maintain that all-important eye contact and throw in a few actions. We talk about ‘the movie that plays in their heads’ when they begin to read a book. Then it’s time for the part they always say they enjoy the most. They get to design and draw their own monster. The decibels begin to climb. They get to name it and tell me all about it. I ask for notes and a description of how it moves, eats and behaves. Their pictures are always amazing and the monsters often partial to the odd crunchy teacher, which always gets a laugh. Girls tend to give you a lot of detail in their drawings and boys a lot of chainsaws and weapons of mass destruction. At the end, I give them a chance to ask some questions. You take your life in your hands here. “How many times have you been married, Mr Wilding?”, “Are you rich?”, “How much is your book? £10, that’s a pure rip!”, “How old are you?”, and my favourite, “Have you ever been out on a date with J K Rowling?”
After two years of touring and honing these sessions I would only stress how important it is to be authentic. Children smell a rat in seconds, and insincerity is one big, ugly rodent. Genuine enthusiasm is infectious. Every class is different because the mix of personalities is always different. The teachers can be passive or interactive. The ethos of each school can vary hugely. It’s always a challenge but amazing fun. The best feeling in the world is the one where you get some clue that you’ve made a difference: A positive comment on an evaluation form, a letter from a pupil or a parent, a small hand tapping you on the shoulder followed by an explosion of enthusiasm.
In a world full of X-boxes, T.V. and movies, a talk on writing has to be at least as exciting and interactive as the stuff they can get at home. I’m glad to say that I haven’t been pelted with fruit yet, although I am still banned from my daughter’s school, on pain of death. There’s nothing worse than having an embarrassing author-dad. Oh well… All in all, I’m glad I dared to inspire.
Picture of Sam : John O'Hare