Kids like writing, but all too often the joy of it gets lost in the mountains of school and home work. Let a child write about something they’re interested in, something meaningful, and the difference will be huge. I discovered this recently in a letter writing lesson. My pupils were required to write an imaginary letter to someone. The results were a little dull. Soon after, however, I arranged a class pen pal swap with a school in America. Once the kids had real pen pals to write to, their writing became alive with personality and enthusiasm.
They say the early childhood years are the formative years of any person’s life, but is it really true? In my case – yes, and here’s the proof. When I was a kid, I wrote two books – one called ‘The Magic Sword’ and one called ‘The Samurai’. Thirty years later, my first novel is published and guess what it’s about? Magic swords and samurai! It’s about other things too, but the influence of my childhood writing cannot be ignored. Writing a book as a child allowed me to experience the thrill of creating new worlds and characters, as well as the thrill of seeing somebody else read about them. Perhaps if I hadn’t written those books as a child, I’d never have become an author as an adult.
So when I became a teacher I decided to give other kids the opportunity to write a book, in the hope that it might influence their adult life. I started writing books with children in the pre-digital age, so we wrote and illustrated stories on sheets of paper and then stapled them together.
We then got involved with the ‘Write a Book’ scheme which was being run by education centres around the country. As part of this initiative, my pupils each wrote a book and then sent them off to be read and reviewed by other pupils. In return, we received a similar box of books. It was a fantastic scheme.
When computers came into the classroom, they took my book project to the next level. No longer did the child with the messy writing have to feel self-conscious about their handwriting. The printed word became the great leveller in the classroom. Sure, after reading the books, you could still tell which were better than others, but not anymore could you make this decision at first glance.
The printed word made the books feel more like real books. But with staples and sellotape for binding, they were still a long way off being the real deal. Then along came the internet, and following closely behind it, Print-On-Demand (POD) publishers.
So here’s what my pupils do now: they spend the first term of school preparing for the biggest writing project of their lives by doing all the regular stuff kids do in classrooms across the world. But this time, with a difference. Because now the ‘pointless’ writing activities are no longer pointless, but are training for the book they will write after Christmas.
After having plenty of writing practice in different genres in both fiction and non-fiction, they decide what their book will be about. They spend their Christmas holidays thinking about it, and then return to school in January fired up and ready to start. Free software is downloaded onto the school PCs and pupils spend the next three months writing, drafting, editing and typing their stories. They then illustrate their books with their own artwork or photos. Each book is then uploaded to the POD publisher’s server in America, before being printed in the Netherlands. Once the child’s book is posted, we track the package across Europe until it arrives at the classroom door. Nothing beats the excitement of opening that parcel with your own printed book inside.
Once all the books arrive at the school, we put away all class readers and use the pupils’ books as class reading material. Pupils read, comment on, and answer questions about each other’s books. Probably the only thing that beats writing your own book is seeing somebody else read and enjoy what you’ve written.
At the end of the year, when copies are thrown in the bin, and textbooks are discarded, these books are carefully brought home and proudly displayed on bookshelves for grandparents, uncles and aunties to see. And long after we’re all gone, some of these treasures will still survive, and hopefully will be picked up by some curious reader in the distant future.
My childhood creation led to what is now a passion in my adult life. I’m hoping it will do the same for some of my pupils.
The Black Lotus by Kieran Fanning published by Chicken House.