In 2018 alone, I’ve done over 200 workshops in schools across the UK and US. Often teachers ask me how to interest children in writing – without them groaning and moaning, whining and whinging.
As part of my school visits or in specialised sessions, I work with teachers to help them bring fun into creative writing in schools.
Over the next three blog posts, I’ll be sharing those ideas with all of you. Please feel free to try them out in your schools and when it works, do send me photos, emails, tweets to share the news with me.
In my opinion, there are 3 principles to teaching and guiding creative writing in schools.
#1 – Make it Fun
#2 – Flexing the Imagination Muscle
#3 – Practicing what you Preach
In this post, let’s look at FUN!
It’s no secret that children and adults, do more of what they enjoy. Whether it’s exercise or sports or watching television, it applies. So the first rule is not to force creative writing down the throats of children, especially if they are struggling with writing or spellings or school work.
Here are 10 ways to introduce creative writing in a fun way.
Teach the children to write jokes and riddles. There is no end to their joy when you let them loose on each other with their little scraps of paper filled with their riddles.
2. Be Roald Dahl for a day – Read funny and strange words in class and ask children to make up new words. Check this out. https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/jun/14/roald-dahl-dictionary-best-gobblefunk-words
3. Create a class newspaper – fill it with jokes, cartoons, news, advertisements. Check out this fake newspaper generator – https://newspaper.jaguarpaw.co.uk/
4. Write a letter to their favourite author or illustrator or even an imaginary one.
5. Write a recipe for something strange like a witch’s potion or a dinosaur’s cough medicine or the giant’s breakfast.
6. Write book reviews / movie reviews or video game reviews
7. Write a blurb for an unwritten book or a book they’d love to read
8. Author and illustrator visits especially authors from different backgrounds
9. Enter writing competitions like BBC 500 words (Have you been a judge before? Try your hand.)
10. Create an anthology for the school library with children’s work – get them to submit to a deadline. Use ICT classes and English lessons to encourage them to work on it. Once the book is done, add it to the library and lend it to children like a regular book.
If you wish to bring Chitra into your school to run workshops with both teachers and students, see here.
It has been a roller-coaster of a year. Half-way through the year, I left my grown-up day job and became a full-time writer and storyteller.
Since June, I’ve been writing, performing, telling stories in festivals, bookshops and schools. It’s been six months of this new life where I get to write as long as I want, visit schools and work with children on their stories any day of the week and travel across the world to meet readers.
I’ve also started teaching a course at City Uni, on writing picture books and junior fiction, which is a full circle because I started my career as a teacher, way back in 1992.
I’ve done over 24 events for children, 20 for grown-up and visited 44 schools in the year. I got shortlisted twice and won my first award. So all in all, it has been a year of wonderful book stuff.
You’re Safe With Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry, published by Lantana Publishing) came out in May 2019 and has received rave reviews. We followed that up with the Christmasy You’re Snug With Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry, published by Lantana Publishing) and it has made some of the Best of 2018 lists.
Pattan’s Pumpkin (illustrated by Frané Lessac, published by Otter-Barry Books) came out in paperback with a new cover. In the Farmer Falgu (illustrated by Kanika Nair) series, Book 3 and Book 4 has been released into the UK by Red Robin Books.
It’s been a busy 6 months daydreaming, imagining, writing, performing and working with children and adults on their stories. I’m going back home to India to relax, rejuvenate and yes, research before I head to the US again for the release of my next book with Candlewick Press.
Next year promises to be as busy as this one was. I’m grateful to everyone who has given me an opportunity to write and perform this year and hope to bring more stories to everyone in 2019. I wish all of you a wonderful festive season with your family and friends. Have a happy new year. May your new year bring a lot of joyous moments.
This post is a continuation from the first part – What are the ingredients of a universally appealing early fiction series? By Chitra Soundar hosted on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, a community of brilliant blogging authors. Also I wish to make a full disclaimer that I wrote this, in 2015, as part of my MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. So it doesn’t cite newer series. And that’s why it has some clever quotes from academic references. This is not normal for me.
Series fiction is the child’s first gateway into the world as an independent reader. They understand not only their school and their friends but also family relationships, life values and about losses, celebrations and their heritage from these books.
Buchoff (1995:230) writes in The Reading Teacher about family stories: ‘When incorporated into the elementary curriculum, family stories are effective tools for encouraging students to learn more about their heritage, to acquire and refine literary skills and to develop greater respect for the multicultural differences that make them unique.’
Therefore it is critical for children from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities to see their own family and cultural setting in these stories. It is important for them to recognize familiar words and their meanings from the stories that they read.
They should recognize familiar family structures in these stories – living in a joint family, having different or hybrid bedtime rituals, celebrations and festivals that are more culturally specific to them. All of that adds to their overall understanding of their own world – as the learning always begins with the known and proceeds to the unknown.
Opitz (1999:888) quotes Galda (1998:275), ‘All readers… need books that allow them glimpses of the selves they are, visions of the selves they’d like to become, and images of others that allow them to see beyond who they are.’
I read a number of early-fiction series published in the UK and the US, with lead characters from Black and Asian backgrounds, to understand the specific ingredients – the spices that are added by pinch into a popular recipe that make these books diverse and multi-cultural yet universally appealing.
The stories can be set anywhere – either in contemporary Britain or contemporary Africa or Asia – but the setting and characters must be as authentic they can be. Atinuke tells us stories about Anna Hibiscus and the No. 1 Car Spotter who live in Amazing Africa. Hilary McKay’s Lulu and Lenore Look’s Ruby Lu are based in contemporary USA.
Wherever they are set, these stories include authentic customs and traditions of similar families – how do they cook or eat? What kind of food do they eat? How do they address their mothers and fathers and grandparents? What language do they speak and more importantly how are their family and social interactions similar or different to mainstream culture?
Culture in the Core
The stories in these books arise partly or fully from the culture. The culture is not the backdrop alone – it is the spring from which conflicts arise and resolutions are found. In the Ruby Lu series by Lenore Look, Ruby’s cousins from China are staying with them and they are immigrants. Ruby has to deal with this even if she doesn’t like it because that’s what Asian families do.
When writing in the Guardian in 2015, Kalu says, ‘place a conflict or a problem that relates to diversity right on the spine of the plot.’
One of and not Only
The stories that I researched – be it Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke or Dyamonde Daniel by Nikki Grimes demonstrate quintessential characteristics of the chosen family. They are not (and need not be) representative of the entire race they belong to.
Bailey’s prize-winner Adichie says in her Ted Talk ‘The danger of a single story’, ’The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’
It is important not to create a caricature but portray a single family upon which a spotlight is shone.
Kalu in his Guardian article (2015) echoes this, ‘Culture is never static. So don’t fossilize it. We have multiple identities and allegiances. Try to get that sense of blur and multiplicity…’
Universality is not enough
Many of these stories set in a non-white family are universal in their emotions. But they are also different from the mainstream in other ways. The differences – both negative and positive are tackled head on – but within the premise of the story being told.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious and the Zebra Necklace, the two girls set off with a nurse to a distant village in search of truth. Western Health & Safety laws and social conventions would disallow this. But it is normal for the family being portrayed in this story.
In Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look, Alvin visits China with his family. There he finds he can’t go out when the smog and pollution is very high and he also discovers the colourful markets and wonderful people, when he does venture out.
Cai explains why discussing differences is a necessary step in multicultural literature.
…first step toward the goal is to accept, tolerate and respect cultural differences. To cross cultural borders, paradoxically, we need to recognize and face them first. If we do not understand and respect cultural differences, there would be no rapport on an equal basis. (2002:130)
Having said that these books are not pulpits for political views. Not a single book beats you on the head with the issues of racism or other issues.
Kalu writes in the Guardian (2015) on this, “Racism exists and writers have the opportunity to make important contributions to speculating how society might deal with it.”
While discussing the differences are important, all these stories demonstrated similarities too. Friendships, love, loss of a pet, loss of a grandparent, judging others, doing mischief – these universal experiences are portrayed through the lens of a lead character who is either Black, Asian or from Minority Ethnic heritages.
In summary, a universally appealing early fiction series with a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic lead character would not only be funny, consistent, feature a unique and memorable main character and have a strong supporting cast; it should also have an authentic setting, keep culture of the main character in its core, avoid stereotypes and celebrate the differences and similarities between the character’s background and the mainstream.
The last month has been hectic for so many reasons. Through March I was still doing school visits as part of the World Book Day celebrations which have started to extend into the month.
Through snow and rain, I’ve been to 11 schools during March and April, to meet with children to work with them on storytelling and creative writing. It’s always a joy to meet children who have read my books, and my website and have interesting questions to ask.
All school events are different – in some the classes are small and in some I talk to a whole year group or key stage. This year I had the opportunity to talk to children about both my picture books and stories from my chapter books.
I visited West Earlham Junior too, where I’m the patron of reading and we wrote poems and riddles in each class and the children enjoyed their time making what would be on their imaginary’s teacher’s table.
Alongside the school events, I was also at the Bexley Half-term festivals to tell stories at the Bexley libraries, which was super fun because I met a lot of parents and their young children who had come to listen to Farmer Falgu stories.
The summer term is here now and I’ll be visiting more schools. I’ll be at more schools across England and Wales in May and June. I’ll also be doing public events in the summer. You can find out more about my events here.
But here’s the conundrum of an author and a writer who writes stories for children. I love meeting my readers and I go into schools and libraries just to do that. So when do I write my next stories? Every week I set aside time to write, whether it’s the weekend or early mornings before I head out – so that I’ll be writing new stories all the time. Find out more about my new books here.
International Women’s Day is celebrated on the 8th March worldwide. While Italians celebrate it by giving women yellow mimosas, some countries celebrate it with gifts and cards. Did you know it is a public holiday in China for women only?
In 2018, the UN is observing it as Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives.
The Time is Now to do so many things –
To acknowledge the contribution of women to the betterment of this world.
To say No to abuse of any kind
To say Yes to adventures of all sorts
To lead from the front.
Growing up in India, in a society where a woman’s place was a few steps behind a man, I had always rebelled. The women in my life were both caring and strong without actually taking credit for it. But they let me rebel without fussing too much.
My mother wanted me to conform to norms because she was a woman of her time. Ironically she was proud of me every time I broke a rule, or pushed the boundaries. She wanted me to have the opportunities she never had. But then she also led by example. For someone who was from a conservative Hindu family, she did a lot of social work outside the home, she wrote and acted on stage, even if it was her local neighbourhood community theatre, she did one-woman monologues dressing up in homemade costumes. She pushed the boundaries in her own way and she shouldn’t be surprised when I followed suit.
Even today as I write books and go into schools and perform in festivals, she lives her own dreams through me and cheers me on. She reads every book I write and she reads it to my nephews and her pride keeps my energy going.
So on this International Women’s Day 2018, I want to say thank you to all women who lead by example, who encourage others with a smile, who push boundaries and who hold the gate open for others to come through.
I want to say thanks to Mum, who has gave me rebellious genes and infinite dreams.