Friday, 30 September 2016

After school chat

Today I had Jeremy to myself for a bit after school, as Abi was at the dentist with TheRev.  I opened his book bag to see if he'd brought any homework back fr the weekend, and found a paper covered with lines of squiggles.  (Note: Children's names have been changed in the following conversation. I don't *think* there is a Christine or a Davy in Jem's class, but if there are then I apologise to them. It wasn't them!)

The List

Me: Oh, this is good.  You've done some writing today?

Jem: I maked a list.

Me: I see!  A list of what?

Jem: It's a list like Father Christmas.  I putted Christine on the naughty list.

Me: Oh...kaaaay...Who is on the good list?

Jem: Everyone in the class except Christine.

Me: Oh dear.  What did Christine do to be put on the naughty list?!

Jem: She stole mine and Davy's chicks.

Me: Your chips?  At lunchtime?

Jem: No, CHICKS.  They were having a bath, but she thought the cup we was using was not a bath so she took them and I putted her on the naughty list.

Me: I see you've put yourself on this list, too.

Jem: No. That's just so people know it's MY list.

Me: Ah.  Right.

Jem: Did you know school has rules?

Me: I expect it does, yes.  What are the school rules?

Jem: They're the same as our rules.

Me: For example?

Jem: No hitting and no kicking and no bubbling in your juice and everything.

Me: Of course...

Jem: But that's not how the school rules song goes.  And at school there are more rules.

Me: What's a school rule that isn't a rule we have at home?

Jem: No lying down on the floor.

He then asked to go round to a friend's house and disappeared.  Apparently, having a schoolboy means I never get to see him.  I hope he's forgiven Christine by Monday...

Monday, 16 May 2016

To the young author who was worried by SATs

Dear Young Author,

I read about you on Michael Rosen's Facebook page, where I found a link to this article.  I read that you were worried, because you thought the kinds of questions that baffled you in the SATs tests might mean you had to give up on your dream of being an author.  I was pleased to see that lots of authors have already responded on that page.

Perhaps I'm too late, but here's my message to add to the others: I'm an author. I always knew I would be one, because I spent my childhood telling stories to my friends, my sister, my parents, my teddies and anyone else who would listen.

My English teacher at school used to put ticks next to the bits he liked best in my stories.  If there was one tick, it was something quite good.  If there were two ticks, he was seriously impressed.  Any more ticks than that, and he had probably done a victory lap of the room and opened a bottle of champagne before sitting down to continue marking.  Once, I wrote quite a long story about a girl who had to run up a mountain and warn some people hiding in a cave that there were soldiers coming to get them.  When he marked the story, my English teacher put THREE ticks next to the sentence 'Rocks, lots of rocks before the cave!'

Now, I know what you're going to say, or at least I know what the person who set the SATs tests would probably say.  That isn't a sentence - it hasn't got a verb in it.  Also, it has an exclamation mark where there should have been a full stop.  It uses the word 'rocks' twice when it could have used an interesting synonym, and it has no 'wow' words in it at all.

The reason it got three ticks, my teacher said, was that taking the verb out and repeating the word 'rocks' gave the sentence a breathless, hurried, stumbling feeling, which helped him to imagine how the girl looked and felt as she raced up the mountain and was faced with climbing over loads of rocks when she was in such a hurry.

My English teacher knew what he was talking about.  Every now and then I still check over my writing for a 'three ticks' moment.

There isn't actually an exam type of test that can test good writing.  The only way to test good writing is to see whether people enjoy reading it.  If you can write a story which makes people want to carry on reading it, which makes them worried about the character in it, or which makes them feel breathless or excited or happy or sad, or which makes them laugh until they cry, then the story has passed the test.

It's never about YOU passing the test, by the way.  If the story doesn't pass the test, it doesn't make YOU a bad writer.  It just means that the story needs polishing, or that you could try writing a different story until you find one that works.  I have notebooks full of stories that didn't quite pass the test, and I think every good writer probably does.  Each one helped me to become a better writer, not a worse one, because that's what good testing should do - unlike the SATs.

I look forward to reading one of your books one day.

Friday, 6 May 2016

The Traveller and the Wise Man

In which I tell stories in protest, and inadvertently answer a question about the role of imagination in storytelling.

This is a tale of two parts.

In the first part, I was recently at a retreat day led by Malcolm Guite.  There was a discussion about imagination - Guite has written about theology and poetic imagination at length in his wonderful book Faith, Hope and Poetry, which I finally finished reading in February - and at one point, he asked me to say something about the role of imagination in storytelling.  Taken by surprise, I talked briefly about how, in storytelling, the audience does at least half of the imaginative work by creating the story visually in their own minds, which was true, but a little garbled and possibly not very relevant!

In the second part of this tale, I was asked to do some storytelling on the 3rd May at an outdoor event for the Let Kids Be Kids campaign: children and parents who were protesting against the emphasis on SATS and testing in education by taking a day off school to do fun learning out of doors.  I went along very gladly, because I agree wholeheartedly with the campaign and have been following the news about the SPAG tests with growing horror (have a look at Michael Rosen’s blog for a good commentary on the whole thing).

I chose two stories to begin the session.  The first was Peg Soup, a story which I have recently added to my repertoire: it’s a version of the well-known folktale in which a traveller claims to be able to make soup out of a peg, and so persuades previously poor or selfish people to add the few ingredients they have individually as ‘flavouring’ until a real soup has been made which everyone can share.  The second story was one I’ve been telling for years, in which Ming Lo visits a wise man to ask him how to move a mountain, and the wise man responds with various ridiculous and ineffective methods before relenting and telling Ming Lo to ‘dance the dance of the moving mountain’, which turns out to involve walking backwards with his eyes shut.  When he opens his eyes, the mountain is far away.

After telling both stories, I asked the children whether they’d noticed any similarities between them.  This is usually a good way of opening up a general discussion about storytelling.  What tends to happen is that a few tentative answers will focus on the method: “There were bits that repeated” “There was a rhyme” or “You did actions”, for example.  As the children learn that there are not really any wrong answers, they become more confident and we can start talking about the stories themselves, at which point they might notice that both stories contained a trick, that they both contained people who believed that the impossible was happening.  Then we could start to talk about what role the trick played in the story.

This time, however, one of the first answers came from a girl who confidently said the following: “Both the stories were about how if you think you can’t do something, or don’t have something, the answer is actually inside you all the time”.

I was stunned, because it is very unusual to find a child - or an adult - who can leap straight to the heart of the message of a story like that, and I can only assume that she has been steeped in folktale since infancy to do it so instinctively!

It was only when thinking about her surprising answer later on that I realised that the two stories perfectly answered the question about the role of imagination in storytelling.  In fact, the traveller and the wise man both embody the role of imagination within their stories.  Instead of giving an instant solution to the problems of the other characters - in fact, instead of pointing out that the things they want (a meal out of nothing, a mountain to move) are impossible, they both respond by imagining what would happen if the things were possible and teaching a lesson that way.

And this is precisely the kind of teaching which is hampered by the mindset of a Gove or a Morgan or a Gibb who thinks that learning must be rote and precise and testable, and that teaching must have a measured outcome.  Neither the wise man nor the traveller point out that they have been teaching a lesson all along.  They leave their pupils to work it out by themselves - and even if they never do, even if the trick is never revealed, the villagers will still get together to share their goods when they make ‘peg soup’, and Ming Lo will still know which dance to do when he is next faced with an immoveable object.  The fact that they won’t know how they are achieving these impossible things won’t actually matter to them.  They have learned something all the same.

Let’s have Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, who could believe in six impossible things before breakfast, for education secretary.  It’s only by imagining how the impossible could happen that we can ever achieve it in real life.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Books I read in 2015

Inspired by Sheridan Voysey and Amy Boucher Pye, last January I started keeping a list of every book I read in 2015.  The results are almost too embarrassing to share, mainly because it looks to me as though I have done hardly any reading over the last twelve months.  If you’ve just glanced down at the list and decided that I must be attempting some kind of humble-brag, you need to understand that before I had children, I used to read books more than most people eat.  Reading was me.  It was what I did.  I couldn’t help it.  And then I went to university, where it was quite a normal week’s workload to read two novels, and all the criticism that had been written about them, and another novel by the same author to get some context, and a couple of books that inspired or influenced the two novels, and then write an essay comparing them.  So noticing that there were some months in 2015 in which I only read one short book shows me that me reading has a long way to go before it’s fully recovered from the impact of children!  At least there are no blank months; and I seem to have mostly got over my bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived days of reading nothing but Asterix comics and Christian chick-lit intended for teenagers.  Anyway, for anyone interested, here’s what I thought of what I read in 2015.


The Labyrinth Year, Mari Howard:  (Written by an ACW friend. Here’s my review written at the time:) I’ve been waiting eagerly for this sequel to ‘Baby, Baby’, and enjoyed meeting all the characters again.  The central theme of the labyrinth (and, crucially, how it is different to a maze) is woven cleverly through the whole, reflecting the twists and turns of the plot and leading to a particularly satisfying and thought-provoking ending.
Mari Howard’s skill as a storyteller is evident, for me, through the fact that the plot and the characters kept me turning the pages and hooked into the story, despite the fact that the writing style would not have been my personal choice: it’s dense writing, switching between characters, some told in first person and others in third, with lots of half-finished sentences and unconventional punctuation.  There were also a few continuity errors due to the late 90s dating of the story - I’m fairly sure that nobody said ‘OMG’ before the turn of the millenium, and a film is mentioned that didn’t appear until 2002 - but again, these were small hiccups in a good story that was grippingly crafted to keep me on the edge of my seat.


The Giver, Lois Lowry - Lois Lowry was my favourite author as a pre-teen, and I read most of her books repeatedly until I had them nearly memorised.  This one came out after I had ‘grown out of’ Lois Lowry, but it won lots of prizes and caused lots of controversy so I thought I’d give it a go.  It was superb.  I must read the rest of the trilogy.


Chasing Francis, Ian Morgan Cron: I really enjoyed this scenic novel about a pastor encountering the life of St Francis.  Both gripping and fascinating.  It’s on my re-read list.
Losing Face, Annie Try: Written by a fellow member of ACW, this was a great teen novel about the recovery, spiritual and physical, of a girl who is disfigured in an accident.  It was written using formats such as texts and e-mails, giving it a very contemporary voice.  Apparently a sequel is planned, which I will be looking out for.


The Cactus Stabbers, Jeff Lucas: In 2014 I read Jeff Lucas’s Faith in the Fog, which I thought was great, but I was rather disappointed by his writing in The Cactus Stabbers: it seemed unpolished and all a bit obvious.  It was an OK light read for our boating holiday, though.
Faith, Hope and Poetry, Malcolm Guite (started): This is going to take a while to finish, because I have to be awake to read it properly, and have my journal nearby to take copious notes!  It is so good to be reading something properly academic, though, and so very inspiring.  Like sitting down to a proper meal after years of living on crisps and coke.


The Innocence of Father Brown, G K Chesterton - I now have an ambition to read everything Chesterton ever wrote, starting with more of these.
Never Mind the Reversing Ducks, Adrian Plass (re-reading) This can’t really have been my first re-read of the year, can it?  I probably didn’t count them unless I actually re-read the whole book cover to cover; but I generally have at least one Adrian Plass on the go, and I’ve read all them before.


Unseen Footprints, Sheridan Voysey (Finished.  Started sometime around Christmas and has been on hold!)
On This Day, Melody Carlson (re-read) Ahhh, summer, the time for re-reading very light and undemanding books.
Adrian Plass: Cabbages for the King, Sacred Diary (several from the series) all re-reads!


M is for Autism: a surprisingly short story (I bought it on Kindle and expected a novel) but very well-written, from the perspective of a teen girl newly diagnosed with autism.  It was put together by the girls from a school featured on a documentary I watched, but now can’t remember what it was called.
The Life You Never Expected, Andrew and Rachel Wilson: I was really torn about this book, and may have to write more about it later.  On the one hand it offered a good and helpful, gospel-centred perspective from parents of autistic children; and I thought that their central image of the orange was an excellent metaphor for having children with special needs, much better than the ‘Holland’ one which is shared around so much.  On the other hand, they kept using the phrase “There will be no autism in heaven”, which I found very difficult from an autistic advocate point of view.  Yes, I definitely need to write a longer post about this one at some stage.
The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, Sue Townsend: this was a super, entertaining, just-the-right-amount-of-thought-provoking, perfect summer read.
CS Lewis: Broadcast Talks: Always good to read a bit of CS Lewis.  Should do it much more often.
(Most of) God Knows, Joseph Heller: a really fascinating novel, using storytelling to explore the life of King David.  It made me go back and check the original frequently!  We were looking at the story of David in church at the time as well, so this offered a useful perspective.  I didn’t read it all the way through, though; I ended up dipping in to look for certain episodes, which I’m sure spoiled the effect of the novel.  


The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth: Brilliant.  I took writing tips from it.  I should have written them down.
The Unknown Unknown, Mark Forsyth: An essay, really, but if it calls itself a book on Kindle then it counts, right?
Storytelling booklets for Abimbola Gbemi Alao - We really enjoyed meeting this great storyteller at the Buckfast Abbey storytelling festival, so I was pleased to be asked to read her booklets and write some recommendations for them.  I bought her novel, too (see September)
Twelve Curious Deaths in France, John Goldsmith: A very enjoyable book of short stories, ranging from amusing to horrifying, which does exactly what it says in the title.  The quasi-factual nature of some of the stories meant that I spent about half an hour Googling after each chapter, trying to tease out fact from fiction.  I suspect the author of having created a Wikipedia page.  Highly recommended.


Minding Frankie, Maeve Binchy: Having mainly enjoyed short stories by Maeve Binchy, I hadn’t realised how tired her writing style gets after a while.  It was a good story, but about half way through I stopped focusing on the plot and started counting the number of times she wrote that a character “took no prisoners” just before they started talking.
The Legendary Weaver, Abimbola Gbemi Alao: An interesting coming-of-age novel, combining a culture of storytelling and its stories with the experience of a young girl struck deaf through illness.
Finding Myself in Britain, Amy Boucher Pye: I loved this book, and have already reviewed it here.


Resilient, Sheridan Voysey: It was exciting to be part of Sheridan’s ‘launch team’, and gave me plenty of ideas about launching my own books!  I started reading this in early September, so it took me a while, mainly because I had to be properly awake to digest it.  My review is here.
Girl Alone, Cathy Glass: I used to read lots of Cathy Glass’s tales of fostering children, so I automatically bought this one when I saw it on offer.  It reminded me that I wanted to read the one about the daughter she eventually adopted, so I bought Will You Love Me on Kindle and read that one, too.  They are very quick reads, partly because they are written in a fairly simple and formulaic way, and partly because you don’t want to put them down before getting to the happy ending.

All Questions Great and Small, Adrian Plass and Jeff Lucas: eagerly awaited NEW Adrian Plass!  I zoomed through it in an hour like a child opening all their Christmas presents at once, and now need to re-read it more slowly to discover what it actually said.
Fit to burst, Rachel Jankovic: (For the tenth or so time) I ought to read this once a month, really, not once a year.  Best book for Christian mothers - I started highlighting memorable passages in my Kindle copy, but I was effectively just turning the whole thing yellow.

Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite: These were devotionals that went on until Epiphany, so I really finished it in January, but I’m letting it squeeze in since it was an Advent book.  It was wonderful.  It did me so much good to read a poem every day.  I need to find ways to carry it on, and I can’t wait for Lent so that I can start Word in the Wilderness.
Various Christmas books: I tend to spend December re-reading things from our Christmas books box: collections of stories, treasuries, Maeve Binchy’s This Year Will Be Different and Adrian Plass’s And Jesus Will Be Born.  

And now I need to find something more serious to get my teeth into before the January 2016 entry ends up with no books listed in it.