Welcome to the Jungle

“It’s a fantastic time to be writing children’s and YA fiction,” Frances Hardinge told the world last week.  The Lie Tree had just become the second children’s book in history to win the overall Costa Book Of The Year.  “For those who think children’s and YA fiction is not their thing: please do come and explore.  There’s a beautiful jungle out there.”

 

And so begins the rather spectacular blog-post currently doing the rounds on social media. It was written (I believe) by the lovely (and somewhat heroic) people at MiddleGradeStrikesBack, and is well worth your time.

If you haven’t read it yet, click on this link and give it a go. Seriously, just do it. Like right now. Please. Just click the link. I’m not going to quit until you do. It’s quite enlightening:

http://middlegradestrikesback.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/coverkidsbooks-facts.html

So, because you have all just gone away and read the article, and then promptly returned having remembered that you were in fact reading something else entirely beforehand, you will know what I’m talking about. It’s quite a damning article, highlighting the gross lack of coverage in our media in regards to children’s literature.

“Grab the metaphorical pitch forks!” you yell . . . but wait! I believe there is more to this than a simple lack of coverage. Will putting more reviews in newspapers help promote children’s fiction? Of course it will, and it would be a great place to start, but we’d be wrong to think that that alone will elevate children’s fiction to the godly status it deserves. What we have here is not a media issue . . . it is a cultural one.

“A cultural issue!” you’re probably scoffing. But yes, ultimately, I believe it is the case. Now let me tell you why.

I have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, and as soon as I graduated from university I knew that I wanted to share that love of reading with others – to pass the reading bug gallantly on to the next generation. “I’ll become an English teacher!” I naively proclaimed, but then I thought back to my own English lessons: The unending criticisms of Nobel winning novels; the out-of-context, haemorrhage-inducing essays on Shakespeare; the line by line break downs of poems (that in no way resembled the dream-like scenes from The Dead Poets Society), and I quickly changed my mind.

So now, at the age of 27, I am a primary school teacher. And I love it. Seriously, it rocks . . . but my dream of being the next Robin Williams was quickly shattered. Teaching children to read is hard. No, wait, teaching children to read is easy . . . teaching children to love reading? Now that’s hard.

I have, admittedly, only been teaching for a few years, but in that short time, the cultural hole has already revealed itself. I am about to lay down some of the things that I believe are wrong with our culture. Now, you may very well disagree with what I have to say, and that’s fine. I know some people will read this a say “Hey, wait a minute! I do that already!” In which case, BRAVO! You are a hero! Go and spread the word!

Have I thought long and hard about these things? No. Am I shooting the words from my metaphorical hip? Maybe. Am I quickly typing this out so I can read a couple more chapters of “The Five People You Meet In Heaven?” before marking roughly forty books? You bet. But never-the-less.

Here are my observations since beginning my teaching journey.

 

Cultural Issue #1 – Teachers That Don’t Read

How is a person expected to instil a love of reading when they themselves do not read for pleasure? Children are not stupid. If you tell a class to sit and read, and then quickly begin marking or checking emails or doing something other than reading, they will notice . . . and they will switch off. If you want the children to read, READ WITH THEM! For twenty minutes every afternoon my kids and I kick off our shoes, put our feet on the desks, and read. That’s okay. I read my books. They read their books. Sometimes we don’t read at all and just talk about our books. I share my favourites with the kids. They share their favourites with me, and that’s okay too. The result? Kids enjoy reading. Not all of them, granted, but most. To me, a teacher who doesn’t read is like a chef who doesn’t use salt. Yes he/she can still do their job, but there will forever be something missing.

 

Cultural Issue #2 – Punishment

Both parents and teachers are guilty of this. When a child is naughty, they are told to stay in and read. All this does is create a bridge in their minds between reading and punishment, which does more harm than good. Believe me. There are other things children can be doing (their time’s tables for example – everyone hates those), but whatever you do, don’t give reading as a punishment. Make it a reward! “If you finish your work to the required standard, you can lay on the bean-bags in the reading corner and chill with a book!” It’s not that difficult.

 

Cultural Issue #3 – Reading Schemes

Schools are obsessed with levelling children and putting them on the correct “bands”. Some people are so hooked on this system that they force children to stick to their bands until they have proven – somehow – that they are ready for the next one. Don’t. I told my children to ignore the scheme and pick books they wanted to read. And guess what? They did. Did the weaker readers pick whopping great novels like War and Peace to begin with so they looked awesome? Of course, but after a period of time they corrected themselves and found a book they liked. I also read thin books so they realise big books don’t equal good books (from my experience, the opposite seems to be true!)

I have met people obsessed with forcing children to finish books too. DON’T! If a book is boring, tell them to put it down and pick another. I don’t finish books that are dull so why should they?  

 

Cultural Issue #4 – Parents

Dear parent. Do not tell me you struggle to get your child to read when you yourself don’t do it. Your children idolise you. They want to be you. If you come home and lounge in front of the TV, they will do the same. If you sit at home with a book. They will do the same.

Also, I once had a parent come to me and complain that I’d asked his child to read at home. He said, and I quote, “When my son gets home, he relaxes. He doesn’t do school work, and I don’t want him to do school work. It is your job to teach him to read, not mine.”

Parents need to take responsibility as much as teachers. This, I know, can be hard. That parent clearly didn’t read himself, and judging by his tone had probably had a bad experience in the past – perhaps he had been forced to read in class by a non-reading teacher. The solution to this? I don’t know. Seriously. I’m not a parent. Perhaps it is a generational thing that will heal with time. If we get the children of today into books, perhaps this won’t happen. Perhaps it will. Anyway, onwards we go!

 

Cultural Issue #5 – Television

No, I’m not about to say TV is bad for kids. We all love a bit of tele (Have you seen Game of Thrones!). What I mean by TV is the coverage and promotion it gives to children fiction. Mainly – where is it? How difficult would it be, just once a week, during prime-time kids TV slots, to have a short program in which presenters discuss books and interview authors and play book-based games and have children on actually reviewing books themselves, or SOMETHING! Just once a week would do! That’s 52 episodes a year! I’m sure there’d be 52 newly published MG authors who’d love to go and promote their books and play games and have fun. Teachers would see it and be more open to having the authors in schools, children would be psyched to have them come, and parents could engage and watch it too! Seriously, the fact that this program doesn’t exist baffles me!

 

But as I said, these are just ramblings. All I know is that there is so much potential being wasted. Children’s fiction is, to me, the greatest of all fiction, and right now, as many keep saying, we are in a golden age the likes of which the world has never seen before. Through children’s books I have visited a million different worlds, seen through the eyes of a million different people, been on great adventures, saved kingdoms, ruined kingdoms, travelled the solar system and passed through the gates of heaven; through them, I have grown. Every book that I have ever read has changed me in one way or another, and for each and every one, I am grateful.

Frances Hardinge is right, there is a beautiful jungle out there, and it is our job to welcome the next generation inside. Let’s get the message out!

(P.S. If you are a parent or teacher who wishes to find ways of promoting books at home or in school, read “The Rights of the Reader” by Daniel Pennac and “The Book Whisperer” by Donalyn Miller. They’re awesome!)

(P.P.S – Use the hashtag #CoverKidsBooks and spread the word)

Peace and Love,

I.M.

The Reason I Write, and Who I Write For

Why do I write? Who am I writing for?

These are two of the most important questions any aspiring writer/artist must ask themselves. And, I believe, you cannot be truly successful, or know fully who or what you are, until you have answered them both honestly. Why are you doing it, and who are you doing it for? In this blog post I shall give my answers to both of these questions. Your own answers may very well be different (I would hope they are, should we all be the same).

Why Do I Write?

I believe it is possible to put every person who calls themselves a writer into one of two categories. There are those who write because they like the idea of being a writer. They see the likes of JK Rowling and George R R Martin, scooping up tens, if not hundreds of millions of pounds/dollars for their work and think: I can do that. How hard can it be? They think, and yes, most even go as far as creating a synopsis, either on paper or just in their heads (usually just in their heads). These people then gloat to their peers about how they are going to be the next big thing. They talk about how well they will do, how unique their ideas are, how no one has ever done anything like them before and the world will bow down and collectively drops their slackened jaws in sheer awe at the magnificence of their work. They are, for want of a better word, deluded. These people talk more about their writing then they do actually writing. On Twitter, they tweet famous writers and then brag to their friends about re-tweets, they go to writers talks or creative writing classes and act like they know it all, and, because most people do not know any different, they believe them, further ensnaring said writer in their own delusion. And through it all – through all the dreaming and bragging – they fail to see that these writers whom they hold in such high esteem (Rowling, Gaiman, King, Martin etc) did not write their novels because they hoped to be stupidly rich and famous and successful. They wrote them because they were, in fact, members of the second category of people. The true category.

Members of this category write not because they desire fame and fortune, but because they have to write. These people, myself included, write because it is a part of them. I write stories because when I walk or have a few brief moments of solitude, my brain goes to other places. For some reason, when I think, I do not think about bills to pay, the mortgage, work, my friends, my life. I think instead about other worlds, and deals with the devil, and castles in the imagination. I do not think. I imagine. This is a blessing, and, at times, a curse (excuse the dramatic cliché). When I imagine, I build stories, and if I do not get those stories out of my head and onto paper I grow anxious, fidgety, and on occasions, depressed. If I do not write I feel clogged. These stories, these voices in my mind, they beg to be told, and if I do not tell them those characters begin taking pickaxes to my memories and start dislodging my every day thoughts. The less I write, the less I remember. It is as simple as that. It is like these voices – these stories – that appear in my head are the voices of real people, somewhere in the world. Perhaps when people pray, those prayers are not heard by God, but by writers? It certainly feels that way sometimes, that if I don’t tell their stories I am somehow doing them a disservice.

So that is why I write. I write, because I have to. I believe that if you ask any successful writer/artist/actor/singer why they do what they do, they will tell you the same. This also comes hand in hand with success. To be a good writer, you must practise. I am still practising. I always will be, I think. But those writers who write because they want to will fall short in the end, because they lack the stamina, the will to put in all those novels. They lack the patience to persevere through the mountains of rejections, the bad books, the crap short stories, the mind-numbingly dull poetry, and so they give up. However, we writers who write because we have to, will always put in those hours. We will write novel, after novel, after novel, not because we are seeking fame and fortune, but because we must. And through those years of solitary story-telling our craft improves. With every story – with every 100,000 words – we get better, and in the end, after five years, ten years, fifteen, twenty, we arrive at a standard that is good enough to be shared. 

Who Do I Write For?

This is harder to answer than the first question, because since deciding that I wanted to take this journey, that I would attempt to turn these voices into a career, my target audience has changed, time and time again. At first I wrote for myself. As I said before, I wrote because I had to. I needed to. But now that I am being mentored and working on a book with an industry professional, I can no longer think purely for myself. I have to consider: who else will read this? Children, is the answer, but it is not the full answer.

My novel, The Miracle of Harrow Falls, is an upper-middle grade novel. For those who don’t know, that is for children aged 9-12. I teach that age range. I know it well. I know it very well. This gives me an advantage. If you were to look at the children’s book market at the moment, you will see it dominated by the likes of David Walliams, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Jeremy Strong. These contain the usual – the expected. There is a story, not too complex, light, humorous, and a whole load of toilet humour. I have nothing against this. This sells. It is big business, and children lap it up. But not all children. Being a teacher I see the darker side of children’s lives. I see children who are neglected, abused, bullied, at school and at home. I see children struggle to cope as their parents divorce, get ill . . . even die.

These children are not interested in fart jokes. 

At first, before I became a teacher, I would have said: “No! These funny books are good. They cheer them up! They take them out of their misery and make them smile.” But I am a teacher. A child came back after the last half term and informed me that her mother has lung cancer. She was confused, devastated. I can tell you, no amount of toilet humour was going to put a smile on her face. She didn’t need to smile. She needed to understand. She was in a dark place, and she needed to talk to other people who were also in dark places so she could figure out how they escaped back into the light. These children are after escape. They are desperate for it, and from what I see, they are seeking it in YA fiction. Children as young as nine read dark, disturbing YA novels, most of which contain content (Sex, drugs, violence) that they should not be exposed to. And yet they still read them. They read because they are in a dark place, and only characters also in dark places can help.

Who do I write for? I write for them. I write for the children who are going through things that no child should go through. I take characters and I put them through hell, not because I want to be dark and edgy, but because I want to show that no matter how deep you go, there is always a light at the end. I am not interested in books about underpants or smelly tramps or toilet-roll billionaires. That limits my market, and I will not get rich writing the books I do, but I’m not in this to get rich. I’m in this to show those who are so down they fear they may never get up, that it’s okay, that they’re not alone, and that if they fight -and I mean really fight- they have a chance at happiness once again.

So there it is. The reason I write, and who I write for.

If you are a writer, what are your answers? What are your reasons?

I.M.