Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Burntwood

I spent the day at Burntwood School in Wandsworth, London. I was the guest of Taskeen Sadiqqi, the school librarian, who had organised a Carnegie Medal shadowing event. All three authors - Anthony McGowan, Mary Hooper, and myself, were all a bit late and so I had to leap out of a car, walk in through the side entrance to the hall and go straight into my talk to a room full of students from Burntwood and four other local schools - Elliot School, Graveney School, Battersea Park School, Streatham and Clapham High School. Thanks to Taskeen and to all the librarians and staff who looked after us so well and to the students for managing to stay alert and good-humoured on a very long and hot day.

I spoke about my writing career and about writing creepy stories in particular. The students asked lots of thoughtful questions, and the time whizzed by. Mary gave an interesting talk about the chance discoveries that can spark an idea for a novel. Anthony spoke in the afternoon about the notion of fact and fiction in writing, and how the line between them gets blurred.

Each of the authors chaired a discussion group of between ten and fifteen students about a particular novel on the Carnegie shortlist. These groups rotated half a dozen times. It was hard work, particularly as, not surprisingly, not all the students had managed to get through all of the books!

Yesterday I was wondering what today's teenagers would make of Bog Child - a book set in 1981 in Northern Ireland. I have to say my concerns turned out to be well-founded. Not many of the students I spoke to had any real grasp of the period. More than that - no one actually seemed to like it, or be excited by it. They understood the poignancy of a book centred around sacrifice being written by an author who was shortly to lose her battle with cancer, but it was not enough to make them love it. More than one mentioned too many plot strands and these themes not being tied up satisfactorily at the end. They had a point I think.

The setting (time and place) did seem to be an issue. I was three groups in before someone asked what the main character and his uncle are doing at the beginning. I said they were stealing peat. She had no idea what peat was, and neither did almost anyone else. No one knew that it was a fuel.

This is the problem of writing for children. You cannot assume any prior knowledge. The more you stray from the everyday experience of the reader (geographically and historically in this case) the more you run the risk of confusing them and alienating them.

Of course, this is not a reason for not trying to drag them to look at some world other than their own. Far from it. One great quality of reading is that magic carpet ride of being taken to another time, another place - another world. Or even just to walk around in someone else's shoes for a while.

But they are only going to go with you if the story is compelling enough. The more effort they have to make, the more compelling the story has to be. And the truth is, for all its many qualities, Bog Child just did not seem to grab them.

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