11

Championing Children’s Reading

A Round Robin Post

This month, dear followers, we have been asked to address the following question:

How do you encourage reading in your children?

Despite my age and the impact technology has had on the formats that children read in, I have decided to begin with myself. A little self-indulgent, but somehow looking back at my own reading as a child feels like a good place to start. It also gave me an excuse to dig up some very old and sentimental books!

The very first book that I recall absolutely loving is An ABC for You and Me. It wasn’t just that, on the very first page, ‘Ann has an Apple’ (no matter that my name was spelt without an ‘e’, this book was clearly about me, even if in the form of cute mice, rabbits, squirrels and birds), it was also beautifully illustrated and an initial introduction to my future love: calligraphy. Learning the alphabet seemed secondary, as was probably intended, and the cute rhyme on the last pages (‘XYZ went off to bed at the end of the ABC’) perhaps also set me up for a future love of poetry.

Moving on to books with a few more words and a proper story, we come to the wonderful Molly Brett. A theme is already emerging here of how important pictures and illustrations can be in helping a child to engage. I just loved Molly’s beautiful pictures of nature and wildlife, and the stories just fitted in a very satisfactory way around the edges.

I didn’t move on far for my next memory, and predictably these books also featured animals as their main characters: come in Alison Uttley and the Little Grey Rabbit stories! I think that non-human characters are still very popular with children but perhaps the trend now days is for central characters to be human (perhaps more identifiable) – maybe on some kind of a quest. Of course that doesn’t stop an author going to town on an array of non-human characters – just consider J K Rowling and Harry Potter.

Alongside books with stories, I have always loved poetry. I was lucky to be given anthologies of poems when I was young, and who can resist the humorous poetry of people like A A Milne and Spike Milligan? I think you can see from the state of my copy of Now We Are Six just how much it was loved and read.  Humour and children – well that is definitely the winning combination!

My love of beautiful illustrations and wildlife (or perhaps my mother’s, as she was the purchaser of most of our mini-library of books) continued with books like the haunting Rustle of Spring. Nature and how it works allows difficult themes of cruelty and competition and survival to filter into children’s reading, and several of my books that had central animal stories brought me to tears.

Sadly I can’t bring you more photographs as I move on – the books themselves are now lost to me. Longer stories and novels that I remember clearly include the old but timeless Gobbolino: The Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams. I really identified with the struggles of the little kitten to find his true nature and identity. I clearly enjoyed all things Witchy (although many of the traditional fairy tales were a little too scary for me), because another book that I recall loving was The Witch’s Daughter by Nina Bawden. What young girl could resist a heroine with the name ‘Perdita’? Mythology and history were also strongly appealing – especially Mary Stewart’s series of books about about Merlin.

It’s hard to say what helped most to encourage me to read. Books that engaged both the eyes and the heart, and time spent with my mother who would read to us at bedtime. The sense that my mother also valued these books was important, and the gradual movement from illustrations with a few words to words with a few illustrations. In fact, the feeling that I was growing up and moving on and actually making ‘progress’ from one thing to another probably helped me to grow naturally into new reading challenges.

My mother would also make up stories for us. It felt magical and personal and gave me the knowledge that reading and writing was something that I myself could do, not just an unknown author scribbling away in the ubiquitous attic somewhere.

Not every child, though, has such a positive route to reading. My own son is dyslexic. He loved being read to as a child, but became resistant once he was given longer books to read himself. Once he was diagnosed the need to experiment with different formats became clearer, and for a while more visual-based materials like magazines and cartoons were a help. It was a minor miracle when we discovered Lemony Snicket and the A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Daniel Handler. They were quirky and fun and digestible, but more importantly they were printed with wide spacing onto cream coloured paper – much more readable for a dyslexic child. Briefly, my son loved reading again.

It is interesting that, much later in his life when he had reached adulthood, my son began reading again because he acquired a Kindle electronic reader. I was sceptical about how much use it would get when he asked me to buy him one to take away with him on his campervan adventures, but within weeks he had devoured several books. So: don’t make assumptions, experiment with format, and never forget that words can be shared verbally as well as on paper!
___________________________________________________________________
See the suggestions other writers have for encouraging reading in children:
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1ly
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

© Anne de Gruchy

Advertisements
8

Stories: Great Beginnings and Endings – but what about the bit in the Middle?!

This week I am back to our Round Robin blog post with themes explored by a series of different writers. We have been given the following challenge:

How do you ensure a story has a good beginning, a satisfying ending, and good continuity in between?

I realize that this could be the shortest Round Robin in history, because the truthful answer is: I haven’t a clue!!!

My problem, as I have written about before, is that my books all tend to start with themes rather than stories. So, for instance, I might want to explore how someone copes with the loss of a baby, or with a long-term progressive illness and having to accept carers in their life, or how some who must – in Quaker speak – have ‘that of God’ in them can come to a point where they can kill people. I may know the ‘journey’ a character will take emotionally from ‘a’ to ‘b’, but the bit in the middle starts off as a mystery.

These themes obviously need characters and a storyline in order to explore them fully and to hold readers’ interest, but I find it really difficult to create enough ‘narrative drive’ – the peaks and troughs of what is happening, the key goal that takes you to the end. So, there I am with some ideas and relationships between characters in my head but how on earth do these become a proper ‘story’?

With my first (learning-curve) book I plotted the whole thing carefully in advance. There was a beginning (a trigger point where my main character lost her job due to her depression), a middle of sorts (where she travelled around Scotland with a complete stranger) and an ending (where she returns home changed and has to make a decision about the key relationship in her life). As you can see, it is not especially action-packed – definitely more of a reflective book with the landscape as an influencing and descriptive factor.

In the next book that I wrote I tried to ‘cure’ the lack of drama by having a lot more actually happening with the plot. The result was that I had to completely rewrite the book at a later stage because it set off like a steam train, then eventually ran out of puff! Around this time I went to some workshops about ‘pitching’ books and this really helped me, because it taught me to look at the emotional and psychological happenings in a different light – as things that provide their own stories and goals for the characters.

A common criticism of my work when I share my writing with my local critique group is that there are a lot of dramatic things happening but it doesn’t feel dramatic to read. My agent describes the current novel that she is sending out on my behalf as a ‘quiet book’, and I totally get that this is how my writing feels, however busy the plotlines. I like exploring people’s psychology, and how different events shape them as a human being. I like description, and a sense of the underlying current that moves things along.

Having said that, this current novel is the one that I am really proud of and that I feels ‘works’. I think it is successful because I really got under the characters’ skin – or they got under mine. It became important what happened to them, and although their stories are explored in a gentle way, they nevertheless have impact. The landscape, too, became a character, and the sequential plotting of the story to mirror the fall in the Garden of Eden seemed to work. My problem now is how do I follow this? I am currently in the middle of editing the first draft of the next book and although the characters are speaking to me I just can’t seem to get the middle section right.

I have just got to watch out that I don’t end up with a filling-less sandwich – all front and back and nothing in the middle at all!!

See how other writers sort out their beginnings, endings and the stuff inbetween at:

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1fk

© Anne de Gruchy

9

Story Ideas and the Benefits of Bedside Stories

This month the Round Robiners have been asked to ponder where our story ideas come from. At this point I have a confession to make – I am simply rubbish at stories and in no way would I consider myself a storyteller.

Collective gasp!

Well, you may ask, what the hell are you doing calling yourself a writer then? And a writer of fiction to boot.

The truth is, I’m an ideas person. I love concepts, and science, and the way the truths of previous generations are overturned. I love that this inherently means that many of the ‘truths’ of our generation are likely to be overturned too. We live with uncertainty every day and one moment’s event – a car crash, the death of a husband and breadwinner, the onset of a disease, coming into money suddenly – can change how we see the world forever. I also love to explore psychologies and how these kinds of event affect people – how different people react to different situations.

So I suppose I often start back to front. For instance the book I am working on now started from the idea of exploring how a person’s world contracts when they are living with a progressive illness. There was a concrete beginning to this when a close friend was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and suddenly his world was turned upside down. Mix this in with my interest in the role of caring for someone – something that has been close to my heart since my mother died and left my father struggling with dementia, poor sight and cancer – and there was the germ of a story theme, but definitely not yet a story.

Other aspects of my stories might come from real events. The day before I went down to London to meet with my new agent was the day of the Westminster Bridge terror attack. As I travelled down on the train, the events of the day before stayed in my mind. I walked through the streets to the agency’s office and was really struck by how calm London felt just 24 hours later. Cue the invention of another character who had been caught up in the attack – and the exploration of how this impacted on his family.

Combining my themes and ideas into proper stories is the big problem I have. My very first novel, which I now see as a training ground for my writing, took two autobiographical events and framed them into a story. One event was a holiday travelling round Scotland by train – the landscape really spoke to me and it felt healing in a powerful way. So I combined this with a character who was grieving the loss of her baby and threw in a stranger for her to travel with. I still love aspects of this story but it fell down because I hadn’t got to know my characters and their motivations properly – there wasn’t enough of a goal or driver to the story and the characters were not engaging enough. Maybe one day I’ll return to the basics of this story because I still love the premise and it also seemed to appeal to the agents that I sent it to.

I suppose one of my problems is that I am very much a literary reader and writer. A lot of my favourite books do not have the normal hooks and peaks and troughs of the page-turners that publishers are looking for. I admire prose that is dense and poetic – that appeals to the senses and the intellect at the same time. Yes, you need to ground it in stories and characters that we care about, but the atmosphere of a book is really important to me. That’s why, in the novel that my agent is currently seeking a home for, the landscape of the Lincolnshire Fens became a character in its own right – I even plotted it a ‘storyline’ for it within the book.

I love history, too. My current book takes a character who has Multiple Sclerosis and sends her travelling to the places she had previous worked during an acclaimed photojournalist career. I was delving into the history of Bosnia and the conflicts of that region, looking at the events that brought down the Berlin Wall. My agent warned me of the dangers of getting too distracted from the narrative drive of the book, and I think she probably caught my writing-weakness head on – I can get too absorbed in the detail and forget the real goal of my protagonist and the need to keep a momentum leading towards this.

So, maybe I need to go back to the simpler stories that my mother told me as a child. The ones she would invent as she went along to the light of my favourite bedside bunny lamp. She certainly held my attention, and I remember some of the tales she invented to this day.

Find out how other writers get their story ideas at these blog sites:

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1dm
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

© Anne de Gruchy