My brother the genius

Every summer holiday, the three of us formed a club. There was the Raffia Club, Circus Stars, French Knitters, Music-MakersI My brother and sister took it in turns to be President and Vice-President.

I was the Member.

Well, that was only fair. Averil is six years older, Neil three years older than I am. Besides, they came up with the ideas. So, we made raffia place-mats, miles of French knitting, wrote a ditty called "Daffodils in the Wind" and achieved other wonders that have, sadly, soaked away out of my memory. We didn't have a Writing Club, because writing we did all year round - and good stories aren't written by committee.

My sister was ferociously clever and very wise. Together we listened to boxing on the radio late at night. But we had to share a bedroom and a double bed. I often irritated her and cluttered up her territory. Neil was different. He was a whole metre away across the landing, in his own room, and the door was often closed while he worked on some new project. There was no chance to squabble or fall out with Neil. Well, that's how I remember it, anyway.

As far back as I can remember, I simply admired Neil. He could ride his tricycle up and down steps - on two wheels! He made his own stilts, built models where, at the turn of a handle, 12 different things happened, invented board games, designed and cast chess sets, built a scale model of our house, turned the broken gramophone into a conveyor belt. He knew how to eavesdrop using a tumbler, splice together The Goons and Julius Caesar and add sound-effects. Later, he copied famous oil paintings, built his own guitar and taught himself how to play it. He told jokes in LatinI The Poggies started life as doodles in his schoolbooks. He even doodled them (dangerously) on the blackboard at school. The stories he wrote about them were zany and witty, with lots of wordplay: Lumps of ice began to float by.

"Ice floes," said the knowledgeable navigator.

"Does it?" said Fred.

Neil has never been known to show off. So it must have been my mother's idea to borrow Auntie Margaret's typewriter and type up the Poggy stories. He illustrated them, bound them with the cardboard from a Cornflakes packet and posted them off to a publisher. The publisher gave the book to her own children to read. They laughed so hard that they fell off their beds, so she published it: The Voyages of the Limping Flamingo by Neil Jones.

Neil was on the TV! He had a whole shop-window given over to him in Greswells bookshop at the bottom of our road! There was an interview in The Bookseller magazine!

"What books does your younger sister read?"

"Oh, rubbish about horses, mostly."

Hallas amp; Bachelor thought about making TV cartoons featuring the Poggies. We had a party (a rare event in our house, because we were all as shy as voles) and Mum made a ship-shaped cake nobody wanted to eat.

You can imagine the effect all this had on me - how I began to doodle in my schoolbooks; how hard I tried to be funny; how my 10-year-old eyes gleamed with ambition! Neil never wrote another book after Limping Flamingo. I never stopped.

I longed to get published too - to be like Neil. But I did not expect it to happen. After all, I could not make a pair of stilts or splice recording tape. I could not make people laugh till they wet themselves, and my raffia mats all came unwound. I couldn't even cast off my French knitting let alone thread it through the entire house - in the door, up the stairs, out of the windowI I could not think up April Fools like footprints across the ceiling.

I could not even write.

But I did know about writing. I already knew why people wrote. I had already found out that writing takes you anywhere you want to go. While I was writing I could be a Red Indian, a knight, a horse... I knew how to tunnel into the cosy, thrilling, sumptuous dark of my imagination. And while I was there, I could get down on paper all those words I was never going to have the skill or courage to say out loud.

Now, added to this was the dream of one day getting published! I could imagine the Cornflakes packet turning into bookbinding with my name on it. I could picture my blobby, ballpoint handwriting turning into print.

Later, briefly, Neil worked for a publisher (before becoming an illustrator, linguist, teacher, computer buff, etc., etcI). "Don't go into publishing," he advised me, just before I did. "You'll end up putting the full-stops into knitting patterns."

He was quite right, of course.

Working with the extract

This piece lends itself well to a class discussion about structure and the importance of planning. Although it is autobiographical, the writing tells a story. There is a good use of carefully chosen detail to paint the pictures and tell the story for the reader.

This well-structured narrative is about the author's brother and how his achievements spurred her on to become a writer. The story has a clear beginning, middle and end and the paragraphs link together. The end refers back to the beginning. As readers we get a clear sense of the children's holiday activities and the relationships between the brother and sisters.

Suggestions for writing

Write about your brother(s) andor sister(s). Describe the activities that you have taken part in and what your lives were like in the holidays when you were younger.

Alternatively you may want to write about someone who has had an influence on you and your achievements or ambitions.

About the author

Geraldine McCaughrean says: "I write for the child I used to be, which is why my writing is about escaping from banal everyday life. I don't do lots of drafts and I try not to plan ahead too much. I like to write in the way my reader reads, and keep the surprises coming. I enjoy painting my hero into impossible corners and then finding solutions - exactly like a game.

"I am moving into the world of writing directly on to the computer for everything except novels; I do them in longhand - it's a lifelong habit.

"I always have a notebook with me, always work in progress. I write everywhere. My daughter - she's 12, a fantasy buff and a very hard critic - won't let me write in the cinema, but when we saw The Lord of the Rings for the fifth time, I did, under my coat."

Geraldine McCaughrean's books include: Stop the Train and The Kite Rider, both published by Oxford University Press.

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