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Sharing secrets and telling tales

In the process of editing her latest children's book, Ann Palmer spent a term gaining insight from young consumers. As a mind-expanding exercise for a writer, a term of weekly sessions working with children on the draft of a book is unbeatable. It's Fiddle Faddle Press's policy to involve children as much as possible in book production and with our first four publications I'd worked with an English teacher. For Shapeshifters of the Sea, the third book in a fantasy trilogy for the over-12s about an Irish shape-shifting donkey, I decided it was time for hands-on experience.

In consultation with their English teacher, I set up a term's programme at the Downs School, an indepenent school in Colwall, for a class of 10 children aged l0 to 12. During the first half of term we concentrated on a range of editing tasks culminating in individual written reviews. After half term, as a way of inviting the children's creativity, we offered them 12 projects, all related to the theme of Shapeshifters of the Sea.

What worried me most was not the project itself, but whether working with a book I had written would allow me sufficient detachment to see clearly and assess without the filter of a mediating teacher. My aim was to obtain detailed editorial input into plot and characters, and additional insight, particularly concerning clarity, into what I knew to be a complex storyline.

We decided to incorporate diarising into the project, a research-method I had used with adult students in 1990 when studying for a Diploma in Teaching Creative Writing to Adults. It works well for any project where deeper levels are paramount; the effect is like fine-sifting, panning for gold.

In practical terms, keeping a weekly diary with 10 children and their teacher takes up a lot of time. The alternative, with only 90 minutes maximum a week contact time with the children, was to risk feeling there's a lot more there which hasn't been accessed because of other classroom demands.

Twelve diary entries are 12 individual recorded conversations with a child. It can be open-ended, as with the invitation that accompanied the first diary-entry . . . Write about anything to do with our work together that interests you, or anything to do with writing. For a few children this opened the floodgates. No adult creative writing student could match them for Spirit of Enquiry!

I did try the purist method of diarising, the way I'd been encouraged to use when researching, to draw out more from a student on that which interests them, and have them focus on it. With the children I opted initially for tasks oriented to the book. An opportunity to extend some class roleplay formed another diary entry, and showed me their differing interpretations of a character's motives.

The planning ahead of project work was made a diary task, preparing them for quite a sharp change of gear. The evaluation which formed the last diary entry - including "What did you expect to learn? What did you actually learn? and If we were doing it again, what should we do differently?" - gave me some surprises, and showed me how easy it is to make erroneous assumptions. For some children, the evaluation also formed an emotional high point - "I wish it could never end!" Diarising, by its nature, deepens the relationship between the two people for whom it forms a dialogue. Suppressed thoughts, comments no child would make in front of his classmates, the probing questions - what they really want to know but are to embarrassed to ask face to face - become a possibility in a personal diary. Incidentally, even their teacher did not have access to the diaries; I alone evaluated the content for school record purposes.

How their diaries evolved was fascinating, and on the whole it was the girls who warmed to the task . . . "I hope this isn't too personal, I'm just curious". Their questions answered, the barriers came down, and pictures were introduced into the diaries, which led me to invite them to contribute little pen-and-ink drawings for the chapter endings in the final printed book.

The Downs School project was the spur for what I see as a natural development: to offer a group of interested teenagers the Saturday-morning opportunity to write a collaborative novel, starting this autumn at our local college.

o An Imaginative Writing Teaching Pack for 12 to 14-year-olds, based on Shapeshifters of the Sea, with a specimen copy of the book, will be available in July, price Pounds 8.75 inc. pp. Fiddle Faddle Press, PO Box 17, Worcester WR2 6YZ. Tel: 0905 421968.

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