A great beginning
Inspiration! That's what you get when an author visits your school - as everyone at Christ Church C of E Primary School in Purley, Surrey, discovered when writer Antony Lishak joined them during their Book Week.
Antony, once a primary teacher himself is a very special person who is able to hold an entire junior school spellbound for an hour and a half; can enrapture children of all abilities; will tease the individuality from each of them; and will have pupils and teachers rocking with laughter.
Within seconds of starting his performance (this is no humdrum lecture), he makes the children the focal point. "My aim is to prove that we are all authors," he proclaims. "And, if we don't mind being scared, we should take a look at this" - he waves a blank sheet of paper in the air. That is how all stories begin. From that to finished tome, he then guides us through a book's entire production process.
First the ideas: "I use my own experiences; I use the things that happen to me on a daily basis. That's where stories begin."
Then he compares his job with writing a story in school. The difference? Only, it appears, that he is paid for writing. We see his ideas book. There are crossings out - just as a child might hone a story in school. ("There is no point in writing anything unless you are going to try and make it as good as you can," he explains.) "I give my story to apublisher, you give yours to a teacher," he continues.
A publisher reads it and edits it; so does a teacher. Next, we see a book before it has been guillotined into pages before, finally, the finished product. Throughout the presentation children are kept on their toes.
Banter ricochets across the hall; he calls for volunteers; he gently ribs one or two; the air effervesces with anecdotes and jokes. Yet there is sound and practical writing advice. "Please be aware," he intones, "It is not the meaning of the words that keeps your reader interested, but the sound, beat, feel and rhythm of what you have written."
He demonstrates the point with endings to avoid: " 'I went home, had my tea and went to bed.' You go to bed every night. What's so interesting about that!?" he shrieks, amid gales of laughter. And beginnings: one day; once-upon-a-time... "Everything happens one day!"
He asks all those who have a nickname to put up their hands, then chooses one Year 6 girl. She tells him her nickname is Minx. Why, he enquires.
"They call me Minx because I'm trouble."
Antony's eyes light up. "That's a bit better than once-upon-a-time isn't it? Effortlessly, she comes out with one of the greatest beginnings imaginable!" Immediately, he enthuses, we want to know what happens next.
So why does he have such a strong belief in author visits? Quite simply because in his experience there is a real desire in children - of all ages and abilities - to be with, and hear from, people who write books. And that - despite the power of alternative storytelling media, such as television and films. "Most children, given the choice, would curl up with their teddy in bed, listening to someone read them a story," he asserts.
The ability to tell stories, he continues, is a defining human trait. "One of the things I try and empower children with is the knowledge that their imagination is boundless," he explains, adding that it is a creative and fulfiling thing. I ask whether that is important. "'Important' is an understatement," he responds, "...the opportunities to really inspire are becoming less and less."
Kate Nash is deputy head at Christ Church. "I thought he was wonderful, just so inspiring," she says. She adds that his belief that writing should come from children's own experiences was important for teachers. "You've got to give them that experience to start with, and then their writing will be so much better."
Reception and infants
Antony's approach with reception and infant classes is slightly different.
Using his book Clickety-Clack, Something to Pack, together with an old suitcase and a mountain of props, he has children joining in with rhymes and counting (the book is based on the "I packed my bag" memory game).
The presentation lasts about 45 minutes, after which children return to class. Here, each is given a large sheet of paper in the shape of a suitcase. They then "pack" the suitcase by drawing objects inside it.
Antony flits from desk to desk, smiling and laughing, admiring and inspiring, asking children to describe what they have drawn - they become storytellers without even realising it. They are, he explains, making their own suitcases for others to share - not dissimilar to when he writes a book. Everybody heard the same story, he continues; everybody had the same case to fill; but because we all have our own ideas, each case is different.
Reception teacher Jenny Williams was especially pleased with the results from SEN children. "For some of them, it's the first time I've seen emergent writing," she enthuses. "It's really thrilling, actually."
Antony's writing tips
* Remember, we are all authors.
* Think before you write.
* Use your own experiences as a starting point.
* Writing a story is merely telling a lie on paper.
* Decide who you are writing the story for and what you want to do to them (scare them, make them laugh...).
* Try to reread your work as if you are not the person who wrote it.
* Remember these acronyms - KISS not KILL ("keep it short and simple", not "keep it long and lengthy").
* Remember: authors can make their dreams come true in a story.
* Antony Lishak is also the driving force behind Creative Writing 4 Kids, a website to help children have their work published on the internet:www.creativewriting4kids.comHe is based in the south-east of England and charges pound;450 for a full day visit and will travel further afield, to a minimum of five schools, which will be required to share hotel expenses Tel: 020 8441 6953 Email: email@example.com
* Book Trusted is a good starting point for author visits, with useful web links: www.booktrusted.co.uk
* Speaking of Books helps find the right author for your school. Tel: 020 8692 4704
* National Association of Writers in Education supports creative writing in an educational environment: www.nawe.co.uk
* Artscape - more writers, and others, who work with schools: www.artscape.org.uk