A novel approach to fiction

5th September 1997 at 01:00
"Does that look like a book yet? What's wrong with it? What's missing from that front page?" The Denis Bond show is on the road: between two and four schools a week for three half-terms a year. There's a shade of the panto dame in his delivery as he coaxes 100 Year 1 and 2 pupils into a three-minute story-building exercise. "Easy peezy, lemon squeezy . . . Don't put your hand up till you've got an idea - think, hand, speak - how does it go? . . . Pick an animal - not a dinosaur, we've had those, they're BORING."

Denis has not won a stack of literary awards, but he is one of the busiest writers on the school circuit, with 60 bookings in this academic year. It helps that his books span all age groups (from Munch Bunch stories to Point Romance, with a potential film deal for his latest teenage novel, No 1) and that he performs well in the classroom.

He is among the children's fiction writers featured in A Novel Experience: Fiction Writers in Education, a London Arts Board guide which arrived at 10,000 schools last term. The LAB's emphasis on prose writers complements the Better English Campaign's nationwide series of seminars on poets in schools which the National Association of Writers in Education organised earlier this year.

NAWE is now also focusing on prose writers, and plans to have a database of 300 ready by half-term. These projects are typical of recent attempts to put writers' contributions to schools on a more profession al footing, with benefits for both sides. Horror stories abound on the word-of-mouth writers' network of being left in sole charge of 50 unruly 15-year-olds or of arriving at a school to find pupils who have never heard of their books,no welcome and nowhere to work. Meanwhile, a bad reputation clings to writers who cannot conceal their lack of interest in children.

Communication, common sense and good manners clear up most practical difficulties. The ideological sticking points come when confusion over the writer's role creeps in. The contributors to A Novel Experience insist that they do not want to be seen as teachers during their school visits, even if they happen to be teachers as well as writers. The difference - that they are outsiders who make books come alive for children - is their unique selling point.

The booklet's editor, Jill Dawson, a poet, novelist and editor of non-fiction collections, has spent nine years working in schools, including a spell as writer-in-residence in a sixth-form college. "A writer is bringing a different experience," she says. "Writers should not have to deal with discipline or be left alone with a class - which they are not insured for in any case."

Jill contributed to the Better English CampaignNAWE seminars and believes that these and other discussions have widened horizons. "Schools often do not see the possibilities of fiction writers," she says. "Sometimes they are more used to thinking about how they might use poets, and think fiction writers might just talk about their books. Once you recognise that you are not getting an extra teacher for a day, you can use us in much more exciting ways."

She hopes this year's exchange of views has won allies for writers who may find that their skills - which, after all, demand solitude and introspection - do not automatically translate to the classroom. "They're in the position of a teacher on their first day. They have to learn how to do it."

Clear communication is needed to establish what kind of work writers are prepared to do, and the numbers they operate best with. Some like leading assembly. Jill Dawson, for example, prefers smaller groups - "I would rather do the same workshop twice with fewer students." Not all are willing to work with children on their writing, preferring to give pointers from their own experience that can be followed up by a teacher.

Denis Bond is one who believes that more is merrier. During his day at Melcombe primary school in west London, he talks to all 320 pupils, two year groups at a time, supervises two concurrent writing-in-pairs sessions with Years 5 and 6, and fits in a story reading with the nursery class.

Alongside his 20-year writing career, he has been a teacher in both primary and secondary schools. He is also an actor, which supplies him with tales from the set of London's Burning as well as performance skills. He travels with props (the diary he kept in his teens, manuscripts and page proofs) and costumes - three identical shirts painted with characters from his picture books, illustrated by Valeria Petrone. The Dragon Who Couldn't Help Breathing Fire is the star of the first two sessions with Years 1 to 4.

The story exercise leads to a group-effort tale of a cheetah in the jungle gym, then another about Leo the policeman and George the lion. Denis is Mr Motivator, demanding better ideas, harder concentration, more mental press-ups. "Never give up trying - it took me 13 years to get published," he tells Years 3 and 4. "Who's ever said, 'I don't know what to write'?"

He uses his books to spark discussion about editing and production. The Melcombe pupils know about blurbs and jackets, possibly because editorial staff from HarperCollins are volunteers at the school, but are riveted when Denis owns up to his Point Romance pseudonym, Denise Colby. The diary comes out for Years 5 and 6. It appears that JFK was shot on Denis's 17th birthday and his first band supported the future Status Quo. "True, all true," he swears.

A quick rewrite of a traditional nursery rhyme with Jill as a drug-crazed nurse stealing ancient Jack's lottery winnings, then they're sent off in pairs with another rhyme. "Who knows what 'contrary' means? Good! I want a nice scary story, but no guns and no blood. And no dark and stormy nights. "

He keeps his expectations high for all kinds of school. A third of Melcombe's pupils have special needs, more than a quarter do not speak English at home, and 70 per cent are from families on income support. Denis is impressed by their knowledge of publishing and their enthusiasm for discussing texts.

"I always expect a lot from children and I tell them if their writing is boring or clich'd, which I don't think a teacher would do. Writers have to get used to the big wide world. I do a lot of preparation, tailoring my material to the school. If it's a new venue, I get there early and wander around, see where the children live, what's across the road.

"If you write for children, you need regular contact with them. As long as I organise it in blocks, I can still get on with writing. Most schools treat me well. I insist that the teachers listen to my talk - if they don't, they're wasting their money."

Francesca Simon, creator of Horrid Henry, works with groups of five- to seven-year-olds, mainly in free sessions organised for schools at bookstores. Like Denis, she emphasises the process - mistakes, rejections, revisions. "They are always surprised at how long it takes for books to come into being; at first they think it takes a day. I come up with a really lousy story and they tell me what's wrong with it.

"Adults read to children all the time. They want something else from me. I do sometimes read work in progress and ask them what they think and why - they can say what they like, but they have to give a reason. I push them towards developing critical judgment and evaluating what they're reading. If I see their attention wandering, I do something else. I've got one story that has a very loud scream."

Evaluation and re-drafting are good, solid national curriculum skills. Janet Moffat, headteacher at Melcombe, thought Denis was one of the highlights of Book Week, which also featured Grace Nichols. She was pleased with his emphasis on revision. "From level 3, children have to be able to draft, revise and edit their own writing but some of them get stroppy about revising," she says. "Now they've seen a professional writer do it. We're also following up the story-writing projects that Denis started."

The Society of Authors and the Poetry Society have agreed a standard fee of #163;150 a day for writers working in schools. "A reasonable amount to pay a visiting expert", Jill Dawson says, "although to some schools it seems like a huge amount". Mrs Moffat thinks it's money well spent.

A Novel Experience is available free from the London Arts Board. Telephone Jean du Pr#231 on 0171 240 1313. Details of an LAB event for teachers and writers at the Royal Festival Hall on November 29 from Francesca Bondy (same number). The NAWE database will be available from mid-October on the NAWE Web site: www.nawe.co.uk Other NAWE enquiries on 01653 618429.

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