The chosen ones

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Four writers on the national curriculum recommended authors lists for key stages 3 and 4 tell Reva Klein how it feels to be selected.

Poet and playwright Adrian Mitchell's reaction to hearing from a friend that he was on the QCA's recommended reading list for key stages 3 and 4 poetry was: "Uh oh, does this mean people will have to answer exam questions about me? I always put a warning in books that I don't want my work to be used for educational purposes if it means young people will be forced to read me. But to read it, to sing it aloud, that's great if they want to."

He often visits primary schools to talk about poetry and read his work, and his writing at present is geared to children under the age of 12. "Most of the stuff I want to write is for younger people. They're the most open audiences. Primary school parties in a theatre are as close as you get in Britain to a cross-class audience."

He holds numerous academic fellowships, has four plays on stage at the moment and is writing an adaptation of a play by Cervantes for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Yet Mitchell's aspirations are disarmingly straightforward. "I hope my work is giving young people a good time and I hope it shows that language is a living thing that you can play tricks with, explore the truth with," he says. "While I try to extend and reassert basic moral values about social justice in my work, whether it's about rich countries bombing poor countries or bullying in the playground, I also want to excite young people about the theatre."

Among his verse collections: Poems (1964), Out Loud (1968), The Apeman Cometh (1975), Greatest Hits (1991), Heart on the Left (1999).

Crikey!" exclaimed Jan Morris when told that her name appears among writers as esteemed and diverse as Churchill and Darwin. "I'm honoured and flattered. But I am sorry to hear I've been put into the category of 'travel writing'. What I do isn't travel writing. Rather than describe journeys, I write about the effect of place on myself."

She doesn't consider the other writers in that category as travel writers either. "I think of Freya Stark as an explorer and Laurens Van Der Post as a philosopher."

Her life experiences have spawned a formidable number of books about places around the globe, including South Africa, the Middle East and her beloved Wales. Despite having been, in her previous incarnation as James Morris, the first journalist to send news that the British expedition team had conquered Everest in 1953, Jan Morris sees her most important writing in her history books on Britain's imperial past ("parts of history that are deliberately being ignored") and in writing about herself, about which she says simply "there's more to life than what appears".

And what does she hope young people will get fro reading her books? "I'd like to think they'd get an appreciation of good craftsmanship. I don't claim much more than that."

Among her best known travel books: Coast to Coast (1956), Oxford (1965), Farewell the Trumpets (1978), Among the Cities (1985).

There's a certain poignancy to Willy Russell being pleased about being on the recommended playwrights list. "Like Alan Ayckbourn (also on the list), I've committed the sin of being widely popular and therefore ignored academically. So I'm chuffed, but also aware that this could be some appalling kiss of death."

Not likely. The school drop-out who did manual work and a stint as a hairdresser before getting qualifications and becoming a secondary school English teacher has written some of the most successful plays and screenplays of the past 20 years.

For all the plaudits, awards and financial success, Willy Russell says that everything he writes is for young people. His wildly successful musical, Blood Brothers, is certainly the only award-winning West End hit that can lay claim to having premiered at Fazakerley High School and was originally written to tour Liverpool schools. He remembers how hard it was as a teacher in the early 1970s to find material "to engage hard-nosed inner city kids. I had to fight like crap to get them interested, because I knew where they were coming from, that all their lives they were being told proper literature wasn't for them. I seemed to always be looking for an English version of John Steinbeck who could tell a good story in an accessible voice.

Among his plays: Our Day Out (1976), Educating Rita (1979), Blood Brothers (1982), Shirley Valentine (1988).

When James Berry was a boy, there were no poems or stories that reflected his experience as a young Jamaican. "Everything we read was from England. There was nothing to help us see our own culture. We had no inheritance."

Then he came to this country in 1948 and became smitten with language. He fell in love with the poetry and "country voice" of Ted Hughes and with Philip Larkin's freshness. But when he started writing poetry himself in the Sixties, it was in his Caribbean voice, telling stories from back home.

Today, when he visits schools to read his children's stories and poems, he loves it when black boys come up to him afterwards saying "you can talk it like we". "I want the Caribbean experience to be part of the learning process," he says. "Hearing the language that black people speak thrills and encourages children. It's kind of breaking the rules the establishment has set up. It's liberating, a release."

Among his volumes of poetry for young people: A Thief in the Village (1987); The Future-Telling Lady (1991); Playing a Dazzler (1996); Celebration Song (1994) Anansi Spider Man (1988).

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