Never work with children or animals...;Curriculum

26th March 1999 at 00:00
... unless you want to write a successful children's novel. Douglas Blane finds out about an author's winning partnership

It is easy to see why the photographers at the launch of the children's novel Stranger on the River are jostling for a picture of Bracken the dog. Not only does she feature prominently in the book, she is also amiable and photogenic. But the reason for the presence of the pupils from Braidbar Primary School in Glasgow is less obvious.

Author Pat Gerber explains: "I reviewed children's novels for many years, and always wanted to write them myself. But I'm not so young any more, and I wasn't sure if anything I wrote would interest the children. Someone suggested I try my novel out on the pupils at Braidbar, so I did. It was a useful and interesting experience."

The pupils agree. "The teacher read out a chapter each week," says Daisy Costello. "But it wasn't a book then - it was typed out on paper. After each chapter we gave our views - what we liked and what improvements could be made. I'd never done anything like it before. It was great."

At the start of the project the author introduced the story and read the first chapter to the class. Then for several weeks communications were conducted by post. On Wednesday morning a chapter would arrive at school, and next day the pupils' reviews would wing their way back to the author. "Because I wasn't there," she says, "they didn't have to be polite - they could be as rude about the story as they liked." She returned to the school to read the final chapter and talk to the pupils about their own writing and the problems faced by writers of all ages.

The collaboration was productive. "I suggested the title," says Arlene Williamson, "and Pat thought it was good because it sounded mysterious."

Douglas Bale says: "At first the book was more appealing to girls because there was a girl on the front cover and Bracken on the back. Now it's got this nasty-looking poacher on the back, so it appeals to boys as well."

Mrs Gerber says:"The children pointed out that it was a bit confusing in places and I made a few changes. But they enjoyed the story, and finding out which characters appealed to them - the baddies, the dogs, the heroine - told me a lot. Their favourite was wee Sadie, so I plan to write another story with her as the main character."

The class is a combined Primary 6, taught jointly by Carole Buchanan and Susan Brass, who welcomed the chance for their pupils to get involved in the creative process. "The chapters were cliffhangers, and the kids were desperate for the padded envelopes from Mrs Gerber to arrive each week. There were so many aspects we could relate to the curriculum - book reviews, character, plot, dialogue, the use of imagery, the Scottish flavour. Then there were the environmental issues and the comparison between town and country life. It's a complex story with several themes running through it."

Pat Gerber's first children's novel will always be special to this class, and images from it are lodged in their minds - the hat that looks like a cowpat, the salmon that hurls itself at a waterfall and falls back like an old sock, the trees the colour of dead bones in the moonlight.

"I like the way Pat describes things," says Daisy, "because it builds pictures in your head."

'Stranger on the River' by Pat Gerber, Kailyards Press pound;5.50. Children and teachers who want to write to the author can email her on:

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