Not just a holiday cabaret

4th September 1998 at 01:00
It's not easy explaining how you write to an audience of children. Pete Johnson (above) found himself in the hot seat this summer

At first I wasn't sure about visiting a literacy summer school. I pictured rows of grim-faced children, upset at having had to give up two precious weeks of their holiday to improve their reading and writing skills.

But a recent visit to Onslow St Audrey's School in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, has given me a rather different perspective.

The 32 children involved had just left junior school and would be joining Onslow St Audrey's in September. As I arrived they all waved excitedly at me. Some were even waving books.

I had been asked to focus on The Ghost Dog in my session, as this had been their main reading book. I spoke briefly about how I had written it, then they were just buzzing with questions.

First of all they wanted to talk about how I'd made the story "spooky". We discussed how their views of Aaron and the ghost dog had changed, and everyone had lots to say about the ending. Next they showed me their alternative endings.

Several of them had also been inspired to write stories of their own. These looked great, with wonderfully ingenious plots. They were fascinated by the writing process - "Exactly how do you make a story last so long?" asked one boy - and they pored over my notebooks for The Ghost Dog.

The session demonstrated to me that the key to a good author visit is preparation. If you just throw an author in front of pupils they will only ask him how much money he makes and what kind of car he has. But here, the children were confident and informed, and able to go much, much deeper, which was very exhilarating for them - and for me. I felt my event wasn't just a cabaret or a welcome diversion; it really meant something to the pupils.

Of course, schools often don't have the time to prepare as carefully as they would like. This seems to me one of the main strengths of the summer school: it can be flexible and devote a whole day to bringing a book to life, without incurring the wrath of other departments.

The summer school ended with a free lunch at McDonald's and a visit to Dillons, where the pupils could pick a free paperback book of their choice. The children were really looking forward to this. And I thought it was a clever idea to mix the literacy work with treats and outings, and to have organised so much local support.

One teacher did say she worried that the two weeks were giving the pupils a false view of secondary school life, which wouldn't be half as much fun (or have six teachers working intensively all day with 32 pupils). But there was no doubt that the pupils felt motivated and - most importantly - special.

At the end, when I was signing autographs, I asked one girl what she thought of the summer school. For a moment she considered, then said:

"Well, I know I'll remember it for a long time."

The Ghost Dog is published by Corgi Yearling, Pounds 3.99. Pete Johnson has also written novels for teenagers, including The Vision (Methuen Pounds 3.99)

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