Once upon a time ..

30th May 2008 at 01:00
A classroom was the perfect training ground for a teacher to become a best-selling author. Sarah Fletcher explores the plot
A classroom was the perfect training ground for a teacher to become a best-selling author. Sarah Fletcher explores the plot

Celia Rees has been shortlisted for the Whitbread prize and The Guardian children's fiction award, and her novel Witch Child is taught on the national curriculum, but it began almost by accident. For 17 years she taught English in comprehensive schools in Coventry. Then, Celia wrote about her first kiss and showed the story to her pupils.

They proved the perfect audience. "They were absolutely attentive," she says. Perhaps hardly surprising, given the subject matter.

And while most of her colleagues thought she was mad to show that first story to her pupils, without it, she would never have become a writer. Celia's class provided her with the encouragement to start writing, and the material to carry on. Time and again she has used their stories in her books.

Celia is one of four authors taking part in The TES Magazine short story summer series and we are looking for two teacher-writers to join them (see competition panel, right).

Celia found her classroom the perfect forum for developing her writing - having an audience that was blunt enough and tactless enough to give their real opinion is invaluable - and teaching English gave her the skills to be able to write.

As an English teacher, you constantly analyse how authors write, which she says is invaluable training for an aspiring writer. Conversely, it also improves your teaching abilities. "You can't teach people to write unless you've tried it yourself," she says.

Celia drifted into teaching after studying history and politics at Warwick University, working at Binley Park School in Coventry for eight years, then as an acting head of department at Stoke Park for a year. It was only when she took a sabbatical to do an MA in Education that she realised she wanted to write.

The MA, run by Birmingham University, required her to develop creative writing with her pupils. And that's where her story as author really begins. "I had no aspirations as a child to be a writer," says Celia. "I had no idea what I wanted to be." She says that without her pupils acting as critic and audience, she would never have been an author. "If I hadn't been a teacher, I couldn't have become a writer."

Her pupils provided her with a wealth of experiences to draw on. Every Step you Take, her first novel published in 1993, is about a group of pupils from a comprehensive school "not a million miles from Coventry". The Vanished, written for the Scholastic Point Horror series, is based on the ghost stories told by children that she taught in a Coventry college.

It goes further than that. The school in which the story takes place is real. After the book had been published, Celia got a call from Jim Ravenhill, who she had worked with at Binley Park. He was now deputy head at Coundon Court, another Coventry secondary school. His pupils had read the book and pointed out the similarities between their school and the supposedly fictional school in the novel. They were right - Celia had visited Coundon Court with some of her pupils and based The Vanished on it.

You can see the macabre influence of teenagers in her work. The Soul Taker, Blood Sinister and Colour Her Dead bear the hallmark of a teenage audience with gory tastes. These are books that teenagers want to read, not books that their parents think they should.

At first, Celia wrote only in her spare time. After her sabbatical, she taught at Whitley Abbey School in Coventry for four years, and then in 1997 left to write full-time. "You have to make a choice," she says. "Either you're a writer or a teacher. Teaching is draining."

Celia chose to teach in comprehensive schools: "I believed in comprehensive education, I wanted to give everyone a fair start in life," she says. "But the comprehensive dream hasn't really happened. It wasn't a levelling up, it was a levelling down."

She found writing with and for her pupils helped her to get the most out of them. "Most of the teachers out there are doing a tremendous job and I admire what they are doing; I know how hard it is."

Celia sent her daughter to an independent school, partly because of her experiences of teaching in comprehensive education. "It was a big struggle for able, middle-class children to be what they wanted to be," she says. "You have to be pragmatic with your own children."

In 2004, Celia was shortlisted for the WHSmith People's Choice Award for her swashbuckling tale, Pirates! Sorceress was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book Award in 2003. Witch Child, which won the French Prix Sorcieres award in 2003 and was shortlisted for The Guardian children's fiction prize in 2001, is on the national curriculum. "Knowing that your book is being subject to that amount of scrutiny in the classroom is scary," she says.

She would still like to teach English, in some respects. "It's exciting to be in touch with young people, to see them learning new things, and to help them," she says.

Charting a career

Celia taught English in Coventry schools for 17 years. She spent eight years at Binley Park, four years at Stoke Park and taught at Whitley Abbey from 1993 to 1997. She then left teaching to write full-time.

She was shortlisted for the WHSmith People's Choice Award in 2004 for Pirates!

Sorceress was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book Award in 2003. Witch Child, which won the French Prix Sorcieres award in 2003 and was shortlisted for the Guardian children's fiction prize in 2001, is on the national curriculum.

Celia's novels

Every Step You Take - Macmillan Children's, 1993

Colour Her Dead - Macmillan Children's, 1994

The Bailey Game - Macmillan Children's, 1994

Blood Sinister - Scholastic Point, 1996

Ghost Chamber - Hodder Children's, 1997

Midnight Hour - Macmillan Children's, 1997

Soul Taker - Hodder Children's, 1997

The Vanished - Scholastic Point, 1997

A Trap in Time - (first issued in separate volumes as HAUNTS 3 and 4) Hodder Children's, 1998

HAUNTS 1: H is for Haunting - Hodder Children's, 1998

HAUNTS 2: A is for Apparition - Hodder Children's, 1998

HAUNTS 3: U is for Unbeliever - Hodder Children's, 1998

HAUNTS 4: N is for Nightmare - Hodder Children's, 1998

HAUNTS 5: T is for Terror - Hodder Children's, 1998

HAUNTS 6: S is for Shudder - Hodder Children's, 1998

The Cunning Man - Scholastic Point, 2000

The Truth Out There - Dorling Kindersley, 2000

Truth or Dare - Macmillan Children's, 2000

Witch Child - Bloomsbury Children's, 2000

DecadeDecayed: Ten Years of Point Horror (contributor) Scholastic Point, 2001

The Host Rides Out (first issued in separate volumes as HAUNTS 5 and 6) - Hodder Children's, 2001

City of Shadows (first issued in separate volumes as HAUNTS 1 and 2) - Hodder Children's, 2002

Heroes and Villains: FCBG Anthology 2002 - Hodder Children's, 2002

Sorceress - Bloomsbury Children's, 2002

Pirates! - Bloomsbury Children's, 2003

The Wish House - Macmillan, 2005

The Stone Testament - Scholastic Point, 2007

Sovay - Bloomsbury, 2008.

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