Paperback writers

25th February 2005 at 00:00
World Book Day is March 3. Author Stewart Ross shows how you can help your pupils join children in other schools to co-write and publish an historical story

"Ok, this is where we've got to. We've just finished Chapter 2 and Whitstable Junior Year 5 have named the girl 'Laureena' and her dad 'Dermid'." I write the names on the board.

"We don't yet have names for her brother or her mother. The family live in a small village near the beach at Deal. Everyone know where Deal is? And remember, it's 55bc."

Sixty-odd pencils hover.

"Now, Blean (County Primary) Year 4, who wrote Chapter 1, had Laureena in a small boat fishing with dad and brother. Suddenly these huge ships came into view from the direction of Gaul..."

An hour later, as St Stephen's Junior School's Year 5 are putting their finishing touches to Chapter 3, I am on the road to Bridge and Patrixbourne Church of England Primary School with my collaborator, Claudia Goldsworthy, for Chapter 4.

After lunch, it's back to the coast for Swalecliffe County Primary's Chapter 5, and then Canterbury again for St Edmund's Junior to round the story off with Chapter 6. One story of approximately 2,600 words, in six chapters, written by some 360 children in Years 4 to 6, between 8.50am and 4pm. Phew!

The enterprise attracts three questions: How did we do it? What was the point? Could others do it? The idea came from Claudia Goldsworthy, who works for Evans Group publishers, and we chose six primary schools because that was the maximum number we could visit in a day.

An historical setting would offer useful cross-over between literacy and history. The selected topic - Julius Caesar's landing on the Kent coast in 55bc - offered a strong local element. Each year group was sent a brief set of notes outlining the history within which the story would take place.

We suggested a minimal framework: boy aged nine; girl 10; parents who live near Deal; 55bc; Romans arrive; children get involved with them; danger; more danger; resolution.

Teachers prepared the pupils' basic historical background thoroughly.

Schools were given, in advance, a specific chapter to write and one other task. St Edmund's, for instance, was asked to be ready to find a title. The inspired Caesar Strikes! came out of a short brainstorming session.

Claudia spent World Book Day dashing from school to school, explaining, as simply as possible, where the story had got to, holding a quick discussion about where the group wanted it to go next, and launching the chapter to take it there. She read all the scripts, typed out 10 that she felt best represented each chapter and emailed these to me.

Using only the words written by the children and leaving as many sentences intact as possible, I edited the selected versions into a story of six chapters. If anyone thinks this is cheating, I assure them that many published books are similarly, and sometimes even more drastically, sculpted by the editorial hand. The finished booklet, illustrated with children's pictures, was published by Evans and distributed to its hundreds of authors.

The buzz created by writing a "real" book was palpable. Pride shone on the children's faces as they each received their individual copy, with their name printed inside as an author. The image of books and reading received a tremendous boost.

The "bookathon" was a lively, practical lesson in story planning and writing. As each chapter was essentially a story in itself, pupils had to think carefully about beginnings ("The welcoming scent of rye bread wafted through the walls, waking Laureena up") and endings ("Ready? One I two I three ..."). One child's ending - "'You are mine now, boy,' said a mysterious voice" - also worked as the first line of a chapter.

The originality of the project, the breezy freshness created by the deadlines, the friendly inter-school rivalry and the thrill of the "professional" element ("in this book your name will last for ever") combined to produce writing that was vigorous as well as highly imaginative. How about this for generating a sense of foreboding, from a Year 4 pupil: "Laureena and Tecollon looked at the green-blue waves and the sea whooshing and sucking up like a drink and the pebbles clinking together. The air smelled salty and a fish's body cut in half lay on the beach. 'It stinks out here, doesn't it?' groaned Tecollon."

Pertinent questions from the pupils - "Yes, but what sort of boy is Tecollon?" - gave us an opportunity to cover the obvious problem of character development and consistency. Finally, the project incorporated interesting historical research and put a premium on historical empathy.

You can do it, too

The idea might be repeated in a class, a school or a community of schools.

The final product can be printed at comparatively low cost: depending on the print run, perhaps as little as 50p a copy. Schools might even raise money by selling copies. The following guidelines may help.

* Appoint one efficient, patient project administrator.

* Select a setting (I suggest history with a local tinge) that will give the story a ready-made framework and context.

* Prepare a brief story outline in advance, perhaps in consultation with the pupils. This ensures that all participants will have some idea where they are going, avoiding literary cul-de-sacs.

* Allocate specific tasks (choosing names, chapter headings, title) to specific groups.

* Make the writing day as special as possible, with plenty of advance publicity. It is essential that the school management is fully behind the project.

* On the day, appoint a lively baton-carrier to take the story from group to group.

* Stick to the timetable.

* Get some children in each group to volunteer to produce illustrations.

* If large numbers of children are involved, share the editing and typing. A team of, say, three might boil down the scripts before a single editor produces the finished work. This stage is almost certainly best done on screen.

* Copy-edit and proofread the final text with great care as it may be read by parents and governors.

* Don't forget to include all the children's names as authors and illustrators.

* Persuade an outsider to write a preface or introduction.

* Try to publish the finished booklet as soon as possible after it has been written.

* Stewart Ross is a former history teacher, chair of the educational writers group of the Society of Authors and a regular visitor to schools

His Coming Alive! series is being reissued this year by Evans, his Tales of the Dead series is published by Dorling Kindersley, and his Pirates, Plants and Plunder will be published by Random House Children's Books for the Eden Project next month. His next "bookathon", also in Kent, will be on World Book Day (March 3).

For details contact Claudia Goldsworthy Tel: 020 7487 0920

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