The pupils making it up as they go along

28th September 2012 at 01:00
The weekly serialisation of books is nothing new. But what if you give reluctant readers the power to tell the author what happens next at the end of each chapter? Jo Knowsley reports

The children were unequivocal. One of the characters needed to die.

A young adventurer had been mortally wounded as his party was pursued in their deadly mission to find a key to their past. And a decision had to be made.

Welcome to The Soterion Mission, a rollicking adventure story set in a world 100 years hence, in which a relatively mild flu epidemic has changed human DNA so that nobody lives beyond the age of 19.

The e-book was penned by Stewart Ross, a former teacher and one of Britain's most popular and versatile authors, with more than 230 published titles to his name. But this is a story with a difference. Every week the young readers have had to make a choice about what happens at the end of each chapter.

In this instance they had three options: make the characters stop and care for their friend until he passes away; have them carry him with them as they flee (though this would slow them down); or abandon him to die so they could carry on with their mission (the option they unanimously selected).

Ross was commissioned to write the book by Fiction Express, a revolutionary new online publisher that started life offering weekly serialised e-books to teenagers; stories that allowed them to help make up the plot as they went along.

The scheme was so popular that in February this year the company launched Fiction Express for Schools. More than 130 schools are now subscribed and thousands of children read the stories each week. The programme, designed to boost reading and literacy among children aged 8-12, is simple. Pupils start reading the first chapter online on a Friday afternoon and have until the following Tuesday to vote on which of three options they want the author to use to take the story forward.

The author then has three days to write the next chapter, developing the story in the way the young readers have chosen. The books each run for five chapters, which are designed to fit into a single half term, and each is around 1,000 words, convenient for guided reading sessions.

Ross, who has written two books for Fiction Express and is now working on a third for the primary market, was impressed by the idea when the company first approached him.

"I have four kids and they spend their lives on the phone," he says. "I also go into a lot of schools. To many children today, just the idea of a book can be very off-putting, so it's great to have something they find so engaging.

"At the same time, schools can get stuck with a Neolithic attitude towards books and reading, which is a shame.

"This is certainly a challenging way for an author to work. It forces you to stay focused on the plot. You do sacrifice character development and subtlety somewhat - and of course you know where you want the plot to go. You just have to take it there in the way directed by the pupils.

"As a writer it is interesting because writing can be a lonely experience," Ross adds. "You can lose sight of who you are writing for. But with this you have to imagine each week that you are facing a classroom of kids. It's hard at times, but exciting. It stops you drifting into an isolating, artistic world of your own."

The greatest surprise for Ross was how hard-headed and practical the pupils were in making their choices. "They were utterly unsentimental," he says, "though there is a dog in one of the plots and they seemed to care more about it than many of the characters.

"They certainly didn't shy away from blood or gore or making tough decisions. They were blunt, and at times utterly brutal."

Fiction Express was created by Paul Humphrey, a publisher of 35 years, who is excited by the way the scheme has taken off. Expanding for the 2012-13 "season", he has now signed up a spy story from children's poet and stand-up comic Ian Billings (author of the Sam Hawkins Pirate Detective series); a comic fantasy from Barry Hutchison (of Invisible Fiends fame); a new story from Simon Cheshire (author of the Saxby Smart stories); and a sequel to an existing Fiction Express e-book, The School for Supervillains by Louie Stowell.

A weekly resources pack, compiled by a teacher, is published for each chapter and there is a readers' blog where children can interact with authors as they are writing.

"Of course, the idea of weekly serialised stories is not new," says Humphrey. "Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle were all doing this 100 years and more ago. I like to think that had Dickens been around now, he would have come up with this idea first."

Fiction Express is now partnered with the city of Leicester as part of the Whatever It Takes literacy initiative, and is also supported by central government.

It is too early yet to quantify how successful the company will be in engaging reluctant readers, a category that appears to encompass a growing number of schoolchildren in Britain.

A report published earlier this month by the National Literacy Trust, which surveyed 21,000 children, found that only three in 10 young people read daily in their own time (compared with four in 10 in 2005). More than half (54 per cent) said that they preferred watching TV to reading and 17 per cent said they would be embarrassed to be seen reading a book.

So perhaps the future of reading is digital. But the switch is not without its difficulties. Professor Andy Goodwyn, who has been researching the subject at the University of Reading, suggests that teachers also need to be encouraged to move with the times.

"Teachers love the artefacts called 'books' with a physical passion," he says. "However book-like an e-reader may be or become, it is never a book and so potentially, for a 'book lover', is a threat and source of anxiety."

Might books in online instalments be a quirky enough concept to capture reluctant imaginations? Only time will tell.

For more information on Fiction Express books for primary school children, go to:

What else?

Key stage 1: What's the story?

Children's author Roger Hurn shares 12 top tips for storytelling.


Key stage 2: Digital tales

Help pupils to tell stories in digital formats with a lesson from bevevans22.


Key stage 3: Word alive

Turn pupils into storytellers with the National Theatre's Word Alive work pack.


Key stage 4: The hows and whys

Explore the history of storytelling in a drama lesson shared by jimbo_badger.


Key stage 5: Finding the plot

Introduce students to novel and short story structures using m.james' notes.



For free teaching materials, visit

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