Reasons to their rhymes

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Hilary Robinson found the nursery rhyme format not only gave her children's stories extra impact, it also helped her daughter conquer a phobia.

Nursery rhymes are enjoying a renaissance in adult appreciation. Last month, Birming-ham City Council announced that it wanted pre-school children to be more conversant with nursery rhymes following research which highlighted the value of rhyme in developing vocabulary awareness and reading ability. But this was music to my ears for other reasons.

Sophie was just two years old when she developed what initially seemed to be a natural fear of spiders. I took little notice at first and thought she would either overcome, or, in time, come to terms with the problem.

My concerns deepened somewhat when a colleague illustrated, quite graphically, just what arachnophobia meant to her: how she would scan the corners of every room she entered; how the sight of a spider, no matter how small, would leave her hyperventilating, and how she even found it impossible to pick up a magazine which featured a spider. Her phobia was, quite simply, affecting her everyday life in a detrimental way.

By this point Sophie's initial anxiety had deepened to a paranoic fear. Bathtime, formerly a pleasurable pastime had become a dreaded chore, not to mention battle of wills, in which she would refuse to sit in the water in case a spider appeared. Playing outside was fine providing there were no stones or logs that might unearth something more sinister and all in all her phobia was beginning to show signs of deepening psychological problems.

Arachnophobia may be an inherent condition, and indeed recent research from Australia suggests this may well be the case, but I also began to wonder whether there had been any adverse influences she may have unintentionally been subjected to. That's when I first drew the parallel with that well known nursery rhyme Miss Muffett. Unsure whether this was a contributory factor, I set about searching for books about a friendly spider suitable for pre-school children. There were endless books about bears, rabbits and mice but surprisingly few about spiders, and even fewer about friendly spiders.

It was this that gave me the inspiration to write my own. My skills as a television scriptwriter for schools programmes were helpful but television is a largely visual medium. I realised that whereas the commentary reflected the image, the reverse would be true in a storybook.

Sarah The Spider was originally written in prose. The difficulty with this format for young children was that it proved necessary to simplify the language, and there is value in that, but I was keen to introduce more challenging vocabulary. Having invented the character and designed a cosy setting, I needed a format that would provide the opportunity to include words that would be new and stimulating to them.

I felt the most effective way of doing this was by means of a rhythmic format but, and this is where the problem lay, which rhythmic format?

I spent time in inner-city schools working with children with language difficulties, finding out with which rhythmic format they were most at ease. It became apparent that "nursery rhyme chant" was by far the most acceptable to both pre-school children and infants. More complicated verse structure worked reasonably well with key stage 1 providing the vocabulary was simple, but this was not my aim. I wanted to educate and entertain.

So Sarah The Spider took shape in simple rhyming couplets and I find that children as young as two readily trip off the phrases such as "to determine the culprit", which just would not have worked as effectively in any other form.

I feel sad that many publishers are reluctant to consider poetry because of the translation difficulties with co-editions, and I am disappointed that many authors play safe by sticking with ordinary narrative. I was convinced that this kind of writing would work and felt vindicated when I recently worked with Education 2000, a charity set up to work with underprivileged children in socially deprived areas of Leeds. Addressing a class where 98 per cent of the children spoke either Urdu or Punjabi, I knew Sarah The Spider would either sink or swim - and she swam on and on.

The balance of the three elements of character, setting and format had worked with children who badly need to learn to love books. This became an unexpected bonus and has encouraged me to look more closely at the formats of my other ventures, for, no matter how good an idea is, it is its execution which is vital to its success as a story.

Hilary Robinson is the author of Sarah The Spider, and Sarah The Spider, Prima Spiderina, published by Dragon's World. Prima Spiderina has been shortlisted by The English Association for its Primary English award for the most outstanding book of 1995

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