Sound a bugle for books

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
The job of a visiting author is to take the impossibility out of writing and thrill the kids with the power of their own imaginations, says Jamie Rix

If one issue is guaranteed to put politicians and educators in a lather it is literacy levels. How does one enthuse 25 per cent of under-11s to improve their reading and writing? I should declare an interest: I am a children's author. My experience of teaching is of the glossy, fun-without-responsibility type. I make about a dozen school visits a year to speak to about 3,000 children, which is an awful lot of open minds.

What do they get out of it? First, the excitement of a stranger in school disrupting the timetable. You are the literary equivalent of the US Cavalry, so they love you from the start.

Second, a sense of ordinariness. Children often expect your skin to glow green, and because you are "famous" and have your name on the cover of a book, you must be best friends with Will Young.

When you appear in front of them it takes the impossibility out of writing.

As a child, I never met an author. I thought books appeared by magic, like those boxes of shiny paper in the loos. I never realised that an author was a real person who had to struggle to put the right words in the right order.

How much better it would have been for me if writing had been demystified:

"Here is a pen and a piece of paper. Start writing and don't stop until you've written a story. It isn't complicated. It is like digging a hole.

There are some workmen who dig holes in their heads and stand around all day drinking tea. Others pick up the spade and dig." I wish I had heard that when I was eight.

That is why I always accept offers to visit schools. I want children to realise that they can be writers too. Indeed, I want them to realise that they are writers already. Telling stories is nothing more than telling convincing lies - and children are past masters at that. I want children to realise that telling stories can be fun; that making people laugh, scream or cry can make you the centre of attention.

My sessions are noisy, funny, honest and disgusting. For some teachers, I appear to be surfing on the edge of acceptability, but I do know where to draw the line. For all the blood and gore, sexual yearnings and gruesome revenges that pepper my stories, only once have I had a child ask to leave the room because she was scared. The teacher told the girl to stay, so she turned her coat the wrong way round and buried her head in its hood.

I once visited a library in Glasgow. Two friends - both Glaswegian born and bred - warned me that I would need an armoured patrol to take me in. As I approached the barred and shuttered building, a wall of high-pitched curses and bloodcurdling screams assailed me. I thought it was the children, but it was actually the teachers trying to control the children. The pupils were only 11, but I was terrified, convinced they would eat me and my books alive.

What I hadn't taken into account was that I was a novelty. No author had ever read stories to them before. The first gory story from Grizzly Tales For Gruesome Kids stopped the interruptions. The mere title of Johnny Casanova, the Unstoppable Sex Machine made their mouths drop open. And the lunacy of The War Diaries of Alistair Fury made them laugh and squeal and lose themselves in the story. I was there for more than two hours answering the children's questions. At the end, I glanced at the teachers who had been so stressed at the beginning of the session. They were speechless.

As a visiting author, I enjoy a privileged status in schools. I consider it my responsibility to thrill the children with the power of their own imaginations. That day in Glasgow it happened. Why can't it happen for all children?

Jamie Rix's latest series of books, "The War Diaries of Alistair Fury", is published by Corgi.

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