If you want children to be enthralled by books, why not give them a say in the stories? One publisher has and sex changes, ghouls from the medieval plague pit and bright green monsters became the order of the day. Geraldine Brennan reports
Are we like the public phoning in on TV shows?" Will in Year 6 asks as he casts an eye over publisher Egmont Children's Books' proposals for new series fiction for nine to 11-year-olds.
His school, West Jesmond Primary in Newcastle, is one of three advising Egmont on which storylines should make it into print next year in the 2Heads imprint, for which children give feedback before the books are written: detailed briefs for authors incorporate the pupils' input, dictating the tone and flavour of the story (rather than events or characters). One of the authors, Tommy Donbavand, is at West Jesmond with the Egmont research team, running story building workshops. "I'm used to working with editors," says Mr Donbavand. "Now I have a lot more of them."
The first fruits of the schools' consultation is in bookshops now: Too Ghoul for School is a six-book series by B Strange (aka Mr Donbavand). These are tales of an average primary school built on the site of an average medieval plague pit, with more than the average number of ghosts and grisly happenings. A second series, Megastar Mysteries, is out in time for the summer holidays.
At Belmont Primary School in Chiswick, one of two in west London involved in the scheme, Egmont showed children 12 potential series outlines before settling on these two. Kate Steer, literacy co-ordinator at Belmont, took a group to the publisher's offices for the second of two "very intense" days. "The children had a sense that they were controlling the concept, which they enjoyed," she says.
Next year's titles are in the hands of West Jesmond Years 4, 5 and 6: Will and his friends Gus, Max and another Will.
They look at plans for a time travel series, Cracks in Time, which they wish was "more like Dr Who" and give five out of 10. Caro High Chronicle (in which four surfing friends solve mysteries in a Cornish resort), scores much higher, although the boys don't think there should be even one girl in the gang.
One Will wants sharks "like Jaws", the other wants "a load of jellyfish" and Gus wonders "what if someone crashes into the Great Barrier Reef?" Jellyfish and sharks resurface in Word Power, in which a boy who struggles at school finds that everything he writes about in his computer comes true. ("He could write 'sharks walk on land'," says shark-mad Will.) They assess illustration styles ("Not him, he looks like a Sunderland supporter") and prefer the lurid green monster over the Lord of the Rings look for baddies.
In another Year 6 class, Gerry, Bella and two Sophies don't think much of a proposal for Dance Detectives, set at a stage school. As one of the Sophies says: "I don't like it when a group of friends give themselves a name for the sake of it." But when they are shown Boy Trouble boy-hating Teresa changes gender overnight and has to play football, ask girls out and other scary stuff Bella and Gerry shriek in unison: "I love it, I love it." They love it right off the scale. "What about when she forgets and wanders into the girls' toilets? Nightmare."
It's that intense reaction that Egmont publisher Helen Stables wants to see, "but repeated many times over". She points out the complex psychology of this age group: "Children may seem sophisticated in the way they talk about books and TV, and they may seem to know a lot about the adult world through celebrity magazines, but they don't want more than they are ready for. They will ask you in a group discussion for a story to be 'really, really, scary', and then one child will come up to you, away from their mates, and say: 'it won't be that scary will it? How scary will it be really?'"
Egmont chose West Jesmond as one of three consultant schools partly because of its Sats scores and demographic, and partly because of its work on a creative curriculum through Mantle of the Expert (see box). Year 6 teacher Carrie Young says the work "dovetails nicely" with the children having role-played publishers earlier this year. No wonder West Jesmond pupils throw themselves into Helen's role-play workshop on the people who help to make a book. Question: "Does anyone's mum or dad work in sales?" Year 6 answer: "Well, my dad sold his Morrissey tickets on eBay."
Work, rest and role-play
Mantle of the Expert is a learning-through-drama approach in which children are "commissioned" by an imaginary "client" to carry out cross-curricular role-play projects in which they assume expertise in a particular field.
Last year West Jesmond children designed cars for Ferrari; in January, they returned from their Christmas holidays to hear that the local library's children's section had been flooded and they had two weeks to restock it by writing, illustrating and publishing their own books.
First devised by Dorothy Heathcote at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the early 1980s, Mantle of the Expert is currently being explored by networks of schools around the country, especially in East Anglia. Schools share progress reports through the website www.mantleoftheexpert.com and conferences.
See West Jesmond's website, www.justsupposing.co.uk for more details