If you ask a group of children or teenagers if they do any writing other than what's set at school, some hands usually go up. And there are probably more who won't admit to it.
Teachers complain that national curriculum stringencies leave little time for creativity, but both these books make clear that many young people have impressive energies and talents for writing and that many already think of themselves as independent writers. Others may surprise themselves with what they can achieve, especially when given encouragement and, just as importantly, the time to consider writing as a pleasure in itself, rather than as progress towards an attainment target.
Cue Cumbria is an anthology of writing by pupils from eight Cumbria schools. During a six-month project, supported by Cumbria Arts in Education, writers Sandra Glover and Peter Mortimer ran workshops involving almost 100 Year 8, 9 and 10 pupils.
The result is a professionally-produced paperback that gives the impression that writing was fun for the participants. There are diaries, scripts, various poetic forms, story extracts; there's relish for language and inventiveness with form. (I liked "The New Dictionary" which includes such coined words as "blut (n): a spelling mistake" and "zizzer (n): the thruster of a flying milk-bottle".) Children often respond well to writing by their peers. This attractive book, besides rewarding its contributors, may well provide inspiratio and models for others.
The aim of The Poppy Factory Takeover is less obvious. Peter Hayden, the self-publisher of Crazy Horse Press, draws on his years of experience as author, English teacher, and tutor of writing workshops. It's unclear whether the book is for teachers, would-be writers, or Hayden himself. His style is rambling, with digressions into anecdotes about colleagues, classroom incidents and the fortunes of his football team.
But his energy and enthusiasm are infectious. He's good on the practicalities of producing a school magazine, and in particular on how to sustain enthusiasm after the first issue has appeared. Every English teacher will at some time have been given a piece of writing about disaster or bereavement - writing which so clearly stems from a need to express bewilderment or grief that the only response can be on a personal level. Hayden's most poignant chapter is concerned with the writing produced (voluntarily) at Hagley RC high school in Stourbridge after the 1993 M40 minibus accident, in which 12 pupils and a teacher died. "I open my mouth to scream the loudest, longest Scream from within - But nothing comes out," wrote one child. Hayden's encouragement of therapeutic writing at this anguished time provided an outlet for that scream.
Both books stress the importance of encouraging teenagers to take themselves seriously as writers, not simply to churn out work for teacher approval. "Normal rules don't apply," says Mortimer. "There are no marks, no exams, no right or wrong answers."
These three writer-tutors have helped young people to find fulfilment and satisfaction in committing thoughts to paper, and the results are likely to give lasting pleasure to at least some of those who took part.