The black, the white and the grey

 

The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. And when it comes to children’s literature the power of words to shape the attitudes of the child reader is awesome. Should well-written stories (classics, even) be scrubbed clean of sexism and racism? The characters with derogatory names re-invented? Should the offending books just be piled up in a public place and burned? Might be tempting, rather than have your child read that Mary in The Secret Garden thinks that “blacks are not people”.

But what about the role of those outdated books in highlighting thoughtless attitudes and in educating children in the way things used to be? In The Daily Beast the suggestion is that if publishers, librarians or teachers simply withdraw offensive books then they are of course indulging in censorship, which could lead to a distortion of history. Anna-Marie Crowhurst is a great fan of Enid Blyton and as a child adored the quirky, outdated language and the jolly japes the children got up to. But she clearly grew up in a thoroughly enlighted household because at the age of nine she already knew that a story in which girls always did the cooking was “silly”. To my shame there is a host of classic children’s literature out there which reveals racist and sexist attitudes which I hadn’t ever spotted. Do we bin them all? If so we would be depriving children of E. Nesbit, the Barbar stories, Tintin, TS Eliot, Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl, to name but a few.

img002        The Greater Good is a really thoughtful and interesting American website which reiterates the idea that—with a few exceptions—many stories are simply reflecting the times they were written in and can be seen as history up for discussion. The valid point is made that very few people are wholly bad or wholly good and therefore many stories are simply introducing young readers to a complex world. Laura Inglis Wilder, writing about the Americans setting up a homeland in the mid West, wrote about real life as she and her family saw it. Her own history. And that included indigenous people who were described as “dirty and thieving”. Fertile ground for discussions with children: Why did people think like that? Does that make them bad people? Are we different now? Why?

Of course an enlightened and positive antidote is to actively promote books which combat racism and sexism. I found a great website called A Mighty Girl which suggests lots of books containing strong and successful girls and women, including the true stories of Rosa Parks, Billie Holiday and Malala. I particularly like the choice of the word “mighty”, which makes a change from “feisty” and “strong”. The Guardian offers an extensive list of children’s books which promote diversity, including one with the lovely title Amazing Grace, another about the life of Stephen Lawrence, and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s story called The Unforgotten Coat. I love the idea that a children’s book can challenge and educate us all on the subject of difference in its widest sense, and that it’s never too early to start talking about the issue. How lucky we are to live in an age where these things are openly discussed by children, parents, teachers, writers and publishers. Now what about a children’s picture book about combatting the rise of racism since Brexit?

 

 

 

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Wolf Winter

We have decided to showcase some samples of our writing on a new page called Our Work. These samples can be anything from stories for children or Young Adults, experimental or traditional pieces, poetry… 

I wrote Wolf Winter as part of my MA portfolio, when my tutor Nicola Davies, who writes fantastic books about animals and the natural world, suggested I put myself into the head of an animal and try to see things from its perspective.

 

 

wolf winter image. FREE pixabaydotcom copy

WOLF WINTER

My fur is grey against the gleam
Of snowdrifts in a frosted wood
And all the day I burn for food.
I rest and run.

Dusk falls cold on glittering snow.
I dig a hole, I crawl beneath,
I lie there shivering to my teeth.
I warm and sleep.

At dawn I cross a frozen lake.
I sniff the air for scent of food,
Some passed by days ago – no good.
I ache and burn.

I wonder where my brothers are.
Too long without them; different pain.
I seek the sky and howl again.
I prowl and search.

I sniff around the water’s edge
Where reeds have hardened into spikes.
My breath comes trailing spumes of white.
I wait and turn.

The doe is damaged, stumbling, slow.
I smell her long before she knows
Or even sees me, and I close.
I tear and eat.

The evening brings my brothers’ trace.
I scent their passage on the rain,
I tip my head and howl again.
I wait and wait.

I watch the deep violet sky.
A white moon rises. Now the snow
Is smooth and silvered where I go.
I pad and prowl.

Then high upon the mountain trail
Beyond the frozen waterfall,
I hear a distant answering call.
I run and run.

Kay Leitch
Originally published on kaywritesheretoo.wordpress.com
Treasure This

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The Magic of Storytelling

Fairy tales witch readingWho doesn’t love fairy tales? From that lyrical “Once upon a time”, which tells us we’re entering another realm, to the “Happily ever after”, which we all seek, children and adults alike. Of course there are fairy tales with unhappy endings, too – but you won’t see many of those on Disney.

Now, researchers have examined the evolutionary development of fairy tales http and found many to be much older than we thought. Thousands of years older.

Sara Graça da Silva, a social scientist/folklorist with New University of Lisbon, and Jamshid Tehrani, an anthropologist with Durham University, have conducted a phylogenetic analysis of common fairy tales, using a technique that traces linguistic attributes back to their origins. The origins appear to be much older than modern linguists and anthropologists believed.

The part of the report that caught my attention was: “they started with 275 fairy tales, each rooted in magic, and whittled them down to 76 basic stories…”

for fairy tales blog 1Each rooted in magic. I loved that. I don’t know about you, but I find all creative writing to be rooted in magic. That doesn’t mean it has to be about spells and fantasy. All sorts of magic can be yielded by a blank page and a quiet afternoon – though maybe not so quiet if you count the barking dogs, beeping mobile and husband yelling, “I said dinner’s ready!”

I’ve found that, like in so many fairy tales, what we end up with in our own writing is not what we started with, after all the editing and changing and rewriting is done. But, hopefully, we retain the core of the story we’re trying to tell. That’s where the magic is.

Physics teaches us that a pure element cannot be destroyed. I think fairy tales are literary creativity in its purest form and no matter how we rewrite them, edit them, disinfect or Disneyfy them, they will endure. The core remains. Stripped to its core element, the fairy tale is pure story.

Here’s how one core element changed over the centuries: Cinderella started life as Yeh-hsien, believed to have been written down by Tuan Ch’eng-shih in mid 9th century China. In the original version there was no fairy godmother; a magic fish helped Cinders. In Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s version, a hazel tree helped her, the ugly sisters cut off their toes and heels so their feet would fit the shoe, and their eyes were pecked out by doves. Can you imagine the collective fits of apoplexy at a Disney editorial meeting if they read that story board? I’d love to see it.🙂

Cinderella Manga

 

Yeh-hsien went on to be called Zezolla by Giambattista Basile in 17th century Naples, then Cerentola. Joseph Jacobs called her the Cinder Maid. Charles Perrault (end of 17th century) introduced the fairy godmother and the pumpkins and mice… And what story do you think the film Pretty Woman depicts? Same core, different clothes.

If Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid Tehrani are right and fairy tales are more ancient than we thought (Wilhem Grimm also believed this), then these core stories are even more embedded in our psyches than we thought. Which is great news for all story tellers.

Fairy tales teach us much more than the ultimately unchanging human condition – they hold good lessons for writers too: keep structure and plot simple. Remember, “character is destiny”, and be aware that rhyme, rhythm and poetic sentence structure are important. fairy tale pic 2Symbolism is universal. The words “once”, “long ago”, “far away” and “for ever and ever” can give us instant access to the reader’s unconscious, especially children.

I’m delighted that, as a storyteller, I’m carrying on an ancient tradition and, yes, I believe it is rooted in magic. As writers, we can take these cores and dress them in whatever finery we choose. And that feels magical, too.

Kay Leitch
Treasure This

 

Pictures courtesy of pixabay.com

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Authenticity

I’ve returned from an exhilarating weekend of stories at the international Storytelling Festival Beyond the Border, St Donat’s, South Wales. Listening to oral stories is, for me, important and enriching and makes a fine change from the written word. Some of my highlights at this year’s festival were:

Ben Haggarty keeping his audience spellbound on Sunday morning in an open- air cliff top setting. He dressed all in black and told tales of the devil, very well suited to his commanding tone and presence.

Ben Haggarty enthralling the crowd.

Ben Haggarty enthralling the crowd.

On Saturday, luscious Italian Paola Balbi wore red, her rich voice and swaying hips adding colour to her stories of medieval naughtiness. Beowulf, from The Telling Theatre of Denmark was part-theatre, part-telling: spare, virile and unmistakably Scandinavian. Eerie percussion accompanied Grendel’s passage amongst the trees, through the squelching bog, into the feasting hall and the Danish tellers Andersen and Ejsing used their words with all the precision of a singing sword.

The Telling Theatre's magnificent 'Beowulf'.

The Telling Theatre’s magnificent ‘Beowulf’.

I chatted with Dorset storyteller Martin Maudsley about sharing stories and how a storyteller can take ownership of a traditional tale. They craft and embellish it until, by twists and turns, it becomes something new and exciting, unmistakably their own, in much the same way as a writer strives to find their ‘voice’ on the page. The resulting performance/creative piece has an honesty and truthfulness which audiences can’t help but respond to. All in all, the message is: be yourself, write from the heart and find a voice that’s truly your own (we knew that anyway, but I guess it’s always good to be reminded).

The importance of authenticity was also flagged up by Melvin Burgess in the talk he gave to MA students and tutors at Bath Spa University this summer. He spoke about his process of interviewing ‘real people’ as part of his research for novels such as Junk, Nicholas Dane and Kill All Enemies. Many of the characters in these books are so powerful because the author has taken time to understand the people behind the stories, and the bittersweet voices of Gemma, Tar and Billy are some of the most authentic I’ve read.

JA

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What Makes Frozen a Hit? A Writer’s Point of View.

frozen

Children appear to grow up very fast these days. They look and talk as if they are older than their years; they aspire to be adults and there are lots of computer games, films, youtube videos… and even books that tap into this aspiration. But my experience of being a mother is that underneath, children are no older than we were at their age. For example, when my son was ten all the boys took a teddy on the school trip to France.

Disney also realise that kids are still kids, and that there is big money to be made from selling child-like things. The animated movie Frozen, about two princesses, a talking snowman, a young man and his pet reindeer, made nearly $1.3 billion in worldwide box office revenue. It also sold 18 million DVDs in 2014 .

It is not only preschoolers that have become obsessed with Frozen. Just a couple of days ago I overheard a girl saying to her dad, “You can be Elsa and I’ll be Anna.” She was about six-years-old, the same age as my nephew who also loved it. At my son’s junior school, children who were seven and eight were talking about the film constantly when it was first released ─ creating buzz ─ many of the nine-to-eleven year olds went to see it too (for their siblings!). In an article on How Frozen Took Over the World, the author Maria Konnikova talks about a seven-year-old who knew she would love it, even though she hadn’t seen it yet, by what she’d been told by her friends. Parents also like it. I asked a Dad who had seen the movie, the sing-along movie version and had also bought the DVD, why the film was so appealing.  He said, “We like the innocence of it. It’s just good family entertainment.”  Konnikova suggests that part of its success “may have just as much to do with parents as with kids. Kids aren’t just liking it more; parents are taking their kids to see it more.” Perhaps parents don’t want their kids growing up too fast; they value childhood.

As you can imagine, business analysts and reporters have tried to identify the factors that made the film so successful (see references below). If you know what worked, you can replicate it. Right? The pre-release marketing campaign was designed to appeal to a wide audience and focused on what was unique about the story; the film was released in November (which is apparently the optimal release timing) and, cleverly, Disney allowed the very singable music to spread through social media; they didn’t crack down on the millions of youtube tributes. It has two strong, not simpering, princesses that children can relate to; the story’s a bit different for Disney ─ an act of self-sacrifice saves the day rather than true love’s first kiss ─  it’s about the relationship between two sisters and growing up; there’s the allure of magic, a wisecracking sidekick snowman and the film has the feel-good factor… However, what the experts all agree on is that you could put all these ingredients into another story and it wouldn’t necessarily work. I don’t think it will stop animation companies from trying though!

I think book publishers could learn a lot from Disney. Imagine a manuscript arriving on an editor’s desk about a bunch of toys that deeply want children to play with them, and the story is told from the point of view of a cowboy doll. Would the publisher say, “It won’t appeal to the readership; they’ll think they’re too old for it” or “Great ─ we’ll call it Toy Story”.

I’d love to know your thoughts …

Thanks for reading my blog!

Kim

References

  1.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frozen_(2013_film)
  2. http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/how-frozen-took-over-the-world
  3. http://time.com/3656230/why-kids-cant-resist-frozen/
  4. http://metro.co.uk/2014/12/05/kids-wont-let-it-go-why-disneys-frozen-is-everywhere-this-christmas-4975028/
  5. http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/why-is-frozen-such-a-big-hit.html

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Exploring ‘How To Write’ advice

If you’re setting out to make a Victoria sponge for the first time it’s wise to follow a recipe; one egg too few or a laudable aim of cutting down on the sugar spells disaster. A writer, on the other hand, might shy away from following advice. Writing is, after all, an intuitive, creative, complex and highly personal activity and the notion of looking at a website that calls itself Ten Ridiculously Simple Tips For Writing A Book might seem an affront to that idea. Certainly the advice to Get a notebook and Put your thinking cap on (the latter accompanied by a really clunky graphic of a guy tapping his teeth with a pencil) is probably a bit too obvious. Some sources of wisdom seem over keen to use the words don’t and never. Call me stubborn but when someone says Don’t anthropomorphise animals I might just give it a go. (And of course everyone can think of wonderful examples of talking animals!) Even Wikihow can help the aspiring writer for children age 5-7: Use bigger words but be careful to explain them so as not to frustrate new readers. But Beatrix Potter’s famous example of a sophisticated word for younger readers surely needed no explanation when she wrote of the Flopsy Bunnies: They did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific.

Persevere, though, and you can mine a rich seam of wisdom in a really worthwhile site called Brainpickings, which explores the more philosophical aspects of writing and is packed with fascinating insights of a less prescriptive kind. There are various schools of thought about the rightness of always bearing your target audience in mind. As a writer who has always struggled with the question Who is your story for? Maurice Sendak offers reassurance here. He says he doesn’t write for children; he writes, and then someone says That’s for children! CS Lewis (on the same website) is vitriolic about the tendency of some adults to downgrade children’s literature and to treat adulthood as a sort of existential upgrade, using childishness as a put-down. This is music to the ears of someone who occasionally finds being an adult tiresome!

Slightly more contemporary advice comes from a book simply called Write, published by Guardian Books. I can forgive the lists of Dos and Don’ts because the contributors are so entertaining. This from Roddy Doyle: Do keep a Thesaurus, but in the shed…or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg: horse, ran, said. Stephen King was in a similar groove when he told us that the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and Mark Twain was famously sorry for having written a long letter because he hadn’t had time to make it shorter. Margaret Attwood assumes we’re several steps further along the path to becoming a serious writer when she gives us advice about travelling: Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

If you read enough of this kind of stuff you could be left with the impression that the whole world is waiting to tell you how to write, how not to write, what to write about, how long to spend at it, what to eat, what music to listen to (Schubert, according to Colm Toibin), what to do for inspiration (make a pie!). I reckon that if you think about something too much you become frozen with terror and therefore the only advice that I’m prepared to take seriously is this: just get on with it. After I’ve sorted my sock drawer and e-mailed the Council about the house where the rubbish is never ever left out at the right time. Now, I wonder who lives there?

Julia Draper -Author of The Paupers of Langden

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How to Write a Bestseller

Electrik Inc is always on the lookout for good advice that helps us hone our writing skills. I loved this Ted Talk video with literary agent, Jonny Geller, about what makes a bestseller, and what agents/publishers look for in new writers. Think about his comments when you’re editing your own work because everyone wants to sell their books and the more we get right, the better it is for our readers as well as our bank balances.

There are lots of how-to-write-a-bestseller tips, from Dean Koontz to Matthew Sparkes writing in The Telegraph on how scientists developed an app in 2014 that analysed best sellers. The findings were very interesting but guaranteed success remains elusive. And so the advice is just that: advice. Remember, what works for one author may not work for you.

I especially like how Mr Geller looks for the “space between the sentences” in any piece he reads. There is often a temptation for writers to give too much description, too much information… I’m always advising my clients to trust their readers to fill in some of the blanks themselves.

Mr Geller’s five-word sentence example is excellent too – a fun way of learning the importance of varying sentence length.

Personally, I would add story to the list. Not the plot or pacing (though they’re important too), but the story: is it strong enough to hold the reader. I always think of that in my own writing. Will the reader care enough to keep reading to find out how this story unfolds – and ends. For me, story is vital. Of course great characters, tight prose and sharp dialogue help, but if I don’t connect to the story, I lose interest. Whether I’m assessing manuscripts, reading for a publishing house or writing my own novels, I keep that in mind.

Jonny Geller also mentions how it all comes down to us, the reader. That reading “makes us better people”, that original writing is so often harder to place because publishers find original material “very hard to market”. Yes, some of us have figured that out already.🙂

The five things Mr Geller looks for are:

The bridge: does it take us from the familiar to the new?

Voice: the unique sound of the writer, which is nothing without the next part:

Craft: writing is difficult. Amateurs and professionals alike do draft after draft to get it right. Does it have resonance? Will it reach as many people as possible, as quickly as possible?

The gap: the space between the sentences. The gap the writer leaves for the reader to inhabit.

There’s lots more. Jonny Geller has a natural style that’s easy to listen to without feeling you’re being lectured. Check it out.

KAY LEITCH   co-founder of Electrik Inccropped-electrikinc_logo3_colour1.png
Author of  Treasure This
kaywritesheretoo.wordpress.com

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