Language might be the most powerful of all the tools that we (supposedly clever) human-beings have come up with. So it’s not much surprise that there’s a constant tug-o-war about how reading, writing and language-skills are passed on from one generation to the next.
What approach should we take when we teach children to read and write? How best do you help young people to become confident language users? Which rules of grammar should be preserved? As language changes in the hands of young people, is that damaging or refreshing?
We authors of books for children and teenagers are known for throwing ourselves into the tussles over these questions…often defending teaching that uses ‘real books’ (rather than meaningless, story-less, technical texts), often standing up for the importance of giving young people a taste for the pleasures of reading and writing…not just training in their functional and productive sides.
The British author Philip Pullman, speaks with clarity and passion on these issues. But he went a step beyond the usual debates in the comments he made in an interview in The Guardian last year, when talking around his book Grimm Tales: For Young and Old.
He got onto the subject of teachers, parents and stories for children. And he started to speak about the powerful stuff at the very heart of the debates…language itself:
“Our politicians talk about ‘the basics’ all the time, but what they mean are things that you can correct at the last minute on your word processor: spelling, punctuation, that kind of thing. But the most basic thing of all is your attitude to language.
If your attitude to language has been generated by a parent who enjoys it with you, who sits you on their lap and reads with you and tells stories to you and sings songs with you and talks about the story with you and asks you questions and answers your questions, then you will grow up with a basic sense that language is fun. Language is for talking and sharing things and enjoying rhymes and songs and riddles and things like that.
That’s so important. I can’t begin to express how important that is… A sense that language belongs to us, and we belong in it, and that it’s fun to be there and we can take risks with it and say silly things in it and it doesn’t matter and it’s funny. All of that. If your sense of language is that it’s something you’ve got to get correct and you mustn’t get it wrong and you’re going to get marked on it, judged on it, well … That’s a pretty poor show.”
I like this short piece of writing advice. It comes from an interview I read with a British author called Matthew Kneale. It was around the time he published his very good, travelling, historical novel: ‘English Passengers’:
“Pick your subject with care, and how you intend to treat it. Be sure it’s something that matters to you personally. Know why you want to do it. Then write. Don’t let yourself become self-conscious about what you’re doing. Don’t worry yourself about whether your attempt will be great literature. Just write. And make sure enough happens in your story, that there’s a sense of change.”
It’s almost carnival time in Brazil. Across the country, drums are thundering as the ‘schools of samba’ step up their rehearsals. And the carnival parade designers (the carnavalescos) are in the thick of their ingenious, crazy, colourful preparations.
It’s also tropical rain time. Wild storms fill the skies most afternoons.
And sometimes that’s not a good combination.
This photo (from the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, a few years ago) tells a story about carnival.
Models being made for a parade by one of São Paulo’s schools of samba were carried away by flood water. They ended up in one of the city’s rivers, stuck below a bridge. That’s a bus going past above.
I was re-reading a talk given by the Canadian/American storyteller, Dan Yashinsky (The Joan Bodger Memorial Lecture, 2006.) It can be found on the internet, and raises some great questions about listening in our current day and age.
This section about the nature of listening to a story, particularly sticks in my mind:
When the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism and a renowned storyteller, arrives in a village marketplace and begins telling stories, Martin Buber tells us what happens. A man begins to listen; then: “a second man came up, soon after a third, then ever more and more, mostly servants and poor people who begin the day early. They all remained standing, listened eagerly and called over still others from the houses. As the hour advanced, the maids came with their water-jugs on the way to the fountain and stopped, the children came running out of the rooms, and the family heads themselves left their businesses and their pursuits to hear the strange man.” (The Legend of the Baal-Shem.) The marvelous thing is that, wherever you entered the tale, you found its “red thread” (a wonderful German phrase for the inner life of a story): “His narration…was so delightfully intertwined that whenever someone came up it seemed to that person to be at the beginning, and those who earlier had not been curious were now entirely concentrated on what would happen next and awaited it as if it were the fulfillment of their most precious hopes. Thus they all had one great story, and within it each had his own small and all-important story.”
And what do these spellbound villagers hear in the storyteller’s intricately woven narrative? Buber answers somewhat mystically: “It was no report of distant times and places that the story told; under the touch of its words, the secret melody of each person was awakened …”
This way of describing an already-mysterious phenomenon only deepens the questions; yet there is something wonderfully accurate in Buber’s phrase. With oral stories, it seems to me, we are always listening for a kind of “secret melody” — that is, a distillation and expression of our own experience — our lives reflected back to us with new understanding.
I’ve just re-read one of my favourite books - ’The Conference of the Birds’ by John Heilpern. It’s a colourful and fascinating story, describing a journey through northern and western Africa made by British theatre director Peter Brook, with a troupe of actors, back in 1972/3.
John Heilpern has a great eye for detail and an infectious sort of curiosity about what goes on. The strange and talented mix of international actors are brilliantly brought to life, as are their many performances.
There’s some healthy scepticism. (By the third chapter, Heilpern has managed to tell us, “I like actors but sometimes they don’t know their arse from their elbow.”) And the writing is very funny. Nearly every chapter makes me laugh out loud, at something.
As well as enjoying the writing, I like the story. The book describes a journey in search of a theatrical experience which Peter Brook himself cannot easily define.
Along the way there are moments of magical inspiration, others of complete failure.
There’s a lot of plain, hard slog.
Everyone seems bewildered, at least some of the time. (At one point Heilpern says, “Nobody knew what they were there for or where they were going.”)
There are trials and errors, risks taken, flashes of good and bad luck, and completely unexpected moments of freedom and delight.
So, although it is all writ large (30 people travelling 8,500 miles through deserts, mountains and tropical forest) it feels as if Brook and his actors are journeying through the things that anyone following an artistic dream (with its madness, desperation and beauty) will end up experiencing.
I think that’s why the book grabbed me when I first read it, as a young man, curious about what it might mean to set off on an artistic journey. And it’s probably why it still grabs me some years later…when there’s no turning back!
You need something to go wrong, otherwise there would be no story.
The craft of writing stories involves many things and (usually) one is making things go wrong.
When things go wrong, questions hang in the air. Characters have to react. Suspense is created. Emotions are stirred. Things change.
In other words, the simple act of creating a problem, sets in progress many of the things that us humans (for whatever reasons) find most irresistible in stories.
I was at a children’s storytelling event a few months ago. Everything started off neatly and tidily. People were drinking juice and herb tea. A big rug was spread out. Someone was running a craft workshop. Most of the children were small. They were sitting on the rug, making small clay things. The activity was led by a woman who said encouraging, soothing things to the small children. And it wasn’t just her. Everyone was being rather smiley and nice.
There were a few children aged nearer 10 or 11. Among them was a boy who seemed pretty restless, and disappointed with what was going on.
Then someone dropped their tea cup.
It smashed loudly across the floor.
The boy grinned. His eyes lit up. He said, “AT LAST! A DISASTER!”
Nasruddin bought himself a new donkey. It was a very rare white donkey. Everyone admired it. Nasruddin loved it. Wherever he went, he went on his donkey.
Soon everyone knew about Nasruddin’s white donkey. They all agreed what a handsome donkey it was.
But it happened that a neighbour of Nasruddin’s was going to marry a girl in the next village. He wanted to arrive at his wedding in style. And he thought people would be very impressed if he showed up riding on a white donkey.
So he visited Nasruddin, to see if he could borrow the donkey.
Nasruddin didn’t much like the idea. The road to the next village wasn’t in good condition. He was worried that his beloved donkey would injure itself.
“What do you think, Nasruddin?” asked the neighbour. “Can I borrow the donkey?”
Nasruddin shook his head. “I’m sorry but it’s not here,” he said, “My son rode to the bazaar on it this morning. And he’s not back yet.”
Just at that moment, the donkey brayed loudly from the back of the house.
“It is here,” said the neighbour. “I just heard it.”
Nasruddin stared at the man. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“That sound just now. That was your donkey braying.”
“No it wasn’t,” said Nasruddin.
“It was,” his neighbour told him.
Nasruddin stared at the man for a moment. Then he asked, “Look. Who are you going to believe? Me or a donkey?”
A friend of mine in Brazil, Regina Machado, called and asked if I would tell some stories to a friend of hers - Ana - who was ill.
Ana has a small daughter. She used to give English classes based around art history. She was writing an MA thesis. Then, on the day she was due to present it, one of the assessors didn’t show up. The presentation had to be put back to a later date. That night, Ana suffered a massive stroke. The part of her brain which sends ‘motor’ messages to the rest of her body was wiped right out. All she can do now is blink her eyes.
I said yes. Regina took me there.
Ana was at her mother and father’s flat. It was full of beautiful paintings, clocks and artwork on the wall, though there was something a bit stuck about the place, as if everything had been in exactly the same position for decades.
Ana’s small daughter bustled about with scissors and toys. She showed me her room, overflowing with dolls, and told me their names.
I went down the corridor to the room where her mother lay, imprisoned in a paralysed body.
When you think what has been taken from Ana (the ability to speak, walk, feed herself, write, turn in her sleep, reach out a hand to comfort her daughter…) it makes most of problems we find ourselves struggling with seem very petty.
I told Ana some stories in English. Rain burst out of the sky behind us, down onto a world she cannot turn her head to see. I could tell she understood the stories well. A few times she made a slight, gurgling chuckle.
Regina said that after I left she cried and cried.
People like asking writers, “Where do you get your ideas from?”
I usually say that there are ideas for stories or poems all around us. The only difference between writers and other people is that we make sure we’ve got a pen and a notebook to hand, so that when an idea comes we don’t let it go. We write it down.
There isn’t a notebook in my pocket one hundred percent of the time. (Anyway, the secret isn’t just having the notebook. There’s a way of looking and listening with a sort of curiosity, or alertness, or care that comes into it as well.) But, actually, there won’t be many occasions when I don’t have a pen and notebook somewhere to hand.
To the surprise (quite often annoyance) of people around me, I do start scribbling things at odd moments: when walking along a busy pavement…or watching a film at the cinema…or in the middle of the night…
And If you ask around, notebooks of story ideas, observations, memories, fragments of overheard language, and other descriptions and scribbles are the foundations on which very many writers build their work.
I like spiral-bound notebooks. As I go along, I destroy them! I tear out the pages. I cut them up. I throw things out. Then (sometimes by typing them on to my computer, sometimes by putting them in actual files on shelves) I sift what I’ve written into a whole lot of different categories.
So instead of having piles of old notebooks, I’ve got strange files of bits of paper.
One file has names for characters in it. Another is full of bits and pieces of dialogue. Another holds ideas for story titles.
And those are the predictable ones. If I look through, I’ve also got a file containing names of dog breeds. Another contains names of breakfast cereals. And one’s labeled COWBOY LANGUAGE,
If a hurricane ever hits my writing studio, a lot of strange confetti is going to fly!
My wife makes animated films. Because of her, I quite often find myself at an animation festival or in a cinema…watching some strange and beautiful new film dreamed up by an animator somewhere in the world.
That’s my luck!
Like puppet theatre and poetry, I think of animation as one of the art forms that can genuinely come close to making magic.
Over the years, animated films I’ve seen have sparked all sorts of ideas that have fed into my writing.
Here’s one - a twelve-minute-long film by Hungarian director Géza M Tóth. I saw it five years ago at the Anima Mundi festival in Sao Paulo.
If you ask me, the picture book was one of the very best artistic forms to evolve in the 20th century. It’s up there with the three-and-a-half-minute rhythm and blues song, the animated film, the television drama series, or any other remarkable creative innovation you can think of that came out of the same period.
There were illustrated books for children long before 1900. But something seemed to happen around the time of the first commercial edition of Beatrix Potter’s ‘Peter Rabbit’, in 1902.
A taste developed for short, affordable, colour-illustrated storybooks for younger children. And in the decades that followed, the illustrations in these books became ever less decorative, ever more a part of the storytelling. So, sometimes step by step, sometimes in leaps forward, the special form of the picture book that we know today came to be.
It’s a special form because it’s such a mix of delights. Inside good contemporary picture books you get characters that children love from the opening words…engaging themes…page-turning stories…inventive, skilfully-crafted illustrations…flights of imagination…colour…humour…emotion and - as if all that wasn’t enough - endings which uplift, provoke, surprise (or do all three!)
That’s a lot of delight for an adult reader and child to share - all packed into 12 (or so) double-page spreads.
And it would be wrong to speak only of delight. There’s a notable history of picture books going into uncomfortable, shadowy subjects too. And for that aspect of picture-book making, I’d say we should raise our hats to the American author and illustrator, Maurice Sendak.
Sendak was a fiercely independent, honest, funny, questioning character. (Have a watch of this short film, capturing him at home, in his later years. You’ll see what I mean…)
He wasn’t the only one to push back boundaries around what can be in a story for 2 to 6 year-olds. But his picture book, “Where the Wild Things Are” was such a brilliant challenge to the conventions of its day, and became so popular, that it ended up paving a good bit of the way for other challenging picture books that have followed.
The story of Max (the protagonist of ‘Where The Wild Things Are’) is a simple one. It’s a tale of leaving and returning. It’s only 338 words long. But over that short distance, Sendak touches on a many difficult themes: cruelty, uncontrolled anger, punishment, loneliness, ecstatic release and fear (among others.) The ‘wild things’ themselves are wonderfully complex. (Are they going to be friends with Max, or are they going to eat him up?) It makes for one of the most fantastic journeys in all of children’s literature.
And it’s telling that, despite being one of the best known children’s book makers of his generation, Maurice Sendak didn’t like to be described as a children’s author.
He broke the mould with his picture books. He went searching for truths about what it is to be human, whether you’re a child, a grown-up, or somewhere in between. In other words, he approached picture-book making with the sharpness of a genuine artist’s sensibility.
And it has been a wonderful thing for children’s literature that this sensibility found its way into the making of books for very young children.
Picture books could have evolved into pretty, soothing boxes of delight to help parents get children to sleep. Thanks to the likes of Maurice Sendak, they are a much more exciting and wild prospect.
A long time ago, I met a Zimbabwean film maker who had travelled from his country and was living in England.
We were talking about the differences between his country and mine: differences between the way people live and work and talk…differences in the attitude towards time…
And the man told me this story.
“After a couple of years of living in England, I went back home to visit my family members in Zimbabwe. My grandmother was watching me when I got back. And, after a day or two, she said to me, ‘You’ve come back different. You’ve come back looking straight ahead. Please, don’t forget to look from side to side as well. You see the most interesting things when you look from side to side!”
A friend of mine in Brazil left the hectic megacity of São Paulo in the 1970’s to live a quieter life, a thousand miles or so to the north west, in the state of Mato Grosso.
While there, he got to know some native Brazilians of the Xavante people. And he brought one of them – a young man called Rubens – with him on a visit to São Paulo.
Rubens had never seen a large town before, let alone a city on the scale of São Paulo. So, before anything else, my friend took him to the top of a downtown skyscraper where he could take a proper look at the place.
The young Xavante took his time, staring out at the city, which stretches off as far as the eye can see.
He didn’t say anything. He walked across to the other side of the building.
There he looked down at the same urban scene, sprawling in the opposite direction.
Still he didn’t say a word.
So my friend asked, “O que que você acha?” (“What do you think?”)
Rubens replied, “Não vai dar certo.” (“It’ll never work out.”)