Storytelling workshop at Real Action (Queen’s Park school)

I first came across the literacy charity Real Action when I responded to a post on the neighbourhood social networking site Nextdoor (which, by the by, I wholeheartedly recommend). One of their teaching volunteers was looking to collect old children’s books from neighbours to add to the charity’s excellent library. I offered a free copy of Jennifer Brown and the Dagger and suggested I might be able to come along for a reading or writing workshop sometime. It wasn’t long before I was introduced to Real Action, and its founders Roger Diamond and Katie Ivens.

The origins of the charity go back to 1995 when North Westminster’s Mozart Estate had high levels of youth crime and gang violence. Roger, and other local residents, realising that many of these young people lacked basic literacy skills, decided to organise a summer reading course based on the ground-breaking Butterfly Method developed by the author Irina Tyk. The success of this course eventually led to the establishment of Real Action as a registered charity in 1998. They are now based in the Learning Store on Mozart Street and continue to provide reading/writing classes for adults, teenagers and children, as well as English language lessons for adults. These are based at the Learning Store as well as Queen’s Park Primary School, Rugby Portobello Trust in North Kensington, and Bevington Primary School.

I visited Katie and Roger at both their HQ in Queen’s Park (the excellent Learning Store on Mozart Street) and the Saturday classes at Queen’s Park Primary School. I observed some of their lessons based on the Butterfly Method and found them highly effective—I’m sure some of their teaching methods could well be adopted more widely. Their pupils are organised by reading ability, not by age, so you often have pupils of different ages in the same classroom. The reading programme itself is based on a highly structured approach using ‘synthetic phonics’ that, on average, helps improve a child’s reading age by a year with just twenty hours teaching (according to Real Actions’ reports).

We agreed that I would deliver a series of writing/storytelling workshops at each of the schools. The first one would be on the last day of term at Queen’s Park, where all the children of older reading ages would be brought together in the assembly hall. The challenge was preparing a lesson that would hold the attention of a mixed age group for two hours, and teach them about the basics of writing a story. No easy feat!

On the day itself, I arrived in good time and began setting up my laptop with the presentation slides and hooking it up to Katie’s mini projector. Of course, technology being what it is, it’s never quite that simple, and the children were already filtering into the hall while I was frantically (OK, exaggerating) trying to get it to work in time!

Finally, with everyone settled, and the projector behaving, we started the lesson in earnest. I began by asking the children about what they understand by a ‘story’, and the fact that you need a character, a setting, and a problem. At its most basic, a story tells us how the character solved the problem (the plot). I also talked a bit about why all around the world, no matter where they lived, people have always told each other stories. It’s also interesting that so many old stories from around the world are so similar in form and often content.

We then explored the ways in which a story can be told. This could be oral, written down, poetry, song, or even a visual form like film or theatre. The next bit was about the ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘how’ and ‘why’. The ‘who’ is about the characters in the story; the ‘where’ the setting, and the ‘how’ and ‘why’ the plot. I then went into how we put together the story through narrative (things happening), dialogue (people talking) and description, and by creating individual scenes that have a little bit of each. A story is basically then a collection of scenes, one after the other.

Then came the fun part, which I always enjoy: creating a story together with the whole class! We started out by picking a main character, some supporting characters, a setting, and a problem. Putting together the eager suggestions coming from the children, we arrived at a story about a boy with two good friends who he falls out with after a fight, steals one of his friends’ computer games to get his own back, then steals money from his parents (far too much stealing in this story!) and bribes his classmates to come to his birthday party! At the party, his friend finds the computer game and the situation gets worse for him…it’s always amazing the things they come up with!

The final challenge was for everyone to write a scene from any point in the story, making sure they put in a bit of narrative, a bit of dialogue, and a bit of description. Anyone who wanted to could then read their piece aloud in front of the whole class, and the best entry would win a copy of my book. Plenty to motivate! There were some fantastic entries, and some made everyone (including the teachers!) laugh.

The morning was a great success and really enjoyable, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

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Meet the Author event at Lincoln Library

I first met the Lincoln-based artist Charlotte Kessler at Leadenhall Market in the City of London, where she was exhibiting and selling her paintings. I was working nearby at the time, and often popped into the market to have lunch at a small café that served hot meals like large chicken escalope with chips and beans…mmm! (No, I’m not remotely recommending that for lunch every day…)

On one of these afternoons, I was milling about the various stalls for a few minutes before heading back to the office. That was when my eyes caught a beautiful painting of a girl with locks of hair flying in the wind near rocks along a coast, with a lighthouse behind her. I approached the stall, and eventually got into conversation with the artist, Charlotte, who almost managed to persuade me to buy it. In the end, I opted not to make an impulse purchase of expensive art at lunchtime (!) and instead bought a small print of the painting. She gave me her business card and I promised to keep in touch.

Time flew by. A few years’ later, when I was in the process of publishing the first Jennifer Brown novel, I thought how good it would be to have a piece of original artwork for my book cover, rather than something generic. Charlotte’s painting (by then framed and on my living room wall) was exactly the sort of thing I had in mind, and her style seemed a good fit. I fired off an email to her to ask if she’d be interested, and the rest, as they say, is history. Charlotte has a great blog post showing how we developed the concept together.

A few weeks’ ago, when Charlotte was exhibiting some of her recent artwork in Lincoln Library, she invited me to join her for a joint book signing session on a Saturday. I was of course delighted to go up–I had been to Lincoln only once before and it’s a lovely cathedral city. I particularly wanted to walk up the ‘Steep Hill’, which is a street along a literally steep hill that leads up to Lincoln Cathedral and is lined with small shops, pubs and tea rooms.

I got up early to head to Paddington station to catch the train to Lincoln. I’ve always been a train person and there’s nothing more pleasant than an early morning train ride whisking you out and away from the big city. (Yes, assuming you have a seat and the carriage isn’t jam packed…one can dream!).

It was a warm, sunny day when I got to Lincoln station, and just as well as I was only wearing a light shirt! I had brought a bag full of books with me, and obviously I was hoping I wouldn’t be dragging them back to London at the end of the day! Charlotte had recommended that I go to a small coffee shop across the road from Lincoln Library (apparently where they serve the best coffee in Lincoln!) and meet her there before the event started.

Charlotte arrived and we headed into the library. We were greeted by the staff, who had already put up a small table for us to sit at. Charlotte had brought some home made brownies to keep us (and the children!) going, and we dutifully munched through them all day. As the weather was nice, things got to a slow start (who wants to go to the library on a Saturday when it’s sunny outside?), but luckily it wasn’t too long before families starting wandering towards our table and we were kept busy answering questions and taking turns to sign copies of the book.

We took a short break to see a little music event taking place in one of the rooms for hire in the library. A man (well known in the area, apparently!) was playing a tune using musical instruments he had made out of various mechanical items.

I always enjoy answering the different sorts of questions that both children and adults will ask about my stories. At the library, one child asked how I got the idea for Jennifer Brown whilst another wanted to know when I’m going to finish writing the second book! Several of Charlotte’s friends came by with their children and I was also pulled into various conversations about how long it takes to write a book and what it’s like to live in London.

After the event wrapped up, we went for a drink before driving to Charlotte’s mother’s house for a long dinner and lots of conversation, which veered off into politics (why couldn’t we just talk about fairies…!?).

It was getting late, so Charlotte drove me to the small bed and breakfast in the outskirts of the city, where I had booked to stay. By the time I got there, it was way past midnight. Rather than going to bed immediately (which I probably should have done), I ended up chatting for over an hour with the couple running the B&B. Finally, after a good night’s sleep, I got up early in the morning to catch the train back to London.