Friday, 12 February 2010

Storytelling is for everyone

Since the last entry, I've been on a school visit.  And talking to 200 Year 7s (twelve years old, approximately) has made me think further on the whole connectedness of folklore, story telling and story writing, so here's a postscript.

The children were a great, lively bunch, in a school that doesn't get many author visits. I do a lot of  interactive stuff: some riddles, some drama - and I tell stories from the viking sagas, stories from medieval chronicles. By the time children are in Year 7, any visiting author has to prove him or herself worthy of being listened to.  You cannot just waltz in and start talking about elves. Or I don't anyway.  Even though my last book, 'Dark Angels' ('The Shadow Hunt' in the US) is all about elves.  Because English twelve year olds think of elves as little green-stockinged things with red hats dancing around a Christmas tree and making toys. And why would they want to hear about that?

So I start off by talking about aliens and UFO's, instead, and about people who think they've been abducted by aliens and operated on and even had their brains removed (rather like Spock in the old Startrek episode) - and then I tell them a (genuine) story from the 13th century about someone being abducted by elves and having his brain removed - and I try to show them how people have been telling the same sorts of stories for hundreds and hundreds of years.  And how some of these stories then end up becoming woven into the books I write.

A book itself is an alien thing to some of these children.  An intimidating, unpleasurable thing, and reading itself a difficult struggle that gets you nowhere slowly and makes you feel a fool.  Yet we all tell stories, all the time.  I said to them, "I'll tell you this, I've never been into a school that didn't have a ghost story.  When I was at school,  we had a disused railway station just along the road, and there was supposed to be a severed hand that crawled around the platform in the broken glass.  Nobody ever saw it, of course, but the story was there.  All schools have ghosts."

Hands went up.  "We have Bloody Mary in the toilets," two girls remarked.  (Who is Bloody Mary, in this context?  Who knows?  She's obviously some frightening supernatural, half believed in, half delighted in...)  A boy told me, 'There was a ghost at my mum's school - the ghost of a cleaner who got locked in."

And so I was saying, "There you are!  These are the stories people tell because, though nobody knows who makes them up, they are fun to tell and fun to hear.  And sometimes they do get put into books: but - and THIS is the important thing - they don't COME from books.  They come from the real world and from real people."

Anybody can make up a story; anybody can tell one.  It's a tragedy for children to feel disempowered and divorced from the process of storytelling, because it's one of the things we were all born to do.  Why should the tales children tell have value when collected by adults and printed in the Journal of the Folklore Society, yet no value in the playground?  I want children to know that the tales they tell each other are just as real, just as 'important' as the ones that get caught (by lurking academics) and shut up in books. 

And if they know that, perhaps they'll lose their fear of reading them and writing them down.


  1. You're doing a great job in keeping the passion for writing alive.

  2. Yunaleska! Many thanks for the comment and the follow.

  3. Your school talks sound exciting and interesting and just the right amount of ewww factor. Lobotomies segueing into elves and folklore- how perfect is that!
    When I was a child every kid in the neighborhood knew about the corpse covered in spaghetti in the parking garage and every kid embellished the story so that it took on the weight of an urban myth eventually. I don't know how many of the others started writing things down but it definitely was a start for me.

  4. :) Urban legends, ghost stories, and aliens! Great way to get to kids!

  5. Very inspiring post :)
    P.S. I now have your blog in my "Authors!" box :))

  6. I love the spaghetti covered corpse. Exactly the sort of thing I meant. Some of the stories kids tell each other around Halloween are really bloodthirsty and creepy, far worse than the story books they get given. (Ishould know, I've had to deal with the subsequent nightmares...)
    And thanks Amelia!

  7. I wish you'd visited MY school, Kath! It's good you get to speak to Year 7. I find it more difficult with my books because I'd ideally like an audience of Years 6 and 7 mixed together - but they are usually in different shcools (primary/secondary)!
    With Year 6, I always find Ancient Egyptian curses and amulets do the trick.

  8. Yes, I often wish that too - that I could get years 6 and 7 in the same school hall. But magical curses should certainly go down well (jealous...!)

  9. That's brilliant, Kath! What a good idea....linking the old with the new like that. Your audience will definitely be turned on to stories now!