Wednesday 24 June 2015

Why I'm going back to the classics...for a while


Over the past two years I've spent oodles of time  trying to read as many new books as possible, and review my favourites, mainly  to help me remember the details! As a slushpile writer on a mission to Get Somewhere, I've been very conscious of what agents and publishers are currently looking for. I've spent hours researching how to get to grips with the obligatory "Show, Don't Tell" and I've acquainted myself with the market's bestsellers. The  amazingly original and exciting books that I've read have brought me and my children lots of joy and fun. Thank goodness we have a constant supply of new ideas and authors coming through.

It is confusing though. I've read my own children every single one of David Walliams' thoroughly entertaining books. Somehow these bestsellers  have a really old-fashioned feel, but I love them! Walliams' style feels so warm and comforting and familiar, and in a  Dahl-esque manner  he whips us from the horrific to the absurd in the flick of a page turn. Tell the truth, I've missed that kind of story telling. They're so good to read aloud, and even better to listen to. So now I'm hankering for some proper Old Skool Classics that have stood the test of time. And by "classic" I don't necessarily mean old, I mean books that will be loved from generation to generation and stand the test of time.

Whenever I visit local bookshops, I'm struck by just how many books in the 8-12s section are largely the same books that I was plugging 15 years ago as a Year 6 teacher. I'm talking the likes of Harry Potter, Northern Lights, Kensuke's Kingdom and Matilda. A quick look at the British Libraries PLR listings reveals that the most borrowed children's authors Top 20 still includes Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, and in the Top 20  most borrowed classic authors you'll also find CS Lewis and Beatrix Potter.  There's a steady supply of new editions of the classics it seems- each new cover design seems to cause a stir!

One thing that bugs me as a teacher is that children tell me -all too often- that their parents won't let them read the books they want to, deeming them 'too easy', or 'not  good English'. I've overheard parents at the supermarket trying to persuade their children to buy books or magazines that "teach them something" rather than the ones the child is drawn to.  And I recently joined in a teacher's hashtag about reading, where  teachers were recounting the lack of time in the school day to read for pleasure.  'Up-levelling' is where it's at, and being able to prove a pupil's progress to Ofsted inspectors.  Fads and fashions in the publishing world may come and go, but teachers and parents often seek the confidence of known quantities when it comes to reading material. Not to mention guaranteed value for money. As adults we  love to share our own childhood favourites with the next generation, and these are often what we select as special gifts. For busy teachers there is a much greater wealth of resources for more established authors to enrich and support their lesson plans, so who can blame them for picking more classic texts to use in class?  Canny debut authors, I notice, are putting resources for teachers on their websites- a good move!

This set me thinking, as lately I've been reflecting upon what I want to achieve with the Middle Grade books that I'm currently writing, and indeed, what is at the heart of Middle Grade fiction. Is it the characters? The plot? The voice? I often wonder why I've focused on writing for this age group above all others, and always reach the conclusion that this was the age when I was happiest in my reading, and found stories most satisfying.

So, I've decided to embark on a journey back through time, and revisit the books I enjoyed as a junior reader (as we called it back in Ye Olden Days) . A couple of months ago I re-read Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" and it brought back the thrill and excitement of disappearing into a whole new imaginary world, just as when I'd read it as a youngster. But yes. The world is very different now with technology and social media, and kids being much more knowledgeable and worldly wise. On the other hand though, the relevance and importance of things like relationships with friends, siblings, parents, and the dull oppression of homework hasn't changed much. Kids still have days when they're gleeful, and days when they're sad.

This led me into thinking that if I re-read books from my school days, could it help me re-connect with my Middle Grade self?  Maybe, if I read my favourite books from childhood , I'll be able to resurrect long dismissed memories. Maybe  I'll hit upon a cerebral shortcut to the Land of Long Ago, which will magically help me write a more sparkly authentic voice for my intended audience.

Over the weekend I was looking out for interesting tweets from the Winchester Writer's Festival, and a lively selection kept popping up. One that caught my eye was a quote from Beverley Birch saying, "as an author do not bandwagon hop. Write what's in your heart ".

So, without apology I'm going back to my favourite characters: Ramona, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne of Green Gables, Mary Poppins. I'm going to scrutinise The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and Nothing to be Afraid of. I'll be analysing The Borrowers and Ballet Shoes and The BFG.  I admit that -unlike my younger self- I'll be tutting at the liberal sprinkling of adverbs, and the naughtiness of the lengthy backstories, but that will be part of the fun. Over the next few months (before I get back to reading all the latest bestsellers) I'll be seeking to pinpoint what  the essence of a truly great Middle Grade book is, so that I can bottle it and keep it close to my heart as I'm writing.

I just hope (with writerly wishfulness) that  I will discover the Holy Grail of what makes these evergreen books so endlessly appealing, and will one day be able to achieve a little of the classic magic in my own stories.

Pippa Wilson

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