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Wednesday 27 February 2013

Why Frank Lampard's Children's Book Deal Is A Good Thing

So Frank Lampard has been offered what is in all likelihood a whacking great sum of money to write a series of children’s books. Few commentators seem overwhelmed by the prospect of Lampard as a children’s author. There are plenty of good reasons not to be. For one thing, the characters in the book are apparently “loosely based” on Lampard’s Chelsea teammates. From what we know of them, it doesn’t seem as though they would be fit to grace the pages of a children’s novel.

The whole thing is also a classic case of an already famous person garnering even more attention on the basis simply of being famous in the first place. There is a lot not to like about that. Likewise the fact that the phenomenon of the celebrity children’s author seems to imply that writing for children is something just anyone can do with ease – you wouldn’t hire Katie Price to do your dental work; why then hire her to write a kids’ book? – and that children can be fobbed off with any old nonsense, provided there is a famous name on the cover.

As a children’s author who has not yet had his own book published I have an extra reason to feel frustrated with Lampard’s book deal. It may well be that the handful of agents and publishers I’ve approached turned me down on the basis that my output is not yet of sufficient quality to merit publication in a full collection. That may be entirely fair. But what I do know is that, especially in the world of children’s poetry, quality is far from a guarantee of publication anyway. Publishers want material they know will sell, and poetry doesn’t sell especially well at the best of times. Given this, publishers tend to publish authors who have already established themselves, thus fomenting a kind of self-perpetuating hegemony into which it is extremely hard for new authors to break. So Lampard's book deal is sure to jar with us plebs.

But what many commentators seem to have missed is that Lampard may, for all we know, be a gifted writer. David Walliams, not originally famous for children’s books, turned out by all accounts to be excellent. The first of Lampard’s books is not due out until June and may likewise turn out to be very good. We just don’t know yet. My guess is that the book will turn out to be no better than the multitude that did not make it beyond many a publisher’s slushpile, but we should surely wait to read it before passing judgment.

A less obvious but perhaps more important point, though, is this: even assuming that Frank Lampard’s book is no better than countless other unpublished efforts, his being published on the basis purely of who he is may turn out to be no bad thing. Boys are often not as enthusiastic about literacy as girls, and teachers have on occasion sought to address this by having me in their school. Such teachers do not invite me in purely on the basis of my material (a lot of which, admittedly, is likely to appeal to boys anyway); they invite me because I am a male writer, and as such am a positive role-model.

The fact that teachers invite me in on this basis, and the fact that they often comment afterwards about the positive impact on their reluctant boys of having a young male writer in their school, shows that, in the eyes of the audience, the person delivering the words can be at least as important as the words themselves. The fact that Lampard, a world famous footballer and a role model, has written a book is sure to make lots of previously unenthusiastic male readers sit up and take notice. I hope that Lampard’s books will be marketed at and read by girls no less than boys, but what is true is that a lot of the male readers would probably not have felt compelled to read a book otherwise. I’ve no doubt that many boys will find a way into reading through Lampard’s books, in large part on the basis that it was Lampard who wrote them. It may be that they turn out, from a strictly literary point of view, to be not very good (as I have said, we just don’t know yet), but if they can successfully target a difficult young male demographic then I am willing to put my own cynicism and bitterness aside, and so should everyone else.

And lastly, coming back to my earlier point about the notion that anyone can be a writer: this is precisely what I tell my pupils all the time. Writing is, after all, not like dentistry – it needn’t take arduous training and it needn’t be difficult. And now I can say this to back me up: if the likes of Frank Lampard and Katie Price can do it, then so, surely, can you! 

Monday 25 February 2013

Having Fun (And Attaining High Standards In Literacy)

Whenever I go into schools to run workshops I establish three rules at the outset:

 - Respect
 - Give It A Go
 - Have Fun

I always explicitly designate the last of these rules as the most important. I want the pupils to enjoy the process of writing and manipulating ideas, and I want them to leave with positive memories of me and my visit.

Once I have established these rules the pupils are divested of any notion that I am there to ‘judge’ or to ‘inspect’ them and their work. As a consequence they are often less inhibited when it comes to exploring ideas and getting some words down on the page. It is often the case that previously reluctant pupils find it within themselves to write and perform things that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise have, but my emphasis on having fun can, occasionally, have an unintended consequence: pupils are so busy laughing and being likeably silly that they forget to come up with quality work. Sure they’ve enjoyed the process, but no teacher would want to show their finished product to an Ofsted inspector!

It is never my purpose to grind such work out of pupils, so on the one hand this doesn’t bother me too much: able pupils can come up with ‘quality work’ anyway and are given an excuse for the moment to let their hair down, and for less able pupils freedom and fun are surely the first steps on the road to producing quality work. But on the other hand it does raise something of a dilemma. Of course I want pupils to have fun with me, but I also emphatically do want them to produce work that they and their teachers can be proud of. I want pupils to write with a sense of liberation from expectations, but I want their work to have lots of lovely examples of simile, metaphor, alliteration, personification, onomatopoeia and the like. Similarly, I want pupils to find their own voice, but I do not want them to come up with stuff that is infantile, platitudinous or nonsensical. I’m sure a lot of visiting authors would claim to find themselves in a similar position.

I haven’t researched any of this; I haven’t read the relevant articles in the relevant journals or anything like that, but I suspect that, like so many other things when it comes to the classroom, it is all about striking a balance. How might one do this? Well, it seems obvious yet crucial to note that visiting authors are not teachers (they may well be qualified to teach, but they do not tend to visit schools in that capacity). Given this, it is to be expected that the general tone of the session is different to that of a normal school lesson. As I mentioned earlier, I set the tone explicitly at the beginning of each workshop. Once one has established a certain atmosphere by explicitly emphasising the important of having fun, then the rest of the session takes place against this backdrop. Steps can then be taken to direct pupils towards a satisfactory outcome. Perhaps these steps look a bit like what teachers would tell pupils in a normal literacy lesson: use at least two similes, use at least two instances of alliteration, or whatever. The issue may not be the content of the workshop so much as the tone with which it is conducted.

But it must be admitted that something about this continues to grate with me. If I am telling pupils how to write their poems, then are they really giving a part of themselves in their writing? If not, then surely the whole beauty and point of poetry is lost. Perhaps the thing to do is to make suggestions rather than give orders. And perhaps one also needs clearly to identify the purpose of the visit. Is the visit intended to promote poetry/writing as catharsis, or is it intended to raise standards in literacy? If the former, then perhaps no prescriptions or limits need be set at all; if the latter then maybe they do. In all likelihood schools will simply invite a poet in to run poetry workshops, having no more explicit expectations than this. The onus then falls on the poet to decide what sort of workshop leader they want to be, and in turn how they want to market themselves. Speaking for myself, I want to be someone who promotes both fun and high literacy standards; I want to have my cake and eat it too (of course I would never encourage a pupil to use a cliché such as this in their writing!). As I develop and grow, perhaps I will get close to achieving this aim. 

Saturday 23 February 2013

In Defence Of Television

My young cousins are banned from watching television. Well, not banned exactly, but they are not allowed to watch any TV on school nights. Apparently this doesn’t particularly bother them: most of their friends are in similar positions.

I used to watch a lot of television as a child. I remember my sister and I regularly waking up at 5:30 in the morning to watch a show called ‘Head To Head’, in which teenagers competed against each other at video games. Some of my most pleasurable conversations as an adult have essentially been exercises in nostalgia for such childhood fare. My favourite memories of school are of teachers playing us videos in science or history, so that we could not only read about such topics but see them before our eyes.

I respect the decision of my aunt and uncle to severely limit my cousins’ intake of television. Of course it would not be good for children, or anyone else, to ossify in front of the TV as purely passive recipients of ideas rather than active contributors to the world around them. It would be physically and mentally extremely unhealthy to spend all one’s free time in front of the TV, and many parents, it seems, deem it more effective simply to ban it rather than to engage in undoubtedly interminable arguments with their offspring about how many minutes or hours of TV per night is permissible.

But in moderation television can be stimulating, entertaining, educational, awe-inspiring and an extremely valuable source of ideas. The American poets Amy Ludwig VanDerwater and Charles Ghigna have written a poem which, I think, indirectly highlights the dangers of watching too much television. The poem is called ‘Unplugged’, and is dated 22/02/2013. You can read it here. I really liked the rhythm of the piece, and I thought I’d adopt a similar style in constructing a light-hearted response. Here it is:


an alien spaceship
a quick burst
of fire

a mafia mob don
is wearing
a wire

a dinosaur prowling
through lush

the first ever steam train
pulls into
the station

a gladiatorial
to the death

a tiny new polar bear
its first breath –

a lifetime of awe
in an hour
or three

is awaiting you when
you turn on
your TV. 

Friday 22 February 2013

Working With Children and Working With Depression

The following is not an easy thing to admit in what I hope to be a widely-read blog, but I have, to varying degrees over the last decade, suffered from depression. Aside from a few months when I was eighteen this has thankfully not been debilitating, and I have been lucky enough to be able to get on with my life. I think keeping busy is generally a good thing to do under these circumstances, and you can’t be kept much busier than spending a day working with large groups of children.

Working with children helps me in various other ways too. For example, it forces me to work hard on how I present myself. When you feel depressed it is very easy to fail to make an effort with things like social interaction, and even your appearance, and you simply can’t neglect these things when you’re working in a school. I am also constantly having to present the enthusiastic, upbeat side of myself– I want to be invited back, I want the teachers and the children to like me and to engage with my work, and I want the children to produce good work of their own as a result. This can be exhausting, but the more effort I make the better the outcome, and the more confident I get. And with confidence starts to come happiness, enthusiasm and an upness of beat. This is the opposite of a vicious circle – a happy oval, let’s say.

It must be admitted that part of the satisfaction I get from performing my poetry to children is egotistical – it makes me feel good about myself to see lots of children laughing and enjoying my work, thus boosting my self-esteem. But it is not all about me and my work. In a sense that I find very hard to articulate, and at the risk of sounding a little pretentious, I find the joy of children incredibly life-affirming and poignant, whether or not it is derived from my own work. At the end of a day working with children I feel that the laughter of the playground has somehow diffused into me. This is not of course to suggest that all children are happy, and sometimes during my workshops I come across children who are reluctant, unconfident or just plain glum. I can relate to these children (see my poem ‘Bad Day’ on my website). I have little way of quantifying or measuring it, but I hope my patience and understanding has a positive impact on them. I think it does – one of my proudest moments is helping a boy to go from tears and frustration to laughter and confidence.

Working with children is obviously not for everyone. I personally find it uplifting, challenging and rewarding. Anyone who has encountered depression will know that these feelings are precious. 

Thursday 21 February 2013

Why You Should Invite A Non-Famous Author Into Your School

When I visit schools pupils sometimes ask for my autograph. On one occasion a whole class missed a chunk of their lunch break as they queued up to get little scraps of paper signed by me. When I sell my (lovingly self-produced) books after school, children invariably want me to sign them. I find this incredibly flattering, and am of course delighted to oblige. However, I sometimes wonder the extent to which they know that my autograph is at present not even worth the paper it is written on, and that an unsigned copy of my book is probably rarer than a signed one.

In a strange way, though, I think it is the fact that I am not famous that makes children want my autograph. Of course, were you to ask them they might well say that they want it because they’ve been told a poet is coming to visit their school, and they’ve assumed that said poet is famous, like Michael Rosen or Julia Donaldson. But it is in part the fact that I am not in the same bracket as these writers that means I give it my all when I visit schools. I do not have reputation, book sales, public adoration and critical acclaim to fall back on. Of course I hope to acquire some of these things in the future, but at the moment the only acclaim I get is that accrued through my school visits. I throw everything I’ve got into them, knowing that, at present, it is these visits upon which the entirety of my reputation rests.

None of this is to suggest that were I to be famous I wouldn’t care about my school visits. The fact that I concentrate primarily on these visits, rather than doing what it would take to become famous, is probably testament to that. Nor is it to suggest that I give my all during school visits in order somehow to gain a semblance of the acclaim and adoration I lack by dint of being not famous. I have enough self-awareness to be aware of egotism as a partial motivator (anyone in the performing arts who suggests otherwise is simply lying or deluded), but I think that I am motivated more by a desire for children to enjoy learning and fulfil their potential.

Be all this as it may, there is an interesting issue for teachers: you’ve been given a budget to have an author visit your school for the day. Who do you go for? If you can pin down an author like one of the aforementioned ‘big guns’, in between book tours and festival appearances, then by all means try to do so. If I was a teacher I probably would. But in the highly likely event that such authors are unavailable and/or too expensive, then please be aware that there are armies of ‘little people’ ready to put everything they have into inspiring and engaging your pupils. Perhaps they haven’t been published because they are not already famous – a  terrible Catch 22 rendering it hard for many of those who deserve it most to gain exposure. Perhaps, like me, they have simply chosen to concentrate on hands-on work with children, or perhaps, again like me, they are relatively near the beginning of their career and hopefully have a lot lying ahead of them. Get some of these visitors into your schools and the children will probably want their autograph anyway, and for the right reason: they have thoroughly enjoyed the visit. 

(NB here is a poem, by my friend and fellow poet Neal Zetter, about being ' a bit famous')

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Striking A Balance

I’ve heard it said, although I can’t remember by whom, that most people aren’t interested in poetry because most poetry isn’t interested in people. A glance through publications such as Poetry Review seems to confirm that a lot of poetry doesn’t particular care to appeal to those of us without academic qualifications.

Sometimes, however, poetry can go too far the other way, striving after universal appeal at the expense of subtlety and nuance. Slams, for example, are full of this kind of stuff. I try to strike a balance. Perhaps not very successfully – I haven’t been published in Poetry Review and I didn’t do especially well in the handful of slams I’ve been to. Be this as it may, I want to talk about attempting to straddle an apparent dichotomy in that aspect of poetry that interests me most – children’s poetry.

I think that younger children especially often like poetry because the sorts of poems they are exposed to are funny and not especially ‘difficult to get’. The danger here is that such poems can get too silly, perhaps relying heavily on toilet or ‘yuck’ humour. I don’t think there is anything drastically wrong with this: children laughing and having fun is an inherently good thing. What is undoubtedly true though is that this is not the sort of stuff that is going to inculcate a lasting appreciation for poetry and language; children, after all, grow out of toilet humour and silliness quite quickly!

But I think that, perhaps in a conscious attempt to avoid this, some children’s poets can stray too far from the whimsy and fun that makes a lot of children like poetry. At its worst children’s poetry can get terribly didactic, ramming ‘morals’ or ‘lessons’ down children’s throats. Some children’s poets also write in a way that is not easy to understand about ephemera that stray far from the realities of everyday life. No doubt this is due to a worthy desire not to patronise children or shield them from the ‘difficult’ side of poetry, but let these poets not kid themselves: some bookish, clever children may like what they have to offer, but most children, like most adults when it comes to Poetry Review, will not be interested.

So the ideal is this: write in a way that is fun and accessible, but in a way that is not overly silly or patronising. Write such that children who are not necessarily top of their literacy lessons will be engaged and enthused, but such that genuinely clever and interesting things are done with words.  I am not saying that I’ve come remotely close to achieving these things, but it is something I strive towards.