Pic above by Paul Marsh, courtesy Lynn News.
Link to Lynn News story
All other pics courtesy of Peter Johnson at the school
For World Book Day, (March 2) I was Writer in School at Sedgeford Primary and there was a bit of an African theme going on. ('Bound for Jamaica' (my children's story about the Atlantic slave trade published by Collins Education) with KS2 and Tortoise's Dream, an African folk tale by Joanna Troughton, with KS1. The exciting prospect of working in Sedgeford 1st school as a writer reminded of two poems which I've explored and enjoyed with young children on world book Days past. You can read them here
I realised very early on that I was going to enjoy this gig. Sedgeford is clearly a very writer-friendly school. I arrived to find Mr Johnson the KS2 teacher talking to his class about his love of old books. There was evidence everywhere of enthusiasm for writing and reading with wall displays of work done by the children on Ted Hughes' Iron Man. I began by telling the children how I spend my day, showing them my pencil and writing notebooks (piles of them covered in scribble) and typescripts (never finished, always covered in corrections and needing yet another print out.) I explained how great it is finding out about the subjects we write about and the children certainly had experience of checking facts and exploring on the internet I told them about the giant library in London where I go to read rare books and manuscripts and showed them my British Library Readers pass, explaining how you have to show it everywhere you go in that building. I also described how I'd visited Bristol (many times) to see the magnificent houses the baddies in my story built with the money they made out of African slaves. I explained how even when I have finished my story and am happy with it that a publisher often then makes suggestions and that, in the case of my book 'Bound for Jamaica', this one went for some time with an entire committee - all with different priorities- involved. But that in the end made the book better for its readers.
'Bound for Jamaica' is an adventure story about a boy who is kidnapped as a slave from his home in Africa, sold as a slave and taken in a 'slaver' across the Atlantic Ocean to Jamaica. Here he works on a sugar plantation owned by the evil slave-owner Jardine. After many hardships, his only hope is to escape - or die.
Between the years 1500-1800, 12 million Africans were taken into slavery in this way. So this story happened every day for 300 years. The real history of the slave trade is given in supporting non-fiction chapters.
I read the story (which I finished in 2011) and as I did so realised that I've never myself read the book to the age group I wrote it for before. Teachers have but not me. It was great to finally find the readers I'd imagined listening intently in front of me and also very nice when Mr Johnson complimented me on the ending. (He also said it left the way open for a sequel - it certainly does and it's already at the scribble stage!) We ended this very enjoyable session with the children discussing where the story might go next and there were some very thoughtful and imaginative ideas. I hope to read them in due course! I was impressed at how concerned the children were about the boy and his plight and some of their solutions were actually tried at the time and were certainly possible, others weren't but were heart-warming. We decided that their teacher was not at all like Mr Jardine the slave driver but very like Mr Cooper, the man who helps the boy.
My previous experience with KS1 is that you rarely get beyond the first five minutes before the roly-polys and cartwheels of delight take over. (I said in my pre-day blog that "I might manage to get some drama and movement based on the above poems and then some words for their own creatures. That's the 'best laid plan' anyway!") But the reality was very much better than that. Their teacher Mrs Gressieux arranged the room so that the story was really a happy and shared experience. The story she suggested - from Africa, Tortoise's Dream - enabled the children to join in with me throughout, enjoying the magical sound of words and the vivid descriptions of colourful animals. (Mrs Gressieux - unlike me - also knew what a yam looked like - decades of markets while she was teaching in East London, she said. I mention yams a lot in Bound for Jamaica but I've never been quite sure what they are! So I learned something today as well.) There was a room full of excited people and the teacher and me were as excited as the rest. It was even more fun than looking things up and writing.
Next was then a photo shoot with a local newspaper during which we all held up a book we liked. The boy sat next to me was excited about the Book of Birds he had "I love this book!" he said and said he wished he could see the bird on the page he was showing me. "That's a barn owl," I said, " we have those round here, so you might well see one for real." Would you believe that when I went for my cycle ride in the sunshine later that day I saw one flying around Fring Churchyard like a magnificent scent glider?
That is what words can do. Make you a lot bigger than you actually are. So we spent the last five minutes thinking of one word descriptions of the toucan.
I told both groups how I can hear them playing and shouting during their break times as I live and work very close to the school. And also said that the pretending they do as they play is really all I'm doing when I write a story or a poem. Words and writing and telling stories aloud is an adventure. Enjoy it! These children certainly do.
Your favourite book? Mr Johnson asked me mine and I said Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose'. What's yours?