A Tasty Morsel From
Like Mud, Not Fireworks
The Place Of Passion In The Development Of Literacy
What has passion to do with literacy? What has hairdressing to do with literacy? What has literacy to do with ironing? Can a three year old begin to learn to read in fifteen minutes? Do the Beatles have a message for teachers of reading? Are these questions sensible? Are they a joke? All will be revealed.
When, as teachers of literacy, we stand at the crossroads of conflicting pedagogies and ask ourselves which road we should travel on, it seems to me that we always look in the same direction for the answers. We focus on the road of texts by asking which texts are the best; and we focus on the road of methodology by asking which methods are the best, as if the signpost at the crossroads offered only these two choices; as if texts and methods were the be all and end all of literacy instruction. But there is another road, less travelled by, which we don't notice because we aren't making the right inquiries. I'm reminded of the story quoted in Judith Newman's book: Finding our own way. (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1990.) Sue Curtis, an Australian teacher, tells how she had been grocery shopping when she became aware of a young boy apparently on the verge of panic, rushing up and down the aisles of the supermarket.
"I stopped him" [she said] "and asked him if he was lost. He said he was. I took his hand and told him I was good at finding mums.
"Tell me when you see your mum," I said to him. Together we walked up and down the aisles. However, after about ten minutes we still hadn't found his mother. So I took the child to a nearby checkout counter and then asked him to take a look around and tell me when he could see his mother. No response. I finally asked, "Can't you see your mother?"
"No," the child replied. "I can only see my Daddy."'
For me, that story is a perfect illustration of someone not taking the road less travelled by. We tend to focus on the predictable, forgetting that a different line of questioning about the matter in hand, such as the development of literacy, might reveal more interesting answers.
If I Were Queen Of The World
A Talk For Parents On Teaching Children How To Read Before School
If I were the queen of the world, teachers wouldn't have to teach children how to read; which is not say, I hasten to add, that learning to read is not essential. Rather, children in my ideal kingdom would learn to read easily, long before they came to school. I'm not suggesting that children should be taught to read by their parents since that's a frightening prospect for many: 'Teach reading? How are we supposed to do that?' No formal teaching is required! Children can learn to read easily without being taught, by being read to, by playing games with words, and by falling head over heels in love with books.
So, if I were queen of the world I would issue a noisy proclamation called 'Towards a State of Literacy' and it would go something like this:
'Friends, parents, countrymen, lend me your time.
'It has come to my attention that not all in our land are literate by the time they are expected to be so. To my shame there are children in this land in the third year of their schooling, unable to read or write. To my greater shame, there are children in high school whose literacy isn't even functional, let alone highly developed. To my greatest shame, there are among us, adults who cannot read or write. To whom shall we turn for assistance?
Politics, Literature And Green Shoes
Current Realities In Whole Language
This article was first presented as a keynote speech at the August, 1992 Whole Language Umbrella Conference. Because of the proximity of the conference to the Niagara Falls, the falls themselves became an essential element in my speech. For this reason I decided to retain the immediacy of my talk rather than pretend I had originally conceived it as a formal written paper.
I have two aims in this presenting this paper. The first is to look at the texts children read, in a political context, and to reflect on the way those texts shape our sense of self; and the second is to focus on explicit teaching through our own specific learning in the whole language classroom.
I'll start with the politics. I grew up in Africa in a racist country which was at that time called Rhodesia. In 1980, after its liberation, it was re-named Zimbabwe. I'm reminded of Zimbabwe by our close proximity this evening to the magnificent Niagara Falls. Zimbabwe is the home of the even more majestic Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the world.
When I was at school my white racist history books informed me that David Livingstone had discovered the Victoria Falls. They also informed me that a man named Stanley had found Livingstone (who was thought to have been lost) and had said the famous line: "Doctor Livingstone, I presume." I also learnt that Livingstone had been sent out from England to Africa as a medical missionary to convert the heathens and to bring civilisation to the savages for their greater good and the good of the British Empire.
I wasn't encouraged to remember that thousands of generations of Africans had known about the Victoria Falls long before Livingstone had so-called 'discovered' them. I wasn't told that for thousands of generations Africans had called Victoria Falls 'The Smoke that Thunders'.
Flashing Screens Or Turning Pages?
Winning The War Between Books And Television
Television will not go away. It's here to stay and its attractions are many. One way of doing battle with it might be to get rid of it completely or to turn it off most of the time but in most homes that would now be very difficult. Rather than wondering what we can do about television it might be as well to focus on what we can do to make books and reading as attractive as watching t.v. Why don't kids read? Let's start at the beginning.
Children learn to speak for many reasons, one of which being that they are completely surrounded by it, they see it in action and they very quickly understand that using language produces excellent results.They learn to talk also because they badly need to: "Dink, dink!" they cry when they're thirsty. "Ganpa gone seepies" they whisper as Grandpa drops off to sleep. "My ball" they glower, as a neighbouring child steps forward menacingly. They observe the results of speaking and discover a million reasons to engage in the activity that is "talk".
In order to make books more attractive than television we have to do with books what we have already done with talk. As adults we have shown that talking reaps rewards. We must do the same with books. We have to demonstrate that reading is as much fun as talking, and almost as necessary. We have to create in children a deep seated need for books, otherwise television will always win out. How might we do this?
When we look at the sort of home which produces book-lovers. The first thing we notice—the most obvious, but strangely the most often forgotten factor—is that such a home has books in it. There exist highly privileged children in our society who cannot read, or will not read. It's not difficult to find out why: they have television; they have toys, computer games, personal VCRs, bikes and all the trappings of a well-off childhood; but they don't have books. These children often have a reading problem at school which their panic-stricken parents disguise under the socially acceptable label of dyslexia. How can books become attractive if there aren't any books around to flick through?
Notes From The Battlefield
Towards A Theory Of Why People Write
(This article was first published in 'Language Arts', Vol. 65 No. 2 Feb. 1988)
I'm a writer. As such I often see myself as a bloodied and wounded soldier staggering around a battlefield in an attempt to conquer the blank page. As a soldier in the thick of it all I will try to explain from the battlefield why I write and why other write around me. I'll also try to puzzle out, from the perspective of a war correspondent who stands back and observes, why there are so many deserters out there, refusing to take up their pens and write alongside me. Is it because the wages aren't good enough? Is it because there's nothing worth writing for? Is it because it's only a pretend battle with pretend rewards for pretend winners? We'll see.
Research on how writers write has been illuminating. We choose our own topics, decide our own purposes, target our own audiences, take our time, draft and redraft, talk over our writing with trusted friends and colleagues, and publish our pieces if we're lucky. As a teacher I've applied these writers' conditions in my classes and I've noticed, of course, a consequent improvement in the effectiveness of my students' writing.
What interests me now is not so much how writers write, but why we write. What drives us to do it in the first place? And then what makes us want to do it well? If I can find the answers to these questions I might dare to ask myself another: what are the implications for teachers of writing?
When I was still in the hunting and gathering stage of this book, lost in a wilderness of notes, my husband came in to give me a cup of coffee.
"You look really tired," he said.
"I am," I replied, "but I don't mind. I like doing this because it matters." I heard myself say "it matters" and my mind leapt to its feet in a single bound. So that was why I wrote: because it mattered. Was this already an answer to one of my questions?
Quick Reference Guide
For Writers Of Children's Books
© UNESCO and Mem Fox
When I was doing consulting work in Africa I was asked by UNESCO to write a booklet about writing for children. UNESCO owns the copyright and I am grateful for permission to re-produce it here.
Books for young children are usually short. Young children themselves are usually short. This leads to an assumption that children have small brains and that writing for them is easy. The reverse it true. Young children have large, active brains, and writing for them is enormously difficult. It is even more difficult than writing for adults since only the best is good enough for children—the best words in the best places, and the best characters in the best stories. Where do we begin?
We need to read children's books ourselves.
Before we begin it is useful to familiarise ourselves with books which are on sale and are currently adored by children. If we do not, we might find ourselves writing books similar to those we ourselves read long ago when we were children, most of which are now out-dated, out-moded and entirely forgotten. It is also extremely useful to read and re-read the books which have passed the test of time—books which remain popular today, fifty, twenty, ten and even five years after they were published. These are classics and they have much to teach us. It is also useful to recall the stories and folktales we listened to and loved as children, the stories which we have remembered into adulthood. What do these classic stories have which other books lack?
A good picture book for the young child has most of these qualities:
One of two themes: 'the stranger comes to town' or: 'the quest.'
Characters whom readers care about deeply
A universal theme that speaks to any child, anywhere in the world
Perfect words in perfect places
The delight of happiness
Subtle signposts to living in a social world
An impact that affects the heart of the reader or listener
Strange or unexpected use of language
A complex story that requires the mind to be attentive to detail, to be active in problem-solving, to roll through tunnels of prediction and meaning-making, and to tumble down hills of emotion and up again
Or for very young children, an original pattern created by rhyme, rhythm or repetition
Children saying: 'Read it again! Read it again!' when the book is finished.
Where do the ideas come from?
The above list is all very well, but the question most often asked of writers, as if it were a deep secret to be dug up and displayed for all to see, is where do the ideas come from? The best ideas, in my experience, do not come from our heads. They come from our immediate lives, or from memory, and then they are moulded by our imaginations into grand stories that affect the hearts and minds of others. Stories created solely from the imagination have a flatness about them. They are usually about things that do not matter much. They are here today and gone tomorrow. No one remembers them into adulthood.
However, when we read the classic stories that make us laugh or cry, shrivel with fright or hug ourselves with happiness, it is my hunch that we could, if we tried, track the main idea down to a pivotal moment in the writer's life—or several pivotal moments. These classic stories have the quality of 'difference.' They are here today, and here tomorrow, and here the day after, since children's books and folktales which are loved and remembered do more than entertain for a while: they move children profoundly, and having done so they take up residence in their hearts and stay there. They are remembered affectionately, sometimes word for word, into adulthood.
To find an event that could be a good basis for a story it might be useful to tell a friend, or other people in a writing group, about a strong emotional experience remembered from childhood, and start writing with that event in mind. This way, the first draft will not be drawn entirely from the imagination, which will mean getting off to a good, heart-felt beginning.
For instance, here is an anecdote from Tanzania. It is a true story which was later given more shape and definition to make it a story suitable for publication. Both examples appear below:
When I was a little kid my parents went away to the city to work and I stayed with my grandparents in their village. One day we went of to visit my auntie who lived in a village about three kilometres away. The path to my aunt's village was sandy and the grass was so high it curved over the path.
My grandfather led the way, then came my grandmother, then me. We set off.
After a while I smelt something. I thought the smell would go away as we walked past—whatever it was, but it didn't. I didn't like it. It made me scared. I told my grandfather I could smell something that was scaring me and I asked him if I could walk between him and grandma.
'Of course,' he said.
So I moved into the middle and we went on. But I could still smell whatever it was and I was still scared. I tried to be calm but in the end I told my grandfather that I was really scared.
'What are you so scared of?' he said.
'I think there's a lion following us,' I said. We all turned round and sure enough on the narrow path behind my grandmother was a lion.
My grandfather stood in front of the lion and looked into his eyes and gestured with his arms said quite firmly: 'Go away! You're frightening my grand-daughter. Be off with you!' And the lion turned and walked away. It was incredible! I'll never forget it.
Story for publication
Pili was a little girl who lived in a village with her grandmother and her grandfather because her parents had to work far away in the city. Pili loved her grandmother very much but she loved her grandfather even more.
One day her grandparents decided to visit Pili's auntie who lived in a village about an hour's walk away. They set off. The track to the auntie's village was soft, and sandy, and narrow. On either side of the path the grass was so high it curled over, like a cool green roof.
Grandfather led the way, next came Grandmother, and last of all, little Pili. As they walked no sound could be heard. The sun shone. The air was calm. The world was full of peace.
After a while Pili thought she could smell something she didn't like. She hoped it would go away. Her heart beat fast. She was scared.
But on they walked. They walked, and they walked, and they walked. As they walked no sound could be heard. The sun shone. The air seemed calm. The world seemed full of peace.
But still the smell remained. Pili's heart beat faster. She was scared. Really scared.
'Grandfather,' she said, 'I'm scared. Please can I walk in the middle, between you and Grandmother?'
'Of course,' he said.
So Pili moved into the middle between her grandmother and her grandfather and they walked, and they walked, and they walked. As they walked no sound could be heard. The sun shone. The air seemed calm. The world seemed full of peace.
But still the smell remained. Pili's heart beat faster. She was scared. Really scared. Really, really scared.
Finally she said, 'Grandfather, I'm really frightened.'
'What is it that frightens you, little one?' asked her grandfather kindly.
'I think there's a lion following us,' she said.
They all turned around. It was true! Behind Grandmother was a lion, following after them along the narrow path.
Grandfather stood in front of the lion and looked into his eyes. He pointed down the path and said quite firmly: 'Lion! Go away! You're frightening my grand-daughter. Be off with you!'
And the lion turned tail and walked away.
Which only goes to show that lions, like men, understand Swahili!
Who are we writing for?
It must seem self-evident that we are writing for young children. Perhaps a better question is who are we not writing for?
We are not writing for ourselves, are we? Nor are we writing to impress critics. Nor are we writing for academics. Nor for teachers. Nor for parents. Nor for our adult friends. Nor are we writing for the children we once were—those children no longer exist: they have grown up and become us. We are writing for children who are young now, at the beginning of the 21st century. We are writing for young children the world over, who are seven years old or younger.
Let us be honest: why are we writing?
We need to be honest, right from the start, about why we want to write for children. If we intend to moralise, teach a lesson, patronise, categorise, marginalise, or show off our own brilliance, we are doing it for the wrong reasons and we'll need to reassess our motives. We are not writing academically de-constructible literature. Nor are we writing as therapy to eradicate our guilt about the world and what we have done to it.
We are writing instead to conjure young children into loving reading; to inform them; to entertain them; to enchant them; and to affect them. In our writing we are aiming to provide escapist delight but we will probably be able to rattle children's values and assumptions a little at the same time. For example, we might say to them through a story: 'You think you rule the world? Think again, sweetheart!'
Of course in the end we will always aim to provide children with universal ideals and possibilities, and make them feel good about themselves and their world—they are too young to be allowed to feel otherwise.
Writers of good books for children are always, simultaneously, good teachers of reading and writing, whether they are aware of it or not. Good books 'teach' reading more easily than the bad books. So it is important for us to write sentences that are not only gorgeous but easy to understand as well, and to use as much rhyme, rhythm and repetition as possible. We do not need to water down the level of individual words, however, since children need to hear as many different words as they can before they encounter them later, when they are reading by themselves.
When we picture an adult reading one of our books to a child, one of the aims of our writing should be to enhance the relationship between the reader and the child being read to, through the story we have written—to help them love each other even more than they do already.
And finally, to be brutally honest, let us not forget to admit that we are writing also to make money—it would be foolish to do it for nothing—and to leave our mark on the world, and raise our own self-esteem. If we admit all this, and know why we are writing, we can move along.
What should be taken into consideration?
If we want to write for young children it is essential to stay in touch with childhood, either through memory or through contact with the real live children in our communities. If we lose touch with children—or our own memories of childhood—we will not have in our hearts and minds all the information we need to write well.
For example, we need to understand the nature of children's interests and their emotional needs. We need to know the difference between their literary needs and their literacy needs, and to be able to fulfil both those needs at the same time.
It is useful also to know what kinds of ideas might challenge their thinking, based on the society they live in at the start of the third millennium. It is polite to consider the ethnic group they belong to, which gender they are and which religion they adhere to, if any. When we write we will not necessarily be hide-bound by all this information since that might cause us to self-censor too much, which might in turn lead to write seriously bad, banal stories which bore kids to death. Having said that, we should be as open-minded as possible. We need to be able to share ideas across cultures, after all, to avoid indoctrination in one direction or the other. Access to different kinds of information is important to individual development and to our understanding of other communities.
So although we have to pay attention to religion, ethnic group and gender to target specific groups, we mustn't let this destroy our artistic goals. Questions such as: 'Will my reader be offended?' should not constrain us, in the end, nor limit our creativity. We might wish to write about another religion, ethnic group, or gender in such a way as to provide enriching and surprising elements for our readers, allowing them to become open to new ideas and other people's perceptions of the world.
For example, at the beginning of the 21st century we need to consider gender stereo-typing. Is it any longer appropriate to have the females in the story only in the house, the kitchen, and the garden, and caring for the family? Might it not be possible to make the main character a female—a bold, exciting, brave, decision-making female, who has adventures and wins through, in spite of adversity? This would provide excellent role-models for today's girls.
Any stereo-typing should be avoided, such as making children who wear glasses into weaklings who are brainy but hate sport; or old people being made doddery and incapable of caring for themselves; or disabled people being pitied for what they can't do, instead of being celebrated for what they can do; or people of a certain race or religion being mocked for who they are and what they believe.
Of course we need to consider the maintenance of the solid cultural values which underpin the society in which we live and write. Sensitivity and respect are essential. Acknowledging this sensitivity without falling into the trap of stereotyping is a difficult balancing act, to which much thought should be given.
Finally we have to keep in mind the fact that adults will do the buying and reading of the books we write. The words will be channelled through an adult reading aloud to a child. Pleasing the adult is certainly important and must not be forgotten, but the child is more important and must never be forgotten.
Children are so clever it is startling.
Little kids are as bright as buttons and they are perceptive about being talked down to. They loathe being patronised. Their critical faculties are highly developed, much more so than most adults realise. In fact they are altogether smarter than most adults give them credit for.
They love the challenge of fascinating, 'difficult' words. They adore rhyme, rhythm and repetition. They like the thrill of a really riveting story. Because they are young, they do of course have a comparatively limited concentration span which we must take into account. And even though they are clever and confident they do need constant reassurance as to their safety in a turbulent world.
Here are some of the things that delight children which we might weave into our stories:
noise and laughter
fright and drama
food and friends
toys and pets
being loved and feeling safe
magic and fantasy
And here are some of the things children are ambivalent about, which we might also weave into our stories:
going to bed
settling in to a new place
learning new skills
not conforming/looking stupid
feeling left out
Taking the illustrator into account.
Now that we understand the nature of children and childhood, what interests children, and why we want to write for them—and now that we have come up with an excellent idea—certain practical aspects of writing need to be clearly understood, such as the number of pages required and how to work with an artist.
The printing process means that a picture book is always thirty two pages and many of those pages are pictures. We need therefore, to cut our text ruthlessly in order to keep the story under 600 words if possible. There is no room for much more text. Little children will often look at the pictures and then say: 'Turn the page! Turn the page!' so there simply isn't time to read a lot of text on a page.
It is important to keep the pictures in mind. We do not have to say everything in the words. The pictures might tell as much as half the story, which means much of the setting and tone, let alone the plot, can be left to the illustrator. We need not write anything that can be shown in the illustrations. Illustrators love the challenge of filling in our blanks, as it were. We should try not to make life too hard for the illustrator, upon whom so much of the success of our story will depend. For example, a story about chickens is difficult to illustrate because it is hard to create and differentiate expressions in chicken's faces.
The publisher will choose the illustrator, and work with the illustrator, and instruct the illustrator. It is not the business of the writer to interfere in matters of illustration, no matter how much writers might wish to impose their will. Writers write. Illustrators illustrate. Each has to be given the appropriate professional space and respect. Imagine how we would feel if illustrators told us how to write…
The following hints are hints only, not commandments, since they cannot always be obeyed, nor are they always appropriate.
The need for trouble.
At the start of a story we need to be as direct as possible. It's a common sin to beat about the bush, and waffle on for too long. We should attempt to say who, when, and where in the first two sentences, and then begin to state the problem. We have to solve a problem during a story otherwise we have no trouble. Without trouble we have no plot. Only trouble is interesting.
For instance, if the main character is not stopped from achieving his or her goal, the story is boring. If a child has lost her mother and goes to find her she could come up against difficulties and again and again and not find her mother until the very end of the story. We need to feel some anxiety for the main character in order for a story to work.
Rhyme, rhythm, and repetition.
There is an option to the theme-and-trouble story, especially when we're writing for very young children: picture books for that age group can swing from the stars on rhythm alone, or rhyme, or repetition or a combination of all three. Young children are mesmerised and enchanted by a predictable pattern of language which is fun for them to say and pleasing for them to hear.
There was once a jackal called Nasty.
He was dirty.
All jackals are dirty.
He was mean.
All jackals are mean.
He was sneaky.
All jackals are sneaky.
He was lonely.
All jackals are lonely.
He was lazy.
All jackals are lazy.
He was secretive.
All jackals are secretive.
He caused trouble.
All jackals like to cause trouble.
But when a lion ate his dinner, the jackal cried and cried.
All jackals cry, and so do I.
The need for excellent characters.
A story-book (as opposed to a merely rhyme-and-rhythm book) is always tedious without well-drawn characters: characters whose highs and lows and final triumph tug at the heartstrings of readers and listeners. If readers and listeners do not care about the main characters and cannot empathise with them, the story will fail.
Showing the story, not merely telling it.
One of the famous maxims for all writers is: 'Show, do not tell.' Rather than describing, and explaining, and stating, and enumerating, we can instead show what is happening, and how characters feel about what is happening, through character's actions and their speech. What they do and say can explain a great deal of the story and cuts out the need for long-winded description.
For example we will not say: 'Granny was a wild, brave woman. At home she was untidy and sometimes absent-minded but it was different when we went camping.' Instead we will decribe the untidiness by painting a picture of it, in words. We will show the absent-mindedness by saying how and when she was absent minded.
Consider the theme.
After trouble and characters we must not forget a theme, either, such as: 'All big brothers are a pain.' A book without a theme is an arid book.
Ensuring there is passion.
Finally, to ensure that we have something really worthwhile to say we can test ourselves by asking 'Is this a 'so-what?' story, or will it last forever?'
Reading aloud is essential.
As we write we ought to read aloud constantly what we have written—each paragraph, each sentence, each clause and each phrase, since we are writing a book that will be read aloud. We need to be obsessed, even fanatical about placing the best words in the best places so our stories are, in the end, rhythmically perfect.
For this reason it is wise to spend as much time on the rhythm of the first and last lines than on the whole of the rest of the book put together since the first and last lines are the most important. The first sentence will grab and hold listeners and readers, and the last will provide a lasting sense of deep contentment.
Rhythm is the greatest challenge.
Rhythm is the hurdle which most often trips the amateur writer, let alone the writer who is experienced. Rhythm is the festering sore in imperfect drafts. It must be cured, totally. The amateur writer believes rhythm can be almost right but 'almost' is never good enough. Only perfect rhythm will do, and only reading aloud will show us whether the rhythm is perfect.
Keeping up our courage.
We must not get too discouraged over drafts that do not seem to be working. After all, why the hurry to be finished? A picture book of 500 words may take two years or more to perfect, and may consist of over forty drafts. Most problems, even the problem of rhythm, are solved eventually by choosing a different word here and there. Gustave Flaubert put it like this: 'Tout le talent d'écrire ne consiste après tout que dans le choix des mots.' [All writing talent lies after all only in the choice of words.]
Learning from a master.
George Orwell has a useful list of strategies to use when we are stuck for words and drowning in literary swill: 'A scrupulous writer, in every sentence he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image/idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
Could I put it more simply?
Have I said anything avoidably ugly?
Learning how to be dissatisfied.
The most important quality in writers is the ability to be dissatisfied with what we have written. Dissatisfaction creates the essential discomfort that will eventually lead us back to the manuscript to attempt yet again to craft our work to perfection. The least effective writers are the most immediately satisfied writers. They do not understand the need for dissatisfaction nor do they know what to be dissatisfied about.
So how do we know when something is not right in writing? Here is a revision of some of the elements about which we need to be vigilant and dissatisfied as writers:
Only trouble is interesting; and character is everything. If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
'…Stories that begin in character and conflict are bound to be more interesting than stories that do NOT' (Gardner, John. On Becoming A Novelist. New York: Harper and Row, 1985. p.55) If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
'Many powerful stories are based on the thwarting of a main character's deepest needs and yearnings.' (Ruler, R. and Wheeler, S. Creating The Story. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1993. p.20) If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
'In nearly all good fiction the basic—and all but inescapable—plot form is: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts) and so arrives at a win, lose or draw.' (Gardner, p.54) If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
'The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the same as the difference between lighting and a lightning bug.' (Mark Twain) If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
Show character and plot through speech and action: do NOT tell. If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
Good writing has been re-written. If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
Good writing is full of surprises. For example: 'The sight of him … rolled a fat ball of irritation into the cool cave of her day …' If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
Good writing is totally correct. If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
Good writing adds to our quality of life by revealing life to us. And if this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
And finally, just in case anything has been omitted in all this advice…
Here are twenty DO's and twenty DO NOT's for writers of picture books, to make sure nothing vitally important has been left out:
DO read recent picture books over and over again.
DO make friends with a bookseller or librarian or storyteller: their advice and guidance can be enormously helpful.
DO be original: try not to copy the ideas or structures of recent well-known books.
DO become familiar with the nature of rhythm in exquisite prose or poetry by reading it aloud: a dose of Shakespeare, the Bible, or similar, per day, keeps rejections at bay.
DO ensure your story makes an emotional impact: the reader should be changed by the reading.
DO ensure that the content of the story will interest both children and adults, not just adults—a common fault which might well lead to publication but will never lead to best-selling status.
DO write with narrative tension ie. solve a problem.
DO 'show' and DO NOT 'tell': try to reveal action and character through what the characters say and do.
DO keep the text under 600 words if possible. Minimise description. The fewer words the better, since the pictures will provide many of the visual details in the story. A picture book is always thirty-two pages.
DO remember that the secret of good writing is re-writing.
DO constantly re-read drafts aloud during the drafting process: hearing is one way of perceiving what's wrong in the text, especially in regard to rhythm.
DO send the text to publishers without any accompanying artwork unless you are both the author and the illustrator.
DO ensure the text is written grammatically, and the spelling and punctuation are correct.
DO type the manuscript on one side of the paper, with decent margins, double-spaced. It is acceptable to write the story in blocks of print, which suggest appropriate page-breaks, or simply as a straight telling from start to finish.
DO remain confident and up-beat after rejections. Re-write, re-think and send the story off to another publisher.
DO stay out of the illustrator's way. Interference by an overbearing author is rarely appreciated.
DO retain humility, even after a best-seller. Success may not last and you may need the comfort of friends. Those who boast have no friends.
DO NOT write down to children. If the story makes adults wince, it will make children wince too. Write always for extremely clever, well-adjusted, lively children: young readers will appreciate the compliment.
DO NOT write about inanimate objects such as shoes, a coin, a kite, an ice-cube, a piece of sausage or similar. Stick to people, toys, animals, birds or engines.
DO NOT use alliterative names or titles, such Izzie the Ice Cube, Kenny the Koala or Tommy the Tired Teddy. Use names, which reveal something of the character.
DO NOT write your story in rhyme. Prose is more effective. Most editors detest rhyme.
DO NOT assume that plot is the most important element is a story, or even the only important element in a story. Character comes first. Next comes the precise choice of words and the correct rhythmic placement of those words. Then trouble…
DO NOT forget that the rhythm of the text is the element which will, or will not bring the reader back to the story again and again.
DO NOT write things like: he gasped, she spluttered, etc. Use the word said. The gasping and spluttering, etc., should be obvious from the situation, if the writing is effective.
DO NOT write a picaresque story merely filled with one episode after another, with no tension or problem or resolution.
DO NOT forget that if the writer couldn't care less about the fate of the characters the readers couldn't care less either, and the book will fail.
DO NOT write stories which end: '…and then they all woke up.' Dreams as stories are frustrating and will certainly be rejected.
DO NOT write to teach. Heavy morals are detested by children and publishers alike. DO NOT attempt to bring up other people's children through your text.
DO NOT get the name of the editor wrong when you send off a manuscript. Check the spelling by phoning the publisher, if possible.
DO NOT get the name of the publishing company wrong, nor its address. Check that company does publish children's books and that its books are of high quality and are readily available.
DO NOT forget to send a brief covering letter and DO NOT be 'cute' in this letter.
DO NOT be surprised not to hear from a publisher for two or three months.
DO NOT be surprised to find yourself working on a picture book text for a couple of years and DO NOT give up too soon. Also, DO NOT lose heart after rejections: be courageous and tenacious.
DO NOT forget that simple does not mean simplistic.
DO NOT expect to be accorded real respect as a writer of children's books. It will never happen.
All the best!
Dr. Mem Fox, Adelaide, South Australia
The following are examples of stories written for publication originating from real anecdotes in the lives of the writers:
Lost In The Bush
Once upon a time, not a very long time ago, there was boy called Kasilingi. He and his two parents lived in a big forest.
Kasilingi loved birds very much. He had loved them since childhood. He would stand for a long time to watch a bird. He would follow with his eyes a bird gliding through the skies. But he would not follow a bird which flew into the big forest. His parents warned him not to wander there.
One day a very colourful bird stopped at their yard. It had golden legs and a red beak. It had a sweet voice. He went close to it. The bird flew a short distance away. Kasilingi went after it. T he bird flew another short distance away. Kasilingi went after it. The bird flew still another short distance away. Kasilingi went after it.
This turned into a nice game. It went on and on. Soon they had covered two kilometres, five kilometres, ten kilometres and they were deep, deep in the big dark forest. T here was little light and the bird disappeared. Kasilingi discovered that he was lost. He felt exhausted and helpless. He did not know where he was. He did not know what to do. What should he do now?
He remembered a trick told to him in a story from his grandmother:
'If you get lost in the big forest, recite these words:
Yep, yep, tip, tip
Fortune show me the way home.'
He recited it many times. t did not help. He started to lose courage. Thoughts of fierce animals disturbed him. He looked for a tree to climb. Just then he heard dogs bark in his direction. Y es, those were barks of dogs. They got nearer and nearer. Now, the dogs were very close. There were two. They stood a short distance from him and barked on and on.
Whose dogs were they? do you know? They were from a neighbour, Kacheche the hunter. There was Kacheche himself! Good fortune had arrived! And Kacheche took Kasilingi home.
© Godfrey Semwaiko
J. S. Madumulla, 2000
Mkombiro And The Ogre
Once upon a time there was a girl whose name was Mkombiro. She lived in a beautiful village which was situated on the slopes of a very high mountain. One day, a giant ogre attacked her village. It was very hungry. It swallowed her mother. It swallowed her father. It swallowed all her brothers and sisters. It swallowed all the villagers and then it swallowed all their cattle! It swallowed almost everything.
Mkombiro escaped. She ran and ran. The ugly ogre could not catch her because he had eaten too many people and too many cows. Mkombiro climbed a very tall tree and hid herself in it.
One day the ogre said to himself, 'I can smell human flesh. Can there still be humans in this village?' The ogre searched and searched. He searched in the big river. He searched in the mountains and in the forest and everywhere. Then, aah he came under the tall tree and looked up. And what did he see? Poor little Mkombiro.
The ogre roared, 'Climb down you little grasshopper!
'No! no! no!' cried Mkombiro.
'Why?' thundered the ogre.
'You swallowed my father, you swallowed my mama, you swallowed my brothers and sisters and all the villagers and their cattle. I won't climb down!' replied Mkombiro.
Then the ogre started to sing: 'Mkombiro, Mkombiro, Mkombiro.' Mkombiro sang, 'Mkombiro nipo eee, Mkombiro eee, Mkombiro'.
The ogre sang: 'Unafanya nini, unafanya nini, unafanya nini? (What are you doing, what are you doing, what are you doing?')
Mkombiro sang: 'Najificha zimwi, Mkombiro eee, Mkombiro.' (I am hiding myself, ogre, Mkombiro.)
The ogre sang: 'Zimwi ni nani, zimwi ni nani, zimwi ni nani?' (Who is the ogre?)
Mkombiro sang: 'Zimwi ndiye wewe, Mkombiro eee, Mkombiro'. (You are the ogre….) And the ogre sang: 'Hm, we ngoja tu'. (Hm, you just wait…'.)
The ogre went away with a murderous anger and promised to come back. This went on for two days. On the third day when the ogre had left the tree Mkombiro quickly climbed down and made five arrows and a bow. And with the agility of a mouse, she climbed up again and waited for the ogre.
The ogre came and stood under the tree and began to sing as usual. But instead of Mkombiro replying in words she took action.
'Twang!' She shot the first arrow which hit the ogre in the neck.
'Twang!' went the second shot.
'Twang! came the third.
The ogre fell down and roared until the high mountains shook.
'Twang!' went the fourth arrow.
'Twang!' went the last, and the ogre with his five souls, died.
Then, slowly she climbed down and inspected the 'dead' ogre. All at once the ogre opened one of its five eyes and said, 'Please, please Mkombiro, I am dying but I beg you not to cut the little finger of my left hand'.
Mkombiro said, 'I won't cut it…I promise'.
But after a while, Mkombiro thought, why can't I cut the little finger after all?' So, she cut the ogre's little finger. Surprise, surprise! What did she see?
Her father came out, her mama came out, her brothers and sisters came out, all the villagers and their animals came out. They were all so thankful to Mkombiro for saving their lives. They threw the dead ogre's body in the forest.
One day, from the forest, the villagers heard, 'Mkombiro, Mkombiro, Mkombiro'. But to their relief the ogre never came back.
© Albert Kanuya,
Rose Japhet, 2000
Grandmother's New Hut
Once upon a time, in the village of Arisi on the slopes of mount Kilimanjaro there were several families. People lived on their shambas where they grew bananas and coffee. They lived in round huts made of poles and grass thatch.
Grandmother Mashayo's hut was old. The grass was worn out and some poles could be seen. During the cold season it was very cold inside. Mashayo felt very cold. The grandchildren felt very cold too. Grandmother Mashayo said to her two sons, 'Please make a new hut for me. The cold will kill me and your children.'
'We shall make a new hut for you mother,' said her sons.
The women and girls went to cut grass and carried it to Mashayo's house. The men and the boys cut poles for making the hut. Then the men and the boys built the hut and thatched it. I t was a beautiful hut. Mashayo was very happy. She said, 'Thank you, my sons.'
One day the children were left at home alone. The men had gone to help build a hut. The women had gone to the market. The eldest sons said, 'Let's build a hut like Mashayo's.'
'Yes, that's great thing to do,' everyone replied.
The girls collected grass that was left on the ground. The boys cut poles. Together they built a hut near Mashayo's hut. The hut was smaller that Mashayo's hut. But it was very similar.
One of the boys said, 'Now that we have a hut we must inaugurate it. We must make a fire in it, roast and eat yams in it.'
One of the girls knew where Mashayo hid the key for the hut. She took it and opened the door. She got a matchbox and went to light a fire in the new hut. It was a big fire! The fire spread inside the hut.
'Oh, our hut is burning!' the children shouted, and ran out of the new hut. The younger ones were rescued by the older ones.
The fire did not end with the new hut. It burned and spread further until it reached Mashayo's hut. Mashayo's hut caught fire!
'Save us! We are dying! What will grandmother say?' were some of the words from the children. Some were carrying water from the stream to put the fire out without much success. The fire was too strong for them. Mashayo and the other women were coming back from the market. They saw a big smoke up in the air.
'That must be my new hut burning.' exclaimed Mashayo.
'No, that can't be the direction of the your home,' said one of the younger women. 'Let's run. We have no time to argue.'
The women ran fast. But Mashayo was faster even though she was older. In about ten minutes she was in front of the hut. The fire was very big. There were many people. But Mashayo wanted to go into her hut to rescue the animals, her clothes and other valuables. Many people told Mashayo not to get in and tried to prevent her from doing so. But Mashayo was not to be stopped. She slipped in and cut the ropes of the cows and goats and threw out her two precious briefcases and eventually ran out of the hut before it collapsed behind her.
Our fathers said to us that evening, 'Your adventure brought us a big disaster. But fortunately for you, we have forgiven you.'
© Abdullah Saiwaad,
Tatu And Her Mother
Tatu lived with her mother and father. They lived in a village. Tatu was six years old. She was the only child in the family. Her parents loved her very much. But they both wanted to have more children. One day Tatu went to play with her friends. When she came back home, the house was empty. Mother was not there, and father was nowhere to be seen.
She called out aloud, 'Mama, Baba, where are you?' but there was no answer.
She entered the house and went to the fireplace to see if there was some food for her. But all the pots were empty. he scooped up some water from the water pot and drank, then she sat down and waited. Soon she fell asleep.
Her father returned around midnight. He woke her up and asked, 'Have you eaten?'
'No,' she said.
'Because there is no food in the house.' Then she added, 'Father, where's Mama?'
'She is not here today. Now go to sleep and stop asking questions.' That night she slept without eating anything.
The next morning Tatu went to her grandmother's house to look for her mother. But Mama was not there and Grandma did not know where she was. Then Tatu went to her uncle's place to look for her mother. But Mama was not there either. And her uncle did not know where she was. Tatu was worried and unhappy. She did not know where else to look, or what to do. Then she remembered her mama's close friend.
'Maybe Mama might be there,' she thought. So Tatu went to her mother's close friend to look for mama. Mama was not there but her friend knew where she was.
She told Tatu, 'My dear child, your mother is no longer in this village. She has left and returned to her parents.'
'Because she cannot live with your dad any more.'
'Because my child, err, because she has no other kids.'
'But I am here, am I not enough for her?'
'Of course you are, but you're not a boy. And your dad wants a boy.'
'Is that so? Then I'll follow her.'
Her mother's friend said, 'I'll take you to her.' So they took a bus and went to her mother's village.
When her mother saw them, she lifted Tatu up, embraced her and cried with her. She asked, 'Why have you come?'
'Because I want to be with you,' Tatu said. The next day, Tatu's father came looking for her. He was pleased to see her.
'Tatu, I have come for you. Let's go home.' But Tatu said, 'Dad, I cannot go back without Mama.' So, her baba returned home alone.
And Tatu lived happily ever after, with her mother.
© M. M. Mulokozi
Vuyo O. Wagi
Masulupwete's First Week At School
Once upon a time, in a bush village, there lived a man and his wife. They had only one child who was boy. His name was Masulupwete. Masulupwete's father had three cows and a few goats. He was also a hunter.
When Masulupwete grew up he used to look after his father's cows and goats. Every morning he would wake, up take a bowl of porridge and then send the animals to the grazing ground. When he was going to the grazing ground he always met with boys and girls going to school. Masulupwete liked school very much so he started to sing:
Baba, mama, baba, mama—Father, mother, x 2
Ninataka shule x 2
—I want to go to school x 2
Baba, mama, baba, mama—Father, mother x 2
Shule ni muhimu
—School is important
When he was returning home he also met with boys and girls going home from school. He started to sing again:
Baba, mama, baba, mama—Father, mother, x 2
Ninataka shule x 2
—I want to go to school x 2
Baba, mama, baba, mama—Father, mother x 2
Shule ni muhimu
—School is important
After several days he decided to tell his father that he wanted to go to school. His father was very surprised. He told his son, 'Those buildings created by white people are useless. I will never allow my son to go there.'
Masulupwete was determined to go to school. That night he went to sleep very early. At midnight he took his sandals and walked out silently. He went straight to the missionary school. He sat near the school until morning. The he went to see the school head who was a missionary sister.
'I want to join school', Masulupwete told the sister.
'What is your name and where do you come from?' asked the sister.
'My name is Masulupwete and I come from a village in one of the bushes', answered Masulupwete.
'Why have you come alone? Where is your father?' asked the sister.
'My father doesn't want me to join school so I have run away from home,' answered Masulupwete nervously.
After consultation with some teachers the sister admitted Masulupwete into class one. She also gave him a small room to live in. The second day, which was Wednesday, Masulupwete went into the classroom for the first time. That day they learnt mathematics and reading.
On the third day the teacher for religion entered their classroom.
'Good morning pupils,' said the teacher.
'Good morning teacher,' answered the pupils.
After a short prayer the teacher began telling them about baptism.
'Everyone of you is supposed to be baptised. If you are not, you have to go home,' said the teacher.
'What is being baptised?' asked Masulupwete.
'It is being a new person. Forgetting about your past,' answered the teacher.
Masulupwete spent the whole night thinking about what the religion teacher said.
'This is terrible. I can't stand it,' he said to himself. The next morning he ran all the way back to the village where his father greeted him with great joy.
© L. D. T. Minzi
M. Z. Mambo
S. M. Komba, 2000.