June 21, 2013 by Lydia Syson
This time last week I was contemplating the hidden qualities of a household sponge with a small group of Tigers . . . it was Day Two of Shoutsouth!
– the creative writing festival for South London children held at London South Bank University – and in Margaret Bateson-Hill‘s ‘Mad, Moody and Murky’ workshop, we were exploring the arts of focus, pacing and creating atmosphere. Elsewhere in the room, other budding writers and illustrators were getting to grips with an intriguing piece of driftwood, an exotic shell and a yellow rubber glove.
Along the corridor, twelve more practising writers and illustrators were drawing ideas from teams of Leopards, Lions and Panthers – nearly a hundred children aged 9-13 with teachers and librarians from primary and secondary schools across Southwark, Lambeth, Lewisham and Wandsworth. I don’t think any of us there were entirely prepared for the rush of creative energy that poured out of this great mix of ages, schools and backgrounds. By Saturday, everybody, including accompanying adults from home and school – had a story on the go.
A few months ago, when I became part of CWISL – Children’s Writers and Illustrators in South London – I was excited by the prospect of joining a like-minded local(ish) group whose raison-d’être wasn’t promoting their own books, but getting together to find and share ways to excite young people about books, reading, illustration and writing more generally. Having seen the huge changes in my own children’s primary school over the past six years or so, I felt pretty passionate about this idea. The kind of free-flowing story-writing that always used to happen in schools, and which certainly helped get me started as a writer, seems to have mutated now into highly structured and fairly rigid exercises in something they call ‘literacy’. Children have little opportunity to roam where their minds take them. Teachers are operating under ever-increasing pressure. As Sally Gardner pointed out in her Carnegie acceptance speech this week, it’s getting harder and harder for schools to nurture imagination – and easier and easier to test children into failure.
But back to CWISL. Was I free to take part in a festival in mid-June? Beverley Birch wondered. Oh yes, I said cheerfully, not knowing quite where it would lead, little guessing I’d be up to my ears just then in page proofs of That Burning Summer, reeling from the joys and pressures of Hot Key’s speedy new in-house typesetting system.
I’ve recovered from that, but I’m certainly still reeling from the sheer exhilaration of taking part in Shoutsouth! 2013. Why was the event so special? Perhaps because it had the power to create ripples extending through the lives of young people way beyond the two intense out-of-school days they spent taking part in workshops.
First things first. Margaret told us a story. It couldn’t have been simpler. No props. No paper. Just her voice, her words, and our ears. The story was one she’d first read when she was nine, in Andrew Lang’s Olive Fairy Book.
Then the groups of big cats went off to get to know each other. Each team started with ‘The Spark: Recycle Reality’ – lots of ideas of getting ideas. Here am I, taking character suggestions for ‘The Grid’ (with many thanks to Amanda Swift for introducing me to this game).
Here’s Gillian Cross plotting a path through plot structure with a game of ‘Rigmarole’. In this case, think giant toads, carrier pigeons, remote Scottish castles, child-catchers…
…and modelling character, most literally, with Anne Marie Perks
On Saturday, the vast majority of children came back voluntarily – rushed back, really – to continue work on their stories, pictures and models. It was incredibly rewarding to see how directly they were responding to the ideas they’d just absorbed – these girls are reading their work out aloud to each other:
We also enjoyed a party, signings and a bookshop (provided by Under the Greenwood Tree).
But, as I said, the ripples went so much further than this, and in every direction too. Before the festival even kicked off, writers and illustrators went in twos and threes to meet participating schools in local libraries – a chance not just to introduce ourselves and our work to more pupils than could possibly actually attend, but also for years 5-8 students to talk to librarians, get signed up with library cards, and find out how to reserve the book you really want. I’d already had planning meetings with my fellow ‘Sparkies’ (Sara Grant, Mo O’Hara and Karen Owen) and Tigers (Margaret, Gillian and Anne-Marie), but I was as intrigued as our young audiences to hear from Patricia Elliott and Bridget Strevens-Marzo about how they got started. (You can read Bridget’s take on Southshout here – and find out about an amazing coincidence we discovered when we first met.)
Before long, participants will see their work going up on the Shoutsouth festival website, and also published online in the creative writing magazine, Shoutabout. Anyone under sixteen can contribute to that, so we’re hoping to see work coming in soon from friends, schoolmates and family members too.
Then there was the setting. Few of the children who came had set foot in a university before. After listening to LSBU outreach workers Ken and Lacarna, most of them thought they’d like to come back. What more could you ask of one event? Aspirations were raised, imaginations sparked, skills shared, pleasure multiplied…. All we need next time is funding. Please.