Whenever I work with young children I am delighted, but not surprised, at the level of creative excellence many of them are capable of. Teachers know this, sometimes their peers know this, but often the young writer doesn’t. The poem or story they’ve produced gets lost among all the other work they have to do. So the Big Cat writing Competition provides a real opportunity for the talented young writer to be acknowledged publically. But it’s not just for the gifted child. Working on a particular project of this kind, knowing that thousands of other children are working on it too, will give every child a sense of the significance of writing to the best of their ability. Writing for a competition implies that you are writing for an audience beyond the classroom – it makes it special. It focuses your mind on what creative writing is all about. Writing a book that is going to be read by a younger child sets an interesting (difficult) challenge. And it helps children to understand the process of creative writing, of expressing a dream idea in words.
When I was a child I used to write stories and poems that were regularly published on the children’s page of the Liverpool Echo. I was extremely lucky to have had such an outlet, an incentive to write, and a sense of audience. This is what the Big Cat writing competition is all about, and here the goal is even greater – to be published as a real writer with a real book. When I was ten years old I could never have dreamed that such a thing could be possible. Only a few children will win, but every child who enters should be given the opportunity to see the published books and to know that someone of their own age wrote them. Fantastic.
So how do we help children to write their own book? As it is to be targeted at children younger than themselves, they could first talk about the books they remember from when they were that age. They probably still own them. What did they love most about them? Maybe you could bring some of your own favourite childhood books. We love the illustrations, but what is it that makes the pictures work? The story! Read lots of stories, talk about who the main characters are, and how they behave. (Even an animal character is often a child really; an animal family is actually just like theirs). Talk about the humour, the uncertainty, the sense of loss, the triumph, that many of these story characters experience in the course of the narrative. Talk about how each fresh page brings a new development, (the artist needs to be able to change the background, move the characters, add things to the scene, so this is an important factor in the story.). Think of the page as a stage, where the characters are actors, where things happen to them or around them or because of their actions. Talk about how the whole story or poem leads up to the last line, which is just right, leaving you surprised or pleased and satisfied, never puzzled, annoyed or disappointed.
There are two storylines to choose from (or combine) and they’re both really open and offer lots of possibilities. For a young reader, the story would need to be interesting but not complicated. The language should be clear and lively, but there’s no harm in introducing unusual and imaginative words – story is the way we extend our vocabulary as well as our emotional understanding of our world. Every story has two lives – one when it is read aloud and shared, the other when it is read silently as a personal activity. And when it’s read aloud the reader can think of themselves as an actor, bringing the words and the characters and actions to life as vividly as the illustrator has done. It’s a great team – author, illustrator, reader, and listener. And the story, the powerful, lively, memorable story, is at the centre of it all.
I’m so excited at being one of the judges – and I can’t wait to read the entries. Good luck everyone!
Berlie Doherty – Carnegie award-winning writer and one of the 2012 Writing Competition judges