Writing Stories for Children:
A Workshop in Nepal
Andrew Wright with Arjun Parajuli and Vishnu Rai
November 1 to 21, 2010
Overall description of the workshop and its aims
The Napalese publisher, Bhundipuran Prakashan, invited me to work, for ten working days, with ten teachers who would like to write stories for children. The aim was for me to encourage them and to help them to develop the craft of writing stories which might then be published.
With my long background in the realities of publishing in ELT I took it on myself to go beyond the brief and to emphasise how important it is to conceive and write something which can really be published. This includes emphasising the importance of deciding whether or not to follow official language syllabuses for the age we are writing for and, on the other hand, designing books related to convenient page numbers for printers eg multiples of four.
There are books available from the international publishers in Nepal but the aim of Bhundipuran was and is to publish stories with a Nepalese content or connection.
The publisher asked Vishnu Rai to find somebody to run the workshop. Vishnu is an extremely experienced writer and trainer in Nepal, is at the university and has worked for the publisher for a long time. Vishnu asked Alan Maley who might run the workshop and I am very happy to say that Alan suggested me! I jumped at the invitation!
Vishnu and I exchanged emails for months! A key agreement was that the writers should try to write at least two stories: a traditional Nepalese folk tale and an original fiction. I did lots of thinking and research and received some very helpful, informal help from David Hill from the Extensive Reading Foundation at the University of Edinburgh, from Bill Bowler at OUP and Philip Prowse from CUP. These three friendly colleagues helped me to think more clearly about language and about the realities of production schedules. I also used the internet to find out that Nepal is bursting with stories!
Julia came with me and stayed for about half the time.
It is a shock to go directly from a Western city to Kathmandu. The climate and weather seemed very similar…no problem there. And all those warnings about not being able to breathe properly because of the altitude were absolutely wrong! Kathmandu is in a huge basin…not on top of a mountain! So no problem there!
The traffic! The roads! The streets and houses! They were a shock! In all my years of travelling I have never seen so many people miss death by one centimetre so many times. Only drivers and pedestrians with an electrically fast sense of timing, speed, distance and eccentricity have survived. Just as in animal life there is no room for misfits and the disabled so there is no possible chance of survival for anyone who is not able to move like lightening. And yet the driving and the walking across knitted streams of traffic was not jerky but smooth like the diving of a grebe or the swoop of a swallow. The hooting of the cars is as ugly as the peoples movements and interweavings are beautiful.
The next shock was the poverty evidenced by the humble nature of the work that so many people were doing to eke out a living and also by the the many dull heaps of rotting or rotted rubbish, flickering with the shreds of black plastic bags. And yet this filth was contrasted with the beautiful clothes of the women, bugling through bright rich colours in their silken trousers, scarfs and saris, their inner richnesss, in spite of their grim surroundings. Beautiful clothes but also so many beautiful faces, so fine, with thin noses, slim leaf shaped eyes, broad cheek bones.
And everybody ready to smile!
In a country, so poor that some people describe Nepal as a fourth world country I was astonished to see families emerge from Dickensian hovels, erect, dignified and warmly welcoming.
The taxi bumped and swerved from the airport, around the edge of town and then up the hill of Kirtipur, onto a narrow, stony track to our hotel, Hillside Hotel.
The hotel family were waiting for us with garlands of flowers and tika paint for our foreheads and Ganesh, the elephant god, beaming a warm welcome after a long journey.
This is how our visit to Nepal began.
The workshop: where and who
The workshop was held in the hotel which was perfect for me! I didn’t have to brave out my life on the roads to get there but could have a leisurely breakfast of fruit, followed by porridge and honey, then two poached eggs on toast plus fried potatoes and finished off with toast and marmalade…and sipped along with black tea. Julia was dead against this daily intake of so much carbo hydrate.
From our breakfast table we could look down into the basin of Kathmandu and across the city only shortened by the morning mists and polluting clouds. A seething city of people living out their survival and living in their stories. Hinduism and Buddism and more than 30 ethnic groups and each ethnic group divided into many castes and all of this in a long river of history. People we could see from the balcony included men, women and children…families in the fields below collecting the rice stalks and carrying them back, up the steep uneven steps into the town of Kirtipur behind us, children going to school, motorbikes, buses and people on the road at the foot of the hill. Stories.
Ten people in the workshop and what a great mixture! Some were young teachers and some senior academics and Maya from the Ministry of Education! So a great range of experiences! Without exception, all the teachers were modest and there to learn. During my introduction to myself and my ideas for the workshop I said that I was sure I was going to learn a lot and now I can say that I was very right, I did.
Workshop: summary of what we did and how it went
The workshop lasted ten days, starting at 9 am and continuing till 4pm with a lovely lunch on the hotel terrace restaurant.
All the writers produced two stories: a folk tale and an original fiction. Some writers produced more stories.
There was a bit of input from me but most of the time was spent writing and editing when they each worked on somebody else’s stories.
I went to a class of 9/10/11 year old children twice during the workshop, the second time to ‘test’ the drafts of the storybooks. The children took it very seriously indeed, as I assumed they would, and gave us good feedback. My only reservations are that I think they are a rather talented lot of children AND too generous!
It was a lovely time in the workshop with long periods of silence punctuated by loud bursts of laughter…and sustained by tea in a big urn and lovely lunches.
Workshop: key parts of the craft of writing for children
Out of the ten days I suppose I gave a total of one day of input. My inputs were usually not me solidly ‘telling’ but telling and asking questions and working with everyone to build up ideas.
The nature of children aged 9/10/11 and the idea that THEY are our customers…we are not writing for ourselves but for children and not just for a few ‘bright’ children but for as many children as possible. Also for children in an age of television and IT. The need for the children to be able to understand the text easily and to be engaged by it.
Making the text understandable
Using the Grade 4 language syllabus. Using short sentences. Giving direct physical ideas and not abstract ideas. Having a clear storyline. Using pictures to set the scene, to set the situation and relationships, to ‘translate’ individual words and phrases, with thinks and speech bubbles to reinforce text in the narrative. Looking for opportunities to repeat language.
Making the text engaging
Having a protagonist the child reader can identify with (not necessarily a child).
Making sure there are difficulties (concerns, dilemmas, problems, aims, desires, etc.) which the protagonist must want to overcome AND which the reader, as a child, can identify with.
A main difficulty which is the central driving thread through the story and must be resolved by the end of the story.
Mini difficulties which make the child reader want to turn the page to find out what happens next.
Enough detail to make it seem real but not too much to cause distractions from the storyline.
Planning the plot
Based on Booker’s, The Seven Basic Plots. This proved to be marvellous. I used the page I did in my book,’ Writing Stories’, published by Helbling which analyses each plot down into five bubbles.
Workshop: what I learned
That character, though a necessary starting point in full blown storywriting is hardly possible in writing stories for children with little English…plot is more important. However, as much character as possible remains the target.
Also I learned how different this is in writing down a traditional folk tale where plot is everything…and the most we have in character is: good, bad, clever, cunning, kind, evil, brave.
That the five bubble segmenting of any story (re Booker) is a very helpful way of ensuring that the storyline drives forward and takes the reader through a climbing experience rather than wandering aimlessly about:
1 the scene, situation and difficulty are set and the key protagonist introduced
2 the key protagonist prepares him/herself to begin his/her action to overcome the difficulty
3 the key protagonist begins his/her action to overcome the difficulty and has some initial success but also some setbacks
4 The key protagonist fights his/her big battle and seems to be losing but then wins…perhaps with the help of minor characters
5 The key protagonist is rewarded.
Difficulties are a fundamental element in storying…no difficulty …no story…uninteresting difficult…disinterested reader.
Also it became clear how much we need mini difficulties as page turners.
Writing directly and simply for children
I had no idea how difficult this would be for ALL the writers.
Very often a word from Grade 10 would be used instead of from Grade 4 when the Grade 4 word would be perfectly OK, for example, ‘considered’ instead of ‘think’, ‘endeavour’ instead of ‘try’.
Again and again writers wrote unnecessarily complicated sentences with endless little cul-de- sacs of information to be struggled with only to lead the reader nowhere.
I gave the example from Winnie the Pooh in which nothing really gets going until he is out in the wood and sees the bees up in the tree. Children, especially today, do not want to wade through stuff which is not really for them.
Being aware of the duet of words and presentation
My introduction to visual design proved to be a vital introduction to the idea that writing for young children in the FL means that the visual presentation through page design and illustrations is an equal part of the duet with words. For this reason it is crazy just to write a story with no thought of the visual presentation and this includes the simple idea of what is on each page. Pronominal usage is reasonable when the reference (referent?) is on the same page but less so if it is on hte next page when it might be better to use the noun again.
During the workshop all the storywriting was done in mock ups of the book, so they could see and feel what it would look like. I feel very positive about this as a learning experience for them and for me.
Next steps: now I am home again
The agreement now is that all stories should be polished carefully by the writers with the help of my checklist and then sent to Vishnu by December 1. Vishnu, Arjun (the publisher) and I will probably pilot the stories with children and collect their markings and then decide which ten to publish as the first batch of readers.
Vishnu will probably try to pull some of the texts nearer to Grade 4.
Probably Vishnu will ask the writers whose stories have been chosen to write some associated activities for each book. I have strongly suggested that a couple of ‘old fashioned’ activities are included to reassure anxious teachers but all the others should invite intellectual and emotional responses from the children rather than using the stories as an opportunity for pinning them against the wall and testing their comprehension with furrowed eyebrows.
Then I will do the page designs for all the books and then it MIGHT be me that does all the illustrations because the publisher feels he does not have access to illustrators who can draw people very well and he thinks I can! Exciting but a huge job!
Following up: maybe developing a website for the readers including more activities and also suggestions for how the teachers can help the children to write their own books. We might organise a national competition for stories…possibly publish some of these books?
We must produce a leaflet to convince the teacher that having a regular session in each lesson in which the children choose their story and are encouraged to respond to it not as a comprehension test but as thinking and feeling young people is a VERY powerful learning path…see Krashen and all his research.
The publisher may ask me to make an audio or an audio visual recording of all the stories. I could include examples of follow up with a class.
The publisher is planning to publish 100 readers…ten at each grade.
By the way, the publisher is a totally exceptional man! He was a ‘freedom fighter’ during the toppling of the royal family and braved threats on his life. He is a poet and used poetry rather than bullets to make his points. In some of his public readings there were tens of thousands of people. His friend, Ram Krishna, is a musician and singer and the two of them performed together.
Arjun, the publisher, is very happy if some of the fiction stories manifest the sufferings of the poor and the voiceless, for example, street children. To survive he must be able to sell his books but he is most certainly not driven by that as his main aim. He is truly a poet first and a publisher second and it is such a privilege to work with him and his family.
The social side
Brilliant! So rich! Such a privilege!
We were there for the Diwali Festival of Light which is the most important celebration in the year for Hindus. It is a family celebration so it would have been something we would have missed without the warm welcome of Arjun and his family. On Friday November 5 we were taken to his house, a large concrete house with four floors and big rooms. We were taken up to the roof and we met the extended family, Arjun’s three brothers all of whom work with Arjun in the publishing house, and some wives and children and grandparents. First of all three men at a time knelt down in a row and then their sisters painted a tika on their fore heads. A tika is a long stroke of bright colour with added spots of other bright colours on it. And a garland of flowers is also placed around the neck and a plate of food in front.
Then the men do the same thing for their sisters. I was lent a sister, Arjuns big daughter and Arjun acted as Julia’s brother to paint her tika.
It was both serious and light hearted. It was serious in the sense that they made sure to get every part of the ceremony correct but it was light hearted because everybody was laughing and commenting.
Diwar lasts for five days and is practised by all Hindus but with variations. In Nepal the five days are celebrated as follows:
On the first day, crows are given offerings because they are considered to be divine messengers. On the second day dogs are given food and often dressed with a garland of flowers. The third day is the day of Laxmi puja the goddess of wealth and prosperity and everybody wants Laxmi to come into their house so they paint a path of red all the way from the street to their front door and then into their house. They also paint mandelas and also set out small clay lamps with oil and burning wicks. The fourth day is new year and the Newari people who are are a large ethnic group and based in the town of Kirtipur also combine it with Maha Puja in which you worship or contemplate and value your own body and mind. On the last day it is Bhai Tika in which brothers and sisters meet and exchange gifts. On the Sunday evening we were in the hotel and the hotel family invited us to Maha Puja. They painted a row of mandelas on the floor. The first was for Ganesh, the god of auspicious beginnings, the second for the oldest person in the house and that was Bize father, I was next, then came Bize and then Julia. Bize’s wife did the ceremony with each one of us…we had to take an egg and a glass of spirits but in order to do so we had to cross over our hands. Once more we had a tika and a garland of flowers.
So we were so lucky as to be absorbed into two families for this important festival, and both families had that natural and precious ability to make us feel, ‘at home’.
It cannot be a coincidence that there are also festivals of light at the same time…in Hungary we put lights on the graves in the cemetery and bonfire night in England is an ancient festival of light.
For the Hindus it is also the time when Lord Rama along with Sita and Lakshman returned from his fourteen year exile and his victory over the demon king Ravana.
‘In each legend, myth and story of Deepawali lies the significance of the victory of good over evil; and it is with each Deepawali and the lights that illuminate our homes and hearts, that this simple truth finds new reason and hope. From darkness unto light — the light that empowers us to commit ourselves to good deeds, that which brings us closer to divinity. During Diwali, lights illuminate every corner of India and the scent of incense sticks hangs in the air, mingled with the sounds of fire-crackers, joy, togetherness and hope. Diwali is celebrated around the globe.’
We walked through the old hill town of Kirtipur several times and felt as if we were in a film set for the worst parts of Dickensian London with narrow, unpaved and unlit alleyways and poor dark houses with very low doors. However, there were many fine looking people who were only too ready to greet us with a generous smile.
We came to know Bina, who just about makes a living by guiding people in Kirtipur and surroundings. He took us to his house. We bent nearly double to go through his front door and felt like Alice in the Looking Glass when she was simply too big to go through the door. In the back yard we had to climb a ladder up the wall into the sitting room which was mud floored, contained no furniture and had no glass in the window. Their bedroom was hardly bigger than the bed and there was only that bed for Bina, his wife, two daughters and mother. And yet all of them were gracious and dignified.
Bina took us on a long trek through neighbouring villages. One town had no chickens, only ducks…as we climbed up the path into the town it was only ducks that greeted us. In the countryside families were gathering rice.
Julia saw more things in Kathmandu than I did because she was having a holiday and I was working…but I saw and enjoyed many temple sites…I suppose the most impressive was Pashupatinath Temple which Bibek, Arjun’s son, told me was the main centre for all Hindus. When we were there we saw the washing of the feet of corpses and then the burning of the bodies.
Well, this can only be such a brief summary…so many, many images and…stories.
Perhaps to finish…Arjun, as a schoolboy lived in a village and had to run for three hours through the jungle to get to school and three hours back again at the end of the day. He ran barefoot until his toenails dropped off. Having heard that I told my workshop members and most of them had also, ‘run through the jungle’ for one or two hours in order to attend school.
Arjun and I brainstormed many potential projects but the crown would be a book called ‘Voice for the Voiceless’, a book or a website. We would try to give voice to some of the many poor, down trodden people. There are many reasons for wanting to go back.