One of the best things about being an author are the school visits. I used to teach English and Drama and while I have to confess I don’t miss the marking, the admin or the data driven side of the job, I HUGELY miss the storytelling and silliness. I used to love chatting with students about stories and ideas and the power of imagination.
So I’m grateful my books give me the opportunity to muscle my way back into schools across the UK and the UAE. I’ve done over a hundred author events over the last three years and I’ve loved every single one. Yes, that includes the one where I spilt an entire cup of tea down my front before walking onto the stage in front of four hundred kids. It even includes the one where I got tangled in the microphone cord and fell off the stage. (Biggest laugh I’ve ever got. Fortunately, neither I nor the child I landed on suffered any long-term damage).
Many visits are just one-offs, but some schools are a bit special and invite me back several times, so I get to know the staff and students and enjoy catching up with everyone.
I spent a lot of time at one of my favourites recently (which I won’t name here for security reasons, but you know who you are, you wonderful lot!).
I first visited the school just after ‘The Case of the Exploding Loo’ came out, and had a great time discussing flying poo, smoking shoes and crazy inventions. So I jumped at the opportunity to pop back this year to talk about my new series, ‘Unicorn in New York’. We had a brilliant time prancing around in unicorn costumes and inflatable horns:
The purpose of the visit was to inspire the kids while they were in the middle of writing their own books. These books were based on characters who were embarking on an important journey, leaving their homes for what they hoped would be a better future – encouraging the students to think more deeply about the topic of migration. Brilliant cross-curricular stuff, and an amazing extension to fact-based geography lessons.
So I was thrilled when I was asked to pop back, last week, and judge the final stages of the writing competition. Every child in Year Five had to present their migration story. Then, each of the five Year Five classes choose the best two and these ten children were asked to deliver their story to an audience made up of fellow students, teachers and me.
My almost-impossible job was to pick a top 3.
I am always amazed when I see how well kids write. I’m sure I didn’t have half the talent at the same age. Here are some of the great lines the Top 10 finalists came up with ….
‘Even as I write this, I feel the cloak of depression engulf me.’
Nelly, Year 5, discussing migration during the Iranian revolution
‘All they could see in the desert was dust coming from the west, dirt coming from the East and a dead bush coming from the north.’
Jack, Year 5, discussing a journey to El Paso
‘It is not easy to leave everything that is familiar, everything that has been yours for so long, and move so far away.’
Andre, Year 5, on migrating to London for a new life.
After much forehead wrinkling and judgey-pondering - all under the watchful eye of these brilliant junior authors and storytellers - I finally settled on my top 3. I chose the winners based partly on the skill and charm with which they presented their stories, but mainly because of the quality of their writing and the depth in which they’d considered the situation their migrant main characters were in.
Went to the lovely Erin, age 10, who wrote the tale of a boy who’d arrived in Miami from the Caribbean and was scared to tell his story. The thing that swayed my choice was how beautifully she captured his anxiety:
‘He felt like he was going to collapse any second now. Eyes were peering into his soul. His heart was beating so loud and fast he didn’t know why people couldn’t hear it.’
Went to the wonderful Abdulrahman, a skilled and charming storyteller who told the story of a family fleeing Libya, using real life memories to create a moving and utterly convincing tale with an authentic voice:
‘My School Principal got kidnapped and there were rumours that he had been killed. At first I felt a bit cheerful but I concealed it. Don’t blame me. At the time I was only nine years old. Now I realise things were dead serious.’
Went to the brilliant Ivan, who wrote an incredibly accomplished piece, describing a family leaving the troubles in Syria. You could feel the drama in his writing and I was amazed at the skill and maturity of his writing:
‘The sun’s warm rays sliced through the curtain of mist, in a dazzling bright shade of orange. I smiled as I listened to the birds singing in a language I didn’t understand, but I loved hearing anyway. Today was surely one of the best days Homs ever had.’
Huge congratulations to all the students involved. I can’t wait to pop back and see some of these incredible books on display in the school library. Every single person that entered deserved the massive rounds of applause they gave to the finalists as they listened so generously to their stories.
HUGE respect to the ten finalists, whose stories and presentations brightened up my day and still make me smile to remember them. And a massive YAY! to the three winners. I can’t wait to join the signing queues for your books one day.
But perhaps the biggest cheer of all should go to a school whose teachers and librarians understand how to make the most of author visits, how to inspire their kids and how to bring subjects and projects to life in such a wonderful way.
One thing I’ve noticed during my visits to schools across the globe is that, without exception, the most successful events and the most engaged kids are in schools where students are immersed in a reading culture and encouraged to think deeply and individually about the stories they are reading/writing and then to respond to them on a personal level with enjoyable and relevant projects.
So, hooray for my favourite schools. Can’t wait to come back for your next exciting event!