Category Archives: events

T. M. Alexander blogs about the variety and enjoyment of visiting schools and running workshops with children

lots of made-up stories and a real one, mine

I set off for Glastonbury at 7.45am, having Googled the journey and added an extra 30 minutes as I don’t like to be late. I was late anyway, thanks to the snake of vehicles slithering through Knowle towards Wells. I chucked my car in the Head’s space and dashed in to find the Head standing in front of me. All good. He was nice. Didn’t mind me stealing his space. And carried my box of books. I did the talking-impossibly-fast thing I do when flustered, which is often. Luckily the lilt of his Valleys’ accent both shut me up calmed my mania. Year 5 trooped in with the lovely Mr Ranger. I know a Yogi song with Ranger in it so I started singing. Bit odd. Who cares? The children didn’t. We got to know each other over discussion of what I wanted to be when I was their age. As soon as everyone was revved up we got on with storymaking. Assuming forty brains are better then one, that shouldn’t have been a problem. And it wasn’t. Although too many ideas can get a little difficult to manage. The hour raced by as our protaganists battled armies of monkeys and raced round a Formula 1 track. Unfortunately in the excitement of the ending we forgot to make up a title. If you’re out there, St. Benedict’s, make one up.

Year 4 came next. As usual the two sessions were entirely different, although in common were the glut of suggestions, hands up, laughter and very well behaved children (and the wig in the photo). In our made-up story the characters were trying to scramble out of a scrapbook they’d accidentally fallen into, to get home for stew and veg cooked by one of the dads. In no time at all, real life took over and it was lunchtime at St. Ben’s too. I read the beginning of Monkey Bars and Rubber Ducks, answered some excellent questions, signed some books and fled. I wasn’t running away, as much as running to, as I had another appointment to open the new library at Broomhill Junior School. It’s all go for a children’s author.

Broomhill is on a hill. That shouldn’t have been a surprise. The view from the playground is amazing: Cabot Tower, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, general city buildings, parks. Lucky children. I was met by a lion. It was on further investigation the dressed-up Head. I stumbled upon Captain Underpants, Hannah Montana, several Hogwarts’ pupils and Dennis the Menace as I wandered the corridors towards the new library. Before the official opening, red ribbon and all, I took assembly. Assemblies aren’t my favourite events as I don’t like me talking and two hundred children listening, so I asked a few questions to break it up. And I told them the story of me and how I became an author sort of by mistake. It was fun. And I was rewarded by a beautiful bunch of flowers. Wow! That doesn’t usually happen. I felt like the lead ballerina in Swan Lake, but a bit clumsier and not wearing feathers. A healthy selection of governors arrived to witness the library opening which had a few false starts thanks to the enormously robust ribbon. Eighth time lucky the room was opened by Archie, and library monitors, staff, governors, the Evening Post photographer and me, piled in. It’s a cheerful space with bright rugs and more importantly, books. And possibly most importantly, my books. I had a chat to several of the excited children, and promised to come back and run a workshop. I’m looking forward to it, Broomhill Juniors.

Book Week at Bishop’s Hull Primary School

The whole of Key Stage 2 worked with me yesterday afternoon to make up stories. The first batch were Years 3 and 6, an unusual combination but it worked really well. A credit to the school that the Year 3s felt confident enough to participate and the Year 6s didn’t do any ‘dissing’. They really got the idea that we were creating a story using the character profiles we’d made up, and staying true to them, rather than ignoring them and doing whatever we fancied. The other message was that you should try and work with what you’ve got, which in our case was props and the characters. It’s so tempting to bring in monsters, magic, artillery or aliens, but the story is always the better for adhering to the constraints. It sounds counter-intuitive but I find a blank page inspires the least creativity whereas working within agreed limits fires the imagination to a different level. I was meant to have a break before Years 4 and 5 but there were so many clocks on the wall of the school hall from different time zones that I couldn’t tell the time and over-ran. In trooped the second wave, five of whom are in the picture. They chose to use a skull, gentleman’s hat, monkey (he always gets chosen – he’s like my mascot) and recorder from my getting-famous dustbin of props. At the end of each session I read the beginning of Monkey Bars and Rubber Ducks, the latest Tribe book, and it was very satisfying to see how keen they were to know what happened next. I had a welcome cup of tea after the afternoon’s activities and settled down to chat, sell and sign books. The Assistant Head, Mrs Perks, bought some books for the library and offered to recommend me to other schools, so all in all, top day. (Won’t mention that I went to Parents’ Evening afterwards – don’t want to cloud the blog post.)

fresh from unputdownable, Bristol Festival of Literature

What a great day. A group of enormously positive folk decided to launch the first Bristol Festival of Literature, called ‘unputdownable’. I am lucky enough to know at least one or two of them and was pleased to be on the programme for today – BBC Radio Bristol in the morning followed by Foyles Bookshop and afternoon tea at the Hooper House Cafe. The radio spot was brief and slightly chaotic but I got in my push for the festival, managing to say my rehearsed spiel that “unputdownable has Bristol stamped all over it, reflected in the eclectic range of venues and content”, or something like that. Next on was a workshop in the children’s section of Foyles. I met Dan, the events man, and agreed with him that the shop floor would be good. A trickle of youngsters arrived, with parents and pushchairs, but we ended up with about twenty in total, plus responsible (or maybe not) adults. The kids were fabulous. Even though the ages spanned from about 5 to 9, they coped admirably with the task – to make up a story with an amnesic parakeet as hero, journeying through Bristol trying to find his home, and celebrating our amazing city on the way. We had shouting, laughter, voting, a fake death and puppetry, supplied by the children, and cakes and squash, supplied by Foyles. I did some book signing and had a chat with some very complimentary parents and then my taxi driver aka husband/technical director/chef whisked me off to Hooper House Cafe in Stokes Croft. A well-needed cup of tea later I was immersed in an interesting discussion with three adults keen to write for children. Looking back to how my writing career started and trying to pinpoint key moments, advice I was given that was helpful, and not so helpful, and describing the journey through agent to publisher to editor was very pleasurable. I really hope I left them feeling optimistic and purposeful. It’s a dream come true to be a children’s writer, and today has been a lovely treat. Thank you ‘unputdownable’.

http://unputdownable.org/

The festival runs until 23rd October so if you have the inclination go and see Helen Dunmore or Milton Jones, or head for the political open mic with Gavin Watkins, or crime writing with Gerard O’Donovan.

a day in the life of a children’s author

 

Some days I don’t see anyone except my family. I stick to my keyboard and storms could lash against the windows and I wouldn’t know. My word count reaches into the thousands and a feeling of satisfaction spreads beyond my physical being and spurs me on to making a delicious dinner and putting on a wash. Other days I don’t write a word. On particularly special days I leave the house dressed in my author clothes (that means not shorts, jeans or joggers) and head off to a school. Yesterday was one of those days. I arrived at Sonning Common Primary and my first impressions were positive thanks to the lovely lady in the office, and the immediate attention of the caretaker who had a wheely thing to carry my boxes. Cup of tea in hand I went to meet Matt – my twitter contact – also Year 5 teacher, technology fan, and as I was to find out, absolutely wonderful teacher. The day was a bit random, and hectic, but rather that than frosty or indifferent. I had the pleasure of Year 5, assembly, Year 3, lunch, Year 4, and finally Year 6. I feel I should apologise to the last group. I’d been talking (loudly) all day and was talked out, bored with my own voice and in need of a change by the time I walked into their classroom so we had a slightly wild session whereby using completely inappropriate props from my dustbin we re-enacted Cinderella, Sonning style. I hope I didn’t actually scare anyone with the out of control antics and enforced playacting. Thank you hairdresser (you know who you are), Cinders, Fairy God, Monkey Prince and Ratman. Sorry I forgot Buttons (the manservant, not the chocolate ones).

I met some fantastic children as I weaved through KS2. Sonning Common is most definitely a happy school. As a visitor to many schools you start to get a radar reading and although I’ve never had a rude or badly behaved child in any of my workshops, I’ve not always been bowled over by the other aspects. What I was bowled over by yesterday was how much the children adored Mr Matt Lovegrove. He is a caring, kind, completely genuine man and the way he spoke to all the children we encountered in our roaming was quite affecting. (I expect I’m embarrassing him.)

It was Harvest Festival assembly and apart from the lovely play by children almost too small to be at school, and great singing, there was a special visitor who runs a food bank. I was very pleased I’d remembered to take my own donation of Heinz Chocolate Puddings and hope a family somewhere will enjoy eating them this week. It is shocking to hear of people arriving with tales of having not eaten for four days. While I’m on eating, lunch was excellent. Who wouldn’t be excited about salmon bites and chips. Thank you dinner ladies.

I left Sonning Common exhausted but happy, not too dissimilar from the feeling when I’ve clocked up a couple of thousand words. But instead of cooking I demolished a curry when I got home, watched Outnumbered (very funny) and read a bit more of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Hopefully some of the children I met were enjoying reading my books.

Westbury Leigh and me

I spent Friday morning at Westbury Leigh CE Primary School running two separate workshops with Years 4 and 5. The day started and finished badly thanks to the ridiculous traffic. It was like driving through knitting. However the in-between was fun. First to roll up were Mrs Newbury and Mrs Foote’s classes. We dived straight in with lots of hands up. Tate was given the all-powerful job of holding the pen and he wrote and drew the characters for our story. Meet Jim and Lucy, between them scared of people, crabs, sharks and lightning, good at skateboarding, football, writing, drawing, and fond of dolphins. Kooky. With a lot of noise and enthusiasm Lucy and Jim (I keep wanting to call them Rosie and Jim of Ragdoll fame) managed to outwit Pinocchio, hijack the Tardis, meet some mad monkeys and get home thanks to a powerful magnet.

I read the beginning of Monkey Bars and Rubber Ducks – why did Copper Pie bunk off at lunchtime? Then it was question time. My favourite was ‘Do you ever read your books when they’re all printed and published and think you could have done better?’ Yes.

Book signing and a quick cup of tea. In came Year 5. Deep breath. The story we made up together stretched the boundaries of my imagination. Nothing was normal. Trees floated. Cats drove cars. One of the main characters was a copy of Bellatrix from Harry Potter, Trix for short. She hated water but liked surfing. Tricky Trix. For some reason the Ant Hill Mob from Wacky Races got involved. My favourite part was the endings the classes came up with. We had cats parked in their cars on the drive and floating trees sailing past the kitchen window. All in all it was a well done to Westbury Leigh for keeping me on my toes and the edge of my seat for a couple of hours.

The day was finished off in the garden. And today I must finish digging the patch I’m going to plant or I’ll miss the window for getting my pear trees off to a good start. Can already taste next year’s pear crumble . . .

getting ready for 2011/2 school visits

Friday is my first school visit of the new school year. I’m going to Westbury Leigh in Wiltshire thanks to a contact I made on Twitter. How ‘2011’ is that? Usually all my paraphernalia is in a clump, but over the holidays it has wandered so I’ve been herding it back together. You see I take props. Lots. My favourites come to every school, and the others take turns depending on what mood I’m in. I am modelling my favourite here. Wigs are wonderful. They make the children laugh. And they make me laugh. They also change whoever wears them which can be quite interesting. I never make anyone wear one, there are always enough in the class desperate to have a turn. Another gem is my pair of night-vision goggles, borrowed from my son some years ago. I make sure the batteries are working, which is more than I ever did when he played with them. There’s usually a cuddly toy – I am the Generation Game generation. The monkey comes most, followed by the dog. Children always decide to make the monkey an evil character in our made-up story which is odd because he’s enormously cute. I’m not keen on the skull, but boys seem to like it so that gets put in my dustbin begrudgingly. I’m running two workshops on Friday so I’ll take a few extras to ensure both sessions are completely different. I’m looking forward to it. I laugh just as much as the children do. And afterwards I think a night out watching Colin Firth in Tinker, Tailor … might be in order.

 

a Circus Stars workshop at Ilfracombe library

As I’m enjoying a few days by the sea I thought I’d support the libraries in Devon by running a couple of storymaking workshops. One of my books has been chosen as part of the Summer Reading Challenge, called Circus Stars, so a circus story is what we’ll be inventing. There’ll be shouting and props. All we need is some children to come along with good ideas. Or bad ideas. Or mad ideas. Or never-heard-before ideas. Can’t wait. If you’re anywhere near Ilfracombe on Thursday 4th August, come along.

the Tribe tea party

The new book, Monkey Bars and Rubber Ducks, needed a coming-out party so yesterday we baked 91 cakes and 40 truffles. The decorations were haphazard, but charming. I was particularly proud of my Mandela cakes, flaunting the colours of the African National Congress to mark Nelson Mandela’s 93rd birthday, also this week. For some of the others we used Bee’s recipe with marshmallow flowers on top. See http://tribers.co.uk/cup-cake-recipe. The guests ranged in age from 2 (this coming Sunday) to 80-something. The highlight of the affair was the showing of Henleaze School’s Year 5 trailer made for the new book. The children played the characters, followed the early story line and left cliffhangers. Excellent. We had a questions session afterwards and then people left just as the rain started in earnest. Dinner at the Cambridge.

tip-top Tickenham

It was non-stop fun at Tickenham C of E Primary School this morning. It’s a lovely small school so I had all of Years 3,4 and 5 together in the storymaking workshop. I knew we were going to have a nice time the minute I walked in to find wall-to-wall smiley faces (and I don’t mean the Birds Eye ones). The children came up with two interesting characters called David (tall, quiet, black afro, scared of reptiles, loves cheese, good at running and magic) and Violet (inventive, chatty, likes cats, doesn’t like crawly things, has long curly blonde hair and is bad at maths). We took them on a journey that involved mean monkeys, the golden gates that lead to heaven, a coal mine with skulls underfoot and the Tardis time-travelling to the Jurassic (or maybe Triassic) period, ending up on Lemur Island where great courage was needed to throw themselves in the volcano. They arrived back where they started but covered in lemur fur and berries.

For once I had time to read from the latest book, Monkey Bars and Rubber Ducks, and the children were desperate to find out why Copper Pie bunked off from school at lunchtime. By now, I expect some of them have read enough to know exactly why he did it. But who is going to get caught and then what will happen to Tribe? Another trip to the Head’s office perhaps . . .

a school visit with a bit of commotion

I should have realised by now that winding children up to fever pitch at the beginning of a school visit is not always productive, and is certainly not relaxing. Whether it was because I’d only been out of my pyjamas for half an hour or general end-of term-ness I don’t know, but from the minute Years 4 and 5 came trooping in it was chaos. Engaging the firstcomers in chat as they enter is something I do to make myself comfortable as much as anything else, but I should definitely keep my best gags for later.

We managed to make up some characters, Bob and Bellina, and the pet tadpole, Tarantula. We also managed to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s just that we had a lot of commotion in between. I don’t actually mind a noisy workshop, rather that than bored, unengaged faces. However I’m staring to think a bell might be handy as an extra prop, for me to ring as time-out.

After signing copies of the Tribe books I took a trip to Yeovil to collect some eBay chairs. They’re being painted with Farrow and Ball Bone as we (I) speak (blog). Lunch was a bacon sandwich in the Snakshak. Best I’ve ever had.

And now I’m finishing off a successful week with Tsonga having just won the tie-break in the third set. Go Tsonga!