Friday 17 March 2017

The joy of small things - children's writing matters

by Addy Farmer

This blog is not a look at plot or structure although, goodness knows, I could do with looking at those things. But it sounds too tiring for now and I've just signed up to spend a year having a good old think about, 'where I go wrong and how I can put it right', so maybe more of that laterz on.

gratuitous photo of cat typing or maybe the reason why my plots end up with cats saving the day
Neither is this blog to do with setting or character or language. Crumbs, it's not even about ghosts which is my absolute favourite thing. Today, dear reader, my blog is about the small things in your young reader's life and why they matter.

a BIG small thing - the cuddly toy
There are the big things of course; love and parents and school and friends. But perhaps these are more themes which act as the broad setting or the relationship set-up you want to explore. So, for example, while the peerless picture book, 'Dogger' by Shirley Hughes is about the unsentimental love between siblings, the small thing which is at the centre of Dave's world is a scruffy brown toy called Dogger. Dogger belongs to Dave. He can take him for excellent walks and feed him and cuddle him in bed. He gives him love. When he loses Dogger, he loses something small but crucial which he has nurtured and invested in. It matters.

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
The young reader's bedroom/sitting room/entire house is most likely strewn with cuddly toys. People buy them because somewhere in the backs of their minds they remember how it was to have something to cuddle when your mum or dad wasn't around. When I went to university a million years ago, some students actually took their small cuddlies with them (hem-hem) and it was OK to do so. The ones I took were worn out with love.
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” he said. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
—The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
Of course there are distractions from the small things that matter.  Of course, there are screens and they can be a huge thing but they are mostly for passive consumption. They often only demand to be gawped at. 
This is a MARVELLOUS book!
Crispin lives in a household full of electronic stuff; in fact he has so much stuff that he keeps breaking it in the knowledge that it's easily replaced. Until one day, the housekeeper unpacks a mega-fridge and leaves the cardboard box outside. YES! The cardboard box! One of the best small things ever. (While I'm recalling university, we had a cardboard box called Dave which sat on the landing in our student house and made guest appearances at parties. What can I say? We were crazy, wild kids.) The point is of course that Crispin's box does not remain a box made of card but becomes a rocket, a house, a boat, whatever Crispin wants it to be; it is a vehicle for his reawakened imagination - something real. 

Naturally, we all want to write what is relevant to our readers. In my ideal world, children come home from school, have a healthy snack and then romp off outside whatever the weather to go and stare at stuff or talk to their friends' actual faces or play on bikes/boats/roller-skates. I know, I know! Then I realised that I didn't live in the 1950s (and never have done, thank you). So, I have to ask myself would my story about pirates who live in a puddle - another glorious small thing - resonate with my young reader? Well, yes and it's precisely because there is so much tech and distraction about, that is is the duty of the writer to uncover those small things that matter and show children that there is MORE to life.
Listen to children and find out their interests but also show them what is interesting;
we should reclaim our children's capacity for wonder.
Herman Hesse said that learning the difference between binging on stimulation and savouring enjoyment in small doses, is what sets apart those who live with a sense of fulfillment from those who romp through life perpetually dissatisfied. Now if all this sounds a bit high-faluting (?) then consider this: that one of my picture books texts was rejected precisely because it centred around a boy who lived on an island and attended a virtual school. I forget the exact wording but it was along the lines of we prefer to offer our readers a world without the distractions of screens since they get so much of that already. Fair enough.

So, back to the small things and why they should matter to us as writers. I believe that not only does using them in stories stimulate a world of imagination for our readers but these stories are also a rehearsal for a child's place in the world. So, for example when Dave looks after Dogger he is developing his caring self. 

Winnie the Pooh is a great one for finding the joy in the small things: for walking and talking and chucking sticks about. Oh, there's another one - sticks!
Pooh: I wonder which will come out first.Narrator: Well, the big one came out first, and the little one came out last, which was what Pooh wanted.Pooh: I did?Narrator: Yes, Pooh, and that was the beginning of a game called "Poohsticks."Pooh: [smiles proudly] Which I invented! 
A.A. Milne - Winnie-the-Pooh 
Who hasn't fought a duel or made a mud cake or stirred a potion or cast a spell with a stick? Or done that most glorious of things - thrown a stick into a stream and had a race. Poohsticks. 

I work in a primary school in the afternoons. I go outside at lunchtimes and play with the children. There is no access to laptops or any other screen, so, children play games. Yes, it's football or basket ball but quite often it's also sitting on the grass pushing beech nuts about with a stick because they are the enemies or making tiny dens for reluctant ladybirds or swapping secrets or floating leaf-boats on puddle-seas or anything which is fun and fascinates and makes some sort of story.

from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak
There is such joy in playing with these small things. Without knowing it, children begin to construct solid foundations for their own sense of self as well as stretching their own creativity. By writing about their small things we show how they matter and by extension, that the reader matters.

It doesn't take much, it's only the small things.

You can do it too! Try this:

  • stop what you are doing - get away from that screen! Sit down for five minutes and see what comes to mind. Try this outside as well. 
  • can you go and observe a group of young children in the playground? (that sounds creepy when it's not meant to) 
  • on a beach - go look into a rock-pool, observe and note all you see
  • if you get the chance to sit by a stream, do it. Then remember how you feel
  • Read Open House for Butterflies (see above) it is wonderfully full of Important Things

“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”

― A.A. Milne


  1. An outstandingly good blog, Addy. Thank you!

  2. Outstanding is the word! What a wonderful read to start the day. You've made me realise that I'm losing my grip on the tiny details that make my world so big. Thank you and lots of love for this post.

    1. Thanks, Candy! I loved writing it actually. It gave me a chance to think ...

  3. Great stuff, Addy! Unfortunately, I can't get away from the screen right now, because I'm typing this comment ;-) But I agree about escaping from technology and connecting with the world every so often. I spend all morning working in front of a screen, then switch to a different screen at lunchtime to write, then back to my work screen in the afternoon. I have to get outside for 15 minutes at the beginning of lunchtime to recharge my batteries, even though I feel guilty that it's cutting into my writing time. What I need to tell myself is that the 15 minute break is actually making my writing better in the 45 minutes that remain.

    1. THanks, Nick! Recharging is pretty important; no-one wants a flat writer.

  4. Yay! I love paying attention to the little things and find that life with young(ish) children helps me do just that. Catching helicopters spiralling from trees. Fab! Watching squirrels jump from branch to slightly-too-far-away branch. Hilarious! I might go and sit by a stream right now...

    1. Thanks, ALice! Furry animals are endlessly good value, aren't they?

  5. Brilliant blog as ever, Addy. Baby's chief favourite toy right now is a saucepan and some socks that he can sort out. He really loves his saucepan and his socks. This was a lovely read, thank you. And I think I shall have to get that book.

    1. Thanks, Jo! Ah, yes, the old saucepan and socks! I must confess to a lingering fondness for those things myself.

  6. What a delightful read...thank you for including all the images and quotes. My personal vow is to never lose my sense of wonder...and I hope I convey some of that to my middle-grade readers! Cheers and Happy St. Patrick's Day...

    1. Thanks, Brenda! A sense of wonder should be an official sense. I'm pretty sure that if you have it now, you won't ever lose it.

  7. I really enjoyed reading your post, Addy. It brought back such wonderful childhood memories and a feeling of content. Thank you!

  8. Thanks, Cathy! My work here is done

  9. Banrock and the guys like your blog - cheers!


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