World Book Day becomes 'I Wrote A Book Day' in Pencaitland

Sheila Averbuch

What happens when you throw a writer with no classroom experience into the odyssey of writing a "whole-school story" with 36 primary school children?

For us it was Hazel and the Pirate Family, a story devised and illustrated collaboratively by all nine classes of our local primary school. 

Something interesting happened to me for World Book Day, which I would like to rename "I wrote a book day," if nobody minds. I have two children in our local Pencaitland Primary School, a small village school based in East Lothian, near Edinburgh. Pencaitland parents get very involved in Book Week, and this year Principal Teacher Emma Kerr suggested that one parent might be a roving writer, developing a "whole school story" which would involve students from every class.

"I really wanted to have the whole school working collaboratively," Emma explained to me later. "I thought it would be a nice link between all of the kids and the school." The school had had experience of collectively writing a poem together before, she said, but nothing like this. The learning outcomes Emma was hoping for included audience awareness, trying to ensure that the Primary 7s, for example, didn't write something "too high-falutin' that the smaller ones couldn't follow on with."

I was already down as one of the volunteers, and when Emma asked, I agreed to become that roving writer. I'm as-yet unpublished and unagented, and have no previous classroom experience, so I threw myself on the collective mercy of fellow SCBWI numbers, seeking tips on how to handle this project. They provided targeted and brilliant last-minute advice, which meant I went in to the school on World Book Day armed with the following strategy:

Break the process down, and allow each section of students to focus on one aspect of the story

This was the magic key to success, and thank you so much to Bryony Pearce and the others who recommended this approach.

On arrival I was told I'd be given 36 children (4 students from a total of 9 classes), from morning nursery through to Primary 7, including one composite class P1-P2. I spent about 5 hours in total with the kids.

How we wrote a whole-school story in Pencaitland

Here's how the day went:

9:30am: I started by asking my Primary 7's what makes a good story: they said things like, "cliffhanger chapter endings" and "great descriptions," but I tried to focus them on something that ties all of that together: character. 

Using a character questionnaire from Christina Banach, provided at one of our SCBWI Southeast Scotland teach-ins, the kids created the main character, Hazel. From her favourite pastime (watching Pirate Family TV show…similar to Modern Family in real life) to the sad loss of her father, Hazel was a substantial character in just 20 minutes. It was a bit like an improv in drama: I told them the only rule is that they had to accept what the other person had just said and build on it, rather than rejecting.

9:50am: The next group (Primary 5) focused on the baddie: the most helpful key question from Christina's questionnaire was, "What one thing in his past still affects him?" The Primary 5's piped up with a beautifully tragic childhood that powered our baddie through the rest of the narrative.

10 am – 11:30am: The following three classes were all tiny, so we focused on the scenery, exploring the sights and sounds of the setting: the pirate ship, the weather, the smells of the food they'd eat, scary things at the beach. (My favourite bit? The tiny nursery girl describing how it feels to hold seaweed in your hand. "It feels bobbly," she said. Another nursery student gave us the name of Hazel's teddy bear).

11:30am: By now we knew it was a story about an eight-year-old girl who gets herself onto a pirate ship, but the Primary 4's worked out the overall storyline. This was a key session that focussed on how the baddie would try to ruin Hazel's adventure…there was much talk about villains from movies and books! They, as with all the day's earlier classes, drew pictures that I was able to show to the next class. This was brilliant for giving the little ones a concrete idea of Hazel and the pirate ship.

11:45: Primary 1. Back to the tiny ones: again we focused on sights and sounds, plus a lot of detail about exactly what would be in Hazel's bedroom, where our story opens.

Noon: Primary 6 told me exactly what would be in Chapter 1: opening scene, how Hazel gets onto the pirate ship and why she wants to go there. They gave all the detail of how Hazel hastily packs her backpack and sneaks out her bedroom window. One student had the fab idea that Hazel is so obsessed with the Pirate Family TV show, she keeps her sweets in a pirate's treasure box (pictured top). To this point, I'd taken notes by hand, but now I opened my laptop and began typing like a demon.

Lunch: illuminating lunchtime in the cafeteria, where I learned an awful lot about the rules of the school! It was a salutary reminder that primary school is very rule-guided … something which influenced how I wrote the main character later on.

1:20 – 1:40pm: Primary 3 helped me write Chapter 2: the first important obstacle for our heroine. They described what happened when she got onto the pirate ship and her first encounter with the baddie. (They gave wonderful detail of how the baddie smelled when Hazel had to squeeze past him in the dark belly of the ship: "like rotten eggs and drying paint.")

1:40pm – 2:20pm: Luckily my last two groups were the same eight students I'd begun the day with. They were fascinated at how the story had developed and were able to think through the story's exciting climax, smooth out the whole story and give me the resolution, where Hazel and the baddie reconcile.

2:30 pm: Back to the Deputy Head's office for a cup of tea and a general collapse.

Back to my desk that night – my husband made supper – and a really rather extreme 7-hour writing marathon. I tried to incorporate bits and pieces from every child's ideas, mindful of my role as the writer who had to quilt the scraps into a narrative with some kind of pattern and logic.

The result was a 6000-word novella based on the characters, storyline and setting the 36 children had devised. It's just a rough, but with the help of my writing buddy Louise Kelly who gave it a fast sanity check, I had a reasonable Chapter 1 to read at that Friday's assembly. (I was extra-eager for Chapter 1 to be not-awful, as we're hosting a SCBWI Keith Gray workshop in Edinburgh at the end of March on Strong Beginnings! 

At assembly I asked the 36 children to stand up and look around at each other: "These are your fellow story makers!" I told them, and we applauded them all before I read aloud the first chapter.

Did the kids enjoy developing the whole-school story?

Yes! Children love stories! And they were crazy-excited that they had made this story. Interestingly, when I read out Chapter 1 to the assembly, I realised I was reading more to the peanut gallery of parents gathered around the edge. I really needed to bring my attention back to the children themselves sitting on the floor! When I did, I almost did a double-take at the rapt attention on their faces: it was thrilling to witness.

Thinking back, I'm delighted that every group was so engaged in the story-making process, even the groups where the kids weren't known to be huge fans of reading and writing. I now have a manuscript where I can underline elements that came from every child in every class, from the bobbly seaweed to key lines of dialogue.

What's next?

I was keen for the kids to understand that one doesn't just write a manuscript and then publish it: ideally you would leave it in a drawer for a month, revise it, get rid of the half of it that doesn't tell your story and focus on making the other half really shine.

So I was delighted that Deputy Head Lindsey Barley contacted the Scottish Book Trust, who has put the school in touch with an editor from one of the big publishers in Edinburgh as a next step. That editor will come in and talk to the students about how the process would work in the publishing world, explaining how one works on a manuscript with an editor in advance of publication. There'll be another session between myself and the students, and a more polished version of the story will be finished in time for the school fair in May, where parents will be able to buy a copy in printed form or in Kindle version.

Would I do this again? Absolutely. Could I have done it without the help of SCBWI members? Not in a million years. Special thanks to Bryony Pearce, Christina Banach, Louise Kelly, Jane Benson McLoughlin, Celia Bingham, Elizabeth Wein, Miriam Craig and Yona.




Sheila Averbuch blogs at www.spacekidsbooks.com and is co-coordinator with Louise Kelly of the Southeast Scotland network of SCBWI British Isles.

11 comments:

  1. That is brilliant Sheila. It was wonderful to read your experience throught the day and i can imagine how thrilling it must have been for you and the children to make that story together! Thank you so much fir sharing it with us.

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    1. On phone at moment please excuse typos!

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  2. What a fantastic experience for the children and you. Well done. I can't wait to see the finished story.

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  3. What an awesome event and day and experience for the kids!!

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    1. Yes oops Sara sorry, I meant to credit Hot Key / Story Adventure in this blog - have added a bit to my own miniblog post about the amazing work of Jim and Fleur which was very much in my mind during our whole-school story! My own daughter was keen on the Wrestling Trolls of Story Adventure. http://spacekidsbooks.com/can-36-primary-school-children-write-a-story-together/

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  4. Thanks guys - what an experience. Can't wait to get back in there with the kids; for me as an aspiring kidlit writer, just being immersed in a community of children for the day was thrilling in and of itself!

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  5. So glad it went well for you. What a fab experience for the children. The story you produced is terrific. Well done!

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  6. I love the way you changed focus according to the capabilities of the different children in each group - that must have taken a lot of planning as well as being able to adapt on the fly. Crowd-sourcing children's books with actual children is a fascinating and slightly daunting area - well done for making such an amazing job of it!

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    1. Thank you Nick -- yes the proximity to actual children was the most fascinating part! And the teeny weeny ones were some of the most 'useful' for the story shall we say, since their sensory input added great texture!

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    2. It's an interesting observation that the younger children were able to focus on the sensory details without worrying about the wider problems of story construction. Small kids definitely seem better at living in the moment!

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  7. Thanks for the thanks, Sheila. Sounds like a triumphant day. Congratulations!

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