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Friday, 21 June 2013

Writing for the younger reader

I am in Zagreb in Croatia, doing some general digging for several books, and my spare time has been taken up fighting the zombie armies who masquerade as "support" at the St George Bank.  In the end, I showed the what steely stuff we Old Writers are made of, and terrified the poor dears.  I will get back to how this is done in a few months, because as an old bureaucrat, I know how to spook the timid majority.

 This is a skill I owe it to humanity to share, but not right now.  Here's something I prepared earlier.

It was written for the Children's Book Council of Australia, NSW Branch journal, formerly News and Views, now iRead. You can find that version here, after about the middle of June, but this is a revised version.

During the Sydney Writers' Festival in 2012, I attended a sort of master-class-cum-workshop with a few other writers. It was conducted by Mal Peet, who suggested ahead of time that we read his Life: An Exploded Diagram, to provide a common point of discussion. (It's a brilliant book, by the way.)

Reading his book prompted me to ask in the workshop: what makes a book "a YA book"? We concluded that even if there is probably no such thing as a YA book, there are books that work well with that readership, because, like Peet's example, they offer a degree of insight and reassurance, and deliver notions in a logical way. That's the Short Manifesto.

We discussed Martin Amis' infamous "If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book…". Collectively, we sneered, though in fairness, the ageing enfant terrible (he's 63) was not being as offensive as we thought. He actually went on to say "…the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable." So he's ignorant, but not malignant. Every book written by anything past a novice is written in a minefield, surrounded by restraints.

The world of writing is like a church. Novelists want to be the Deity, but are accorded the status of cardinals. Essayists and critics are bishops, writers of hard-back, glossy-paged non-fiction are priests, writers of children's fiction are seen, by the cardinals, as mere ushers. Writers of juvenile non-fiction stand lower than the ushers, at about the level of the church cat—or something it dragged in.

With my deputy assistant mouse-catcher status, I hate it when people ask me if I will ever write "a real book". Like Amis, they know nothing of my craft. Every writer must consider who the reader(s) will be. My primary trade is as a science writer, writing for adults. On a given day, I might describe the qualities of rocket fuels, the operations of certain insidious poisons within the cell, or why quantum physics tells us mobile phones can't cause cancer.

If I were in the security services, somebody preoccupied with high explosives, readily-available deadly poisons, and lethal radiation would be a worry. I'm not a spook, but I worry about me, too, and that is why the material I write is informative and leads to understanding, but omits key elements. Let me put it this way: I don't do recipes.

I know who my story is directed at, but I also know who else might be reading. And I don't just mean Bad Guys, I mean potential young hell-raisers such as I was in my younger days. I explain the principles, the ideas, the features, but I hold back on the plumbing. (I'll explain plumbing shortly.)

For a writer, no subject should be off-limits, and that applies equally when I am writing for younger readers. Perhaps even more so, which is why my first reading is from the Book of Jerome (that's Jerome S. Bruner in his The Process of Education, 1960):
We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.
Talking with Mal Peet, we agreed that sex scenes were not necessarily off-limits for teens. After all, teenagers can get porn if they want it. In books, it's better to deal with feelings and to leave out what I dubbed "the plumbing", the IKEA assembly manual of carnality. Love and sex are part of life, and it is better to acknowledge them sensibly and move on: no prurient dwelling, and no nervous-Nellying, either.

Younger readers are less patient with nonsense, more demanding, probably more knowing than we realise or would like (let's be honest: we all feel the need to shelter the young, just a bit!). They also have massive gaps in their knowledge and experience, and that puts extra demands on those writing for a young audience. Fill the gaps, but fill them with Good Stuff!

Now, a short rant: some 59 years ago I had to memorise this: Dawson, Mackenzie, Isaacs, Suttor, Burdekin, Lynd, Mitchell, Gilbert, Norman, Flinders, Leichhardt, Roper, Alligator. I won't reveal what this vile and useless catalogue of trivia reflects, but my cohort had to memorise it. The list failed to impress me then, and I retain it to this day only as a party trick few can emulate. The young deserve better of their elders than to be set tasks as foolish as learning that list.

Adults know me as a science writer, but my satiable curtiosity about how and why things happened pushes me to be a story-teller who dwells on historical facts for younger readers. I don't sell them short, or "dumb down" for them, I am an honest dealer—except when it come to roping them in, captivating, entrancing, winning their hearts and minds, because then, like any good story-teller, I get in touch with my inner huckster. For example, see the second item in my Big Manifesto.
So: four things are required:
*  careful, considered, logically structured writing;
*  interesting content (or useful content or both); and most of all,
*  a guided journey into curiosity and wonder.
Last, there's the hook, the grabber. Think how many of your favourite fictional tales begins with a hook (though I gather that the jargon term for this is "portal"). It involves a trip through a wardrobe, a looking-glass or a TARDIS. Where is the rule that says non-fiction should be different? (Those four things are the Medium Manifesto.)

My writing always involves a pursuit of the curious. It might be a question like: what made people think rockets would work in a vacuum? Or what was the Clown in The Winter's Tale doing, planning to buy sugar when Shakespeare died before Britain settled Bermuda? Or how does ricin kill? Or why did so many sports begin in 1859 ±2? I got a whole book out of each of those questions.

To take a recent case, and this time I was writing for Year 5, I can not only prove that Hargraves didn't discover gold in Australia: I can also prove that he did something far more useful, because he and Enoch Rudder conspired to get a gold rush started. This is a good story, and soon I will use it in a larger work, written for adults, as well. (Actually, I started writing the adult book first, it went ugly, so I side-lined it and did the kids' version. Now I can go back and write the Big People version.)

Again, while doing a book for Year 4: I wondered who the oldest and youngest First Fleeters were. I'll stay with this one for a bit, because it shows how dogged pursuit puts the story into history. You can read more about this stuff in About Those Convicts, but here's the short version.

I knew that Elizabeth Hayward and Elizabeth Beckford were the oldest and youngest female convicts in the First Fleet. I looked them up at Old Bailey Online. Then I browsed the other cases heard that day, and found Samuel Burt, who steadfastly spurned having his death sentence for forgery commuted to transportation. I thought this a good yarn, a neat angle: a literate and well-spoken youngster who preferred to swing rather than go to the Antipodes. He must have been scared!

Well, I was wrong. Yes, Samuel yearned for the gallows, but it was because he lacked either the resolve or the depravity necessary to top himself. Thwarted in love, he committed a forgery and handed himself in so the hangman could turn him off. I knew then that I had a really good yarn. I dug and I dug then, asking the story-teller's favourite question: and then, what happened?

I found the answer buried in a 1790 issue of The Times: Samuel's lady relented and agreed to marry him. He allowed his sentence to be commuted, she came to visit in Newgate, caught gaol fever and died. His fate was sealed: he came out in the Second Fleet, was a model prisoner, and by 1794, he was pardoned and had a grant at Bulanaming near Sydney's Newtown.

Now here's the best part: I can't find Samuel anywhere after that! He may have left the colony, or settled into a quiet life, drowned himself or died in the bush: I have nothing else on him. So far. It will be out there somewhere, but I am satisfied with what I have. Half a story, when you are writing for the young, may be better than none, but half a story is definitely better than a whole polished one.

That story-teller's favourite question: and then, what happened? works two ways: it's good for us to pursue, but it's even better when the listener takes up the cry, the question, and joins in the hunt.

So with due respect to Mr Amis, by far my superior as a Lord Cardinal Novelist, this mere rodent control agent says, "serious brain injury" means no-mucking-about, hole-in-the-head stuff. Just try doing what I do, with a hole in your head! When you write for the young, you need to keep your wits about you, not have them leaking out to be scattered on the floor around you.

Martin, mate: Peter Kemp's 2010 review in The Times of The Pregnant Widow drove you into the foetal position, and your tantrum over his panning is famous. We speak of little else in our cheap and dingy garrets. Now, we writers for children know we write for the harshest, most forthright critics alive and we advise due caution. Keep writing for adults, old son, because no amount of brain injury can insulate you from the roasting our attentive young readers would give you.

Now here's the Big Manifesto, still a Work-in-progress: 


A draft recipe for young people's history

I believe a good history for young readers should contain most of these:

• Facts and figures that resonate (i.e., should be memorable);
• Gross and gruesome bits (a sprinkle of ugh! factor makes for memorable);
• Lists offering perspectives and insights (several, logical);
• People's stories with different viewpoints and perspectives;
• Key events, seen from several different perspectives;
• Logical sequences that help readers understand how the story unfolds;
• Dates for readers to do timelines (maybe 16, sprinkled through, not essential);
• Comparisons: viewpoints, lifestyles, social and living conditions;
• Interpretations and reasons for things: insights on what was different back then;
• Unexpected details (contrasts with today, paradoxical bits etc.);
• Policies and practices that drove or determined events;
• Social conditions that influenced or facilitated behaviour;
• Economic and commercial considerations that drove decisions;
• Methods, technologies and techniques that made things possible (steam, germ theory etc.).
Now you really want to know what that list was?  Those names were the rivers encountered by Ludwig Leichhardt in 1844-45, as he explored northwards, in order.  It is totally useless for anything at all, other than as a frightening example of what comes from completely futile "education".
You will see signs of that in a book to be published on October 1 by the National Library of Australia.  It is to be called The Big Book of Australian History, and it will be available in both print as an epub-formatted e-book with loads and loads of links to original sources.

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