My reaction was unequivocal when my daughter’s Year 1 teacher invited me to read a picture book manuscript to her class. I had initially approached Mrs. R for feedback about a fractured fairy tale I was working on, and her thoughts on how a teacher might use it with a class. The opportunity to test drive my story with a real-live audience was more than I’d hoped for.
Then I wondered: Would the kids be able to follow a story in manuscript form, with no illustrations? And how would a fairy tale — even a fractured one — play out in a class where boys significantly outnumbered girls?
I hastily set a date before my misgivings could get the better of me. We agreed that I would introduce the fractured fairy tale form, and read my story out loud, with Mrs. R reading out key illustration notes. We would then discuss the story as a class, and challenge the children to write their own variations on the fairy tale theme.
And so, last Friday morning, I donned my Important Client Meeting suit from my BK (before kids) lawyering days and joined my daughter in the queue outside her Year 1 classroom. I felt as jittery and vulnerable as any New Kid on the First Day.
The jitters subsided when the kids gathered around my chair. I have always seized any pretext to read to groups of children — birthday parties, Beaver camps, etc. — fueled by a sense of mission to impart the love of narrative that has been my oldest and surest friend. The compulsion to share a story I cared about obliterated the self-conscious awareness that this particular story happened to be mine.
Here are some of the things I learned from the experience:
- Boys are perfectly amenable to fairy tales — and indeed, why not? Fairy tales offer a fast-paced, high stakes microcosm of outlandish misbehaviour and thrilling derring-do. Contrary to popular perception, boys are also ready to empathise with a female protagonist — a princess at that. Especially if she somersaults into a pond to wrestle a frog away from a greedy heron. And it helps if the frog has a loud, rude burp.
- Girls rather like somersaulting princesses too, and are partial to burping frogs.
- It helps maintain a class’s attention to leave little gaps in your reading for the children to fill in, chanting in unison.
- Kids are adept at taking in stories aurally without the benefit of pictures, so you don’t need to wait for your story to be published to begin sharing it.
- Children are the most enthusiastic audience imaginable, and as children’s authors, we are beyond lucky to be writing for listeners who consume our stories for the sheer joy of it, with no ulterior motive beyond the desire to find out what happens next.
I urge my fellow as-yet unpublished picture book authors to reach out to schools and teachers as part of our apprenticeship. If you can read your work-in-progress to a class, not only will you figure out what is and isn’t working (which beats to extend, and which to cut), but their laughter and curiosity will remind why you embarked on this journey in the first place.
I have found teachers to be remarkably generous with their time, and keenly insightful as to what makes a story fly or flop. What’s more, they feel invested in helping us to get it right. As a teacher once told me, “As a school, we couldn’t function without picture books. Everything we do hinges on them.”
Teachers depend on us to write just as surely as we depend on them to nurture our next generation of readers.
And they are also tooling up the next generation of writers, who are gaining on us at breakneck speed.
So I’d better get on with that re-draft!