It’s the end of the summer holidays and in amongst the grim mix of forms, bags, and ugly clothes that is the first week of school, my children are asking for review books. I’m not going to even think of reviewing books this week (I’ve already left one kid in the wrong classroom), but I’m glad they’ve asked.
They’re keen to read because they’ve been deprived of books over the summer. In July, I packed away the X-box and wedged it into the inaccessible crack between my wardrobe and the wall, but I also packed away most of our books; we were going feral — hiking and kayaking in places where books are too heavy and tablets too delicate. I decided to try storytelling without books.
Our summer was a feast of late night campfires, sleeping bags, rugs, boat berths, sofa beds, and hilltop musings. After days of trekking, paddling and swimming, when it was too dark to read and I was almost too tired to speak, I got the kids to flex their imaginations instead. We shared horror stories about nose-worms and mum-suckers, rambling tales about small boys in suburban streets, and whimsy about an MC who was actually a blob of gum on a pavement.
We also used D&D roleplaying games to create a communal adventure tale. My children took it in turn to lead as dungeon master (DM).
The DM shapes a basic plot and mission, then hopes the other characters will follow his hints through riddles, battles, and hurdles, to reach a satisfactory conclusion. In practice of course the other players do whatever they fancy, dice rolls disallow various moves, and fantastic, alternative stories are born.
My character was Grendalilly Picklethwistle, a sweet little thing who’ll steal everything you own. She was meant to attack a goblin in a cave to reach some treasure, but the young goblin was trapped under a mining cart and she felt for him. When she pulled him out, instead of attacking, she fed him, and the friendship between Grendalilly and Two Shoes was born. A character who was originally supposed to appear and die, Two Shoes was a blank sheet, and gradually we filled him in. Sweet, lost, clumsy, quiet, meek, and loyal, he was largely defenceless but would invariably follow Grendalilly and help when he could, not least in rounding up their belligerent pony, Bugroff.
The saga of Grendalilly and Two Shoes kept us going all summer.
There is nothing expert about our storytelling (or my sketches, I know), but there’s a magic in weaving a story together, fleshing out the characters and really not having a clue what everyone else’s characters are going to do. As summer progressed, each child became more surefooted in their storytelling — one reaching for depth of character, another gaining confidence with character detail and consistency, and the third learning to listen to the plot before adding to it.
The kids all get a chance to speak, act, role-play, and lead. There’s debate and bartering between the characters (“My character can’t see in the dark and hasn’t got a light — yours will have to crawl”), and non-sequiturs are ousted by the other players (“we can’t use that medicine; I drank it yesterday!”).
Stories created aloud are messy and fragmented — by nature they’re first edits — but they bring a natural fluency to a story that can be easily lost on paper, especially for any children still stalling over spelling and grammar. It flows faster, it’s storytelling eaten raw, out in the fresh air with your first readers sitting right beside you. Wild storytelling, if you like.
And once they’re out, they’re absolutely dependent on memory. Some stories are told and forgotten, others are remembered, and favourites can be retold and become family lore.
This is how I try to give my children the inspiration and ability to write. This is the spark, the life force behind anything they put onto paper during the colder winter months when we can’t sit on hilltops into the night (although there may still be log fires). I can give them commas and semicolons whenever they need them, but this is the raw energy from which they will draw their own stories, I hope.
‘Will you write them into a book?’ asked a friend.
Well, probably not. Maybe my kids will — these stories are for them, and as much theirs, after all. Right now, I’m too busy. I have a fire to light, marshmallows and hot chocolates to serve, and three faces calling out for Grendalilly, Two Shoes, Bugroff, and Mum.