Beyond Story Mountains

Katherine Rundell, a fellow of All Souls, Oxford and the winner of this year’s Costa Children’s Book Award for the gloriously imaginative The Explorer, was recently asked in an interview why she writes for children rather than adults. “Children”, she announces, with the kind of breathless excitement that matches perfectly the narrative tone of her books, “are readers unlike any other kind”. She goes on to describe the inevitable moment during each of her book signings when a child will start relating to her in great detail their favourite scene. At this point, their eyes light up and they continue to run on with the story, adding events and characters that never existed in Rundell’s book at all, but are entirely of their own invention. “Kids make the books bigger”, she says, “they do half the work. It’s pretty remarkable”. 

It is a joy to read with a child. They feel stories in a way that I wish more adults could, taking ideas and pushing them into the most wonderful and unexpected regions. If a character is sad, they will cry out “oh no, poor them!”, or express outrage if another is cruel, or pause in reading to elaborate on the author’s depiction of a forest, building up the image with their own magical beasts and vibrant wildlife. It is the aspect of mentoring that gives me most pleasure; I sit back and let myself go with them, the world of the book opening up for me through their eyes.

The creative writing that school children must produce for exams is necessarily prescriptive. And yet, it still surprised me the first time I sat down with a student and asked them how they think one writes a story. I remember my own teachers instilling in me the notion that narratives are fluid, often refusing to conform to a fixed structure, but the child I was mentoring diligently drew out for me a “Story Mountain”. This, unfortunately, sounds far more interesting than it is. They continued by talking me through the necessary rising conflict, dramatic climax and declining tension that finally peters out into a neat conclusion, all of which corresponds to the slopes of the mountain. To me, this flat dissection of a story sounded more like a TV executive producer’s pitch for the next Netflix crime drama than a child experimenting with the short story form.

Of course, there are certain hoops that students must jump through in order to meet test rubric, but at times the language employed by examination bodies works to stifle imaginative thinking. This is, I think, where mentoring comes in. Having an hour or two uninterrupted to sit down one on one with a young person gives them the time to really engage with writing – as opposed to seeing it as another tedious box-ticking exercise. I had a student recently tell me, as we were writing a short story plan together, “Ok, I think I’m going to turn the story mountain upside down.” He turned the paper around and made it into a story valley, informing me that he would begin with a booming climax, then slow the narrative right down into a lingering mystery in the middle, before rising once more to end the story with a revelatory shock. In mentoring, you can take an enforced structure like the “story mountain” and tear it open so as to explore narrative from a completely new angle that enlivens and reinvigorates children’s understanding of storytelling.

Rundell’s language is some of the most original and unusual writing for children that I have read in years, and it has been a joy to discover her through mentoring. Once, after reading a particularly striking chapter of her book Rooftoppers, the eleven-year-old girl I was working with stopped and declared “the writer must have grown up in a wild jungle made of dictionaries”. Her writing teaches children that the English language can be wild and vibrant, that words can be tussled with and delighted in, and that the possibility for imaginative play within stories is limitless. There is one memory of my time as an Oppidan mentor that rings out as especially significant and gratifying. When helping a seven-year-old girl to get her head around similes, I told her “You can say anything is like anything”. “Not anything…” came the deeply suspicious response. But then we started trying together, and it turns out that an old man hunched over at a bus stop can be like a great grey vulture, the moaning voice of an aunt can slosh out like that brand of thick custard which always gets a disgusting rim on it, and time itself can resemble a fuzzy blue moment you can’t quite grab hold of. Creative writing should be seen as a powerful tool for young people, providing them with a voice and means of expressing themselves. Rundell is right when she says that children make books bigger; in my experience, their ways of seeing make things brighter too.

By Lamorna Ash