It’s lucky to be able to spin a character trait into a career, and for me that key characteristic is an overload of curiosity. I am an intellectual magpie. Yes, I can get deep into subjects, but really I’m looking for the shiny things: exciting nuggets such as why grandfather clocks are so called — it’s because of the song! Add to this a desire to pass on the thrill, and you have satisfactory ingredients for a writer of children’s nonfiction. Of course I also need a sense of what children might find interesting, but as an overgrown eight-year-old, I mainly work on what gives me a buzz; and aren’t we all, as writers, driven in much this way? As my career has developed, however, the rules and conventions governing my work have become more and more stringent, until along came phonics, threatening the magpie instinct with scarily exact boundaries. Can a magpie thrive in a cage? Fortunately, a writer is not actually a bird.
My work was at first controlled by the rules of a trade publisher of children’s nonfiction. I got a good grounding in clarity, accommodating my language to broad age groups (6–9 or 10–14, say), working to a word count and thinking visually to produce highly illustrated books. It was an excellent toolkit for passing on the shiny things — and keeping the lustre intact. Moving to educational publishers’ reading schemes reduced the books into smaller stages, based on school years and levels of reading competence: a refinement of broadly the same parameters. But then came the government initiative which shifted the teaching of reading and writing to phonics programmes, and it was time for this magpie to do some serious learning.
One problem is that learning how phonics works is not really all that shiny, so I’ll try not to tell you more than enough. Phonics programmes are based on the ‘Letters and Sounds’ programme, which details the staged introduction of sounds and the letters that represent them, in technical terms grapheme-phoneme correspondences, or GPCs. So while ‘a’ is introduced in the very first stage, this is only ‘a’ as in the word as (not about, ball, or path as pronounced in south-east England — and you can forget author, saw, and make until very late stages), and the only other GPCs in this stage are ‘i’ (as in bin), and the solo consonants ‘s’ (as in sat), ‘t’, ‘p’, and ‘n’ (no sugar, show, then, thing or – and I love this – phonics). Now write a story or a nonfiction book! It’s a challenge which requires a dogged detail-driven mind, combined with a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed optimism about the possibility of attacking it creatively, and possibly an addiction to jumping through hoops (well, mental ones).
I was lucky that the first scheme I wrote for allowed for a few additional ‘topic words’ – ones which are not decodable at the book’s level, like water or out at an early stage – so I was broken in gently to the discipline. On top of this, all schemes also gradually introduce the ‘tricky’ (officially Common Exception) words such as the, I, a, into, some and was, which can be learnt rather than decoded. Still there is the question of just how to start pecking out the shiny ideas for books.
The challenge is this, of course: that you might be able to think of a subject that would interest 4–5-year-olds (and even fits a National Curriculum topic for Reception), but it’s no use whatsoever if you can’t express it within the phonics restrictions. So the cart has to go very securely before the horse, although of course in terms of what the book is for, the cart here is the horse: the topic (or story) is really a construct to encourage reading practice, and the (other) challenge for the writer is to try to come up with something that will actually feel worth reading, as not all children are as thrilled by decoding words on a page as I once was. So my phonics methodology is to start not with an idea, but by writing lists of words which fit the bill at the necessary stage, because not only is it no use thinking of words that won’t be allowed, but each stage must practise its new GPCs as much as possible. My desk gets covered with messy lists whose headings might be crust, drastic, brunch, thrill, stink (if I’m working on a level which requires consonant clusters with short vowel sounds) or brown, slight, point, flair, dream (consonant clusters with long vowels) and so on, which I stare at and add to and stare again until some commonality somewhere in the lists leaps out and propels me to another piece of paper to start drafting decodable phrases on whatever topic has sprung to mind. Only then is it time to research the subject or flesh out the story (when I get to write one).
This process feels a bit like those ‘magic eye’ pictures from the 1990s, crossing and uncrossing your eyes (or brain) in hope that something will eventually come into focus. (For me, the magic eye things never did — the best result I ever got was to feel slightly seasick: fortunately I am luckier with finding common threads in lists of words.) But when it does work, the satisfaction is even greater than that of seeing a fuzzy 3D image in not-quite black and white (I say, but I’m probably just jealous). Certainly I find it quite exhilarating: the sudden leap from ‘what can I find to write about here?’ to ‘maybe there’s something about the good side of a rainy day’. This when the heart starts to beat faster and the pen gets scribbling.
A few examples: among my lists of words with consonant clusters and long vowels I found sleek, brown, bright, coast and they led me to a simple book on otters. A focus on ‘ch’, ‘sh’, ‘th’, ‘nk’, ‘ng’ brought into focus a title on what chickens need (a shed, with thick planks, drink…), you get the idea. Moving away from nonfiction, more long vowels with consonant clusters have led to a story about a monster on a train…. Of course the fact that pictures aren’t restricted by phonics also helps: the monster on the train can evidently only be seen by a small girl and not her (non-decodable) mother or the (also non-decodable) passengers; an otter’s eyes are similarly not decodable at the level in question, but the word bright is, so we can label a photo to give the information; in both cases the book gains shininess at the same time as the pictures reduce the burden on the words. A dose of imagination (some would say cunning) helps a lot, once that initial trick of finding the subject is managed.
Of course then there is the crafting and drafting that all writing needs: the slog behind the inspiration as you try to put across that thrill of subject in the words allowed, and then find that how you think old is pronounced doesn’t match the publisher’s pronunciation, so you’re back to scratching your head. And there is always the potential for a spanner in the works: we like the concept, but that level is full now; could you rework it for the next level up/down? The head hits the desk for a moment or three, because this means that the sounds (which drove the initial idea) have to be completely different. Sometimes this works! At other times, the commission is lost.
There is no way of pretending this writing is a purely creative, inspirational process: in some ways it’s more like doing cryptic crosswords. But working to these strictures appeals to my editorial, picky side: I get to obsess not just about punctuation, or what should be capitalised or hyphenated, or checking my facts to make sure I’m not misleading the young, but the whole field of what I can say at what level. No wonder writers from other disciplines (sometimes charmingly called ‘real writers’ by reading schemes’ publicity; what does that make us educational authors?) can find it bewildering.
Oh. I mentioned fact-checking. If I am to hold my head up high in nonfiction circles, I need to correct an untruth I have perpetrated here: in spite of their reputation, there is no scientific evidence that magpies steal shiny things; that idea comes from a French play from the early 1800s, which was then turned into an opera by Rossini. Now there’s another shiny fact! So perhaps it is writers who are the greater collectors of glinting things, although our aim is to pass them on to others rather than to hoard them, just as long as we can find – and are permitted to use – the right words.