I was actually planning on writing a post about our favourite Christmas books but as I was researching the books, something unusual happened. Every time I read a book, it sparked an idea for a new story in my head – either something for me to write (I had a twitching in my fingers just to sit down and start writing…) or an idea for a story frame which the Beans might enjoy using as the basis of one of their own stories.
Some children are natural writers. They have an abundance of story ideas and love nothing more than a fresh notebook and the time just to let the story flow. But others find it more difficult, and value a little bit of guidance to help them create these imaginative worlds through their writing.
Below are just a few of the ideas I had, which might be helpful for anyone struggling to get started. Sometimes, just providing a framework for a child on which to hang their story or giving them a story starter triggers something in them and helps them get going. No doubt, they’ll then go off in directions you never predicted, which is the beauty of imaginative writing 🙂 So, here you go. Hopefully it’ll provide some inspiration for your children too. If you do find it helpful, please comment below as I’m happy to share more suggestions in subsequent posts.
Sometimes it was the story opener which totally captivated me. For example, one story I read starts in a bookshop, where a boy spots a traditional old advent calendar on the shelf. He knows immediately that this is the one for him rather than one of the more modern chocolate-filled choices. When he gets it home and opens the first door, a tiny slip of paper falls out. On it is written the start of a story: a captivating mystery which starts with a little girl spotting a lamb in a shop, running after it and following it into the woods where she meets an angel. Each day another slip of paper falls out of the calendar and a further part of the story is added. As the little girl runs after the lamb, she meets and is joined by various key people and animals as she follows a journey from Norway to Bethlehem and from the present day back through time to the birth of Jesus.
An amazing story (The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder), but one of the most engaging openings I’ve read for a long time. The idea of secrets being held within a magical Advent Calendar, which are slowly revealed throughout the month uncovering a mystery, is a hugely appealing concept. It had me hooked immediately. You could easily “borrow” this exact opening for your own children to get them started in writing a Christmas related mystery.
Or you could use the basic concept but alter it slightly. For example, they could use the “magical” and “countdown” elements to write a story about a little girl on a month long holiday in a remote rural village. Her mother has bought her a diary to record her days, but it turns out to be a magical diary. Each day a slip of paper falls out unveiling some sort of mystery surrounding the people of the village. The race is on for her to solve the mystery using the magical story combined with her own wit and ingenuity!
Point of View
Other times it was the point of view which made the story unique and interesting. For example, a historical diary written from the perspective of a nine-year-old living during that period makes for a captivating story for a young reader. And who better to write such a story after researching the era in question than a nine-year-old themselves. Ideas about Bean9 selecting a historical time/place she was fascinated by and writing a diary of a child from that time started to fill my brain! Maybe she could write a diary about a girl alive during the period of the Suffragette movement for example.
Or why not ask them to have a go at rewriting one of their favourite picture books from an animal’s perspective. Keeping with the Christmas theme, perhaps they could write a story about the birth of Jesus from the point of view of one of the animals in the stable. Or how about focussing on the Christmas traditions in different countries. They could write from the perspective of a bird for example, who flies down through Europe discovering the various ways in which families celebrate over the Christmas period.
Non-fiction and fiction blends
Most of all though, I noticed how the best books were those in which non-fictional elements were interwoven into a fictional story. Those in which the author used some aspects of reality, either facts or stories from the past or the current and showcased these truths in a way that best engaged the reader – by bringing them to life through imaginary characters and the art of storytelling.
One of the best children’s authors to perfect this art form is Michael Morpurgo. He’s one of our favourite authors – we’ve loved all his books, both long and short – who has a very distinctive style:
- many of his books have historical and rural settings;
- his stories are based on historically accurate events which are woven into a fictional story involving individuals’ encounters of these events, thereby bringing them to life for the reader;
- they often involve either a letter revealing something from the past or an older person telling their family story;
- there are often a couple of twists – the first of which you can usually predict allowing you to think you know where the story is going, but then a second twist is brought in taking the story in an unexpected direction;
- they’re regularly written in the first person;
- there are frequent themes of loss, stoicism, bravery and trust;
- they challenge the reader’s perception of history in some way, sometimes by for example, showing it from a different perspective, as in the Elephant in the Garden, which follows a German family from Dresden and the subsequent destruction of this city in WWII;
- animals and their connection with humans often play a key role in his stories
As the style and structure/framework of his novels are so distinctive, I thought it would be fun for the Beans to have a go at copying them to create a fictional story based on a true historical event. Here’s a step by step process of how you might go about doing this with your child:
- Firstly, read a number of Michael Morpurgo books back to back. Box sets are available here. Some of our favourites are: Running Wild, War Horse, Kensuke’s Kingdom, Friend or Foe, Farm Boy, Twist of Gold, An Elephant in the Garden, The Fox and the Ghost King, Born to Run, A Medal for Leroy but there are lots to choose from. For younger children, I’d steer away from Private Peaceful – we tried to listen to this on audiobook when they were younger, and it was a little too hard hitting and sad for them to cope with.
He’s written plenty of excellent short, picture books too which would allow you to more quickly get an idea of his style. We love: On Angel Wings, The Best Christmas Present in the World and Poppy Field but there are so many available.
- As they’re reading, ask them to think about the similarities in the overall style of his writing and structure of his stories and then discuss together.
- Once they’ve got an idea of his style and structure, ask them to choose a period of history in which they’re particularly interested. Find books to read from that period and in particular those that give more information about what it was like to live during that time.
- Watch documentaries or films set in the chosen historical time period.
- Work with your child to narrow down which aspect from this part of history they’d like to use as a basis of their story and from whose point of view they’d like to write. For example, we’ve recently been studying about the explorations into the New World. On his last ever voyage, the explorer Henry Hudson was cast adrift into the Hudson Bay on a small rowing boat following a mutiny by his crew. He was never seen again. They could write a story from the perspective of Henry Hudson or his son John (who was sent in the boat with him) about what happened next. Maybe he joined forces with the Indians and explored deeper into what is now Canada. Maybe Henry Hudson and the other men cast adrift died leaving John as the sole survivor. Perhaps he was taken in with an Indian tribe and lived with them for the rest of his life.
- Ask them to think back to the Michael Morpurgo books they read and brainstorm ideas of how you could use his style to write a story about their chosen topic. Taking the above example, the story could start in the present day with a Canadian boy playing in his grandfather’s attic and finding John Hudson’s diary in an old sailor’s trunk wrapped inside an oilskin bag. The story could progress along two time frames: one in the 1600s through the voice of John Hudson and his adventures with the Indian tribes and the other in the present day as the boy tries to discover why his grandfather has this diary and what his own connection to Hudson is.
- Help them to plan out the story, mapping out the various twists and turns. Then revisit one of Morpurgo’s books and reread a chapter or two together to get the feel of his writing style.
- Start writing! Allocate a day or a few days for them just to write with nothing else planned. If they’re anything like Bean9, they won’t want to stop or be distracted if they’re in the flow of writing. But make sure they take plenty of breaks when they need them to run around and do something physical! At this point, please tell them not to worry about punctation, spelling or grammar. Let their creativity and imagination run wild.
- In the meantime, keep reading Morpurgo books to keep the feel of his writing in their soul!
A Writing Group
Following on from a conversation with a friend recently in which she suggested sharing stories our children have written to help provide inspiration for one another, I’ve decided to set up a small children’s writing group. The plan is to meet every three months with the intention of sharing any stories or poetry they’ve written and to discuss them together in a positive forum. No criticism, just a chance to chat about either their complete or partially written work.
The idea would be to send out their writing ahead of time for all the participants to read and absorb and then come together and chat about each story or poem: finding out what had made them want to write about that particular topic; whether they’d had inspiration from another book/s; about their characters and where they’d like to take these characters if their work is not yet complete or part of a series of books; what they plan to write about next etc. No required outcome other than to enjoy each other’s stories and poems.
Knowing children, they’ll love the opportunity to talk about stories and bounce ideas around. They’re all still so imaginative, they’ll probably come up with loads of crazy but brilliant ideas and provide boundless inspiration for one another.
Now to run through this with the Beans and set up the writing group with their friends for them all to share their creativity and passion for storytelling.
Happy writing 🙂