It was late in the holidays, with work to be done
Going back to school soon, the end of the fun
My son scratched his head and gave a big sigh
I’ve got to write a story, to give it a try
The problem he said was creating a story
His teachers would never give him the glory
He was averaging c’s in his paper he said
He simply had nothing flowing from his head
Then, wait just a sec, I said with a yelp,
There’s this book I know, I think it could help
Called Descriptosaurus with characters and stuff
It could pad out your stories without any fluff
With settings and adjectives and adverbs and things
You could write about dragons and monsters and kings
It could give you emotions; happy, evil or sad
With heroes and villains; the good and the bad
Creatures with wings, arms, legs and heads,
Buildings with secret stairs, armchairs and beds
Landscapes with mountains, volcanoes and bogs
Atmospheres with lightning, misty skies, fogs
In conjunction with that though, I said just remember
There’s no substitute for reading Jan to December
With Descriptosaurus you can make quite a start
But you’ll also need to use what’s in your heart.
Many parents have asked me which books their child should read to improve their creative writing and enhance their vocabulary. There’s no magic solution to writing – otherwise we’d all be published authors, but there are tools that can help. The two issues that come up most often are 1) the creative process – a story with which to work – which comes from the child’s imagination. Some children are better at this than others – and many who themselves read voraciously will find it easier to come up with an idea. And 2) vocabulary and setting. It sometimes seems that those who devour non-fiction more readily than fiction can have the stronger vocabulary. For vocabulary and setting, I’ve found a book that might be able to help.
Descriptosaurus by Alison Wilcox is an interesting resource, marketed mainly at the education industry, although it does have a place in the home if used correctly. It aims to frame that first ‘idea’ or expand vocabulary into a rounded piece of creative writing – offering help with settings, character traits and emotions. It helps to break down language into its different grammatical components – explaining phrasing, adjectives and verbs and using them in conjunction with landscapes, places, and characters so that the child has a starting point and can then progress to a story from their own imagination with the tools in place to help them. The book divides up into settings, characters, and creatures. It’s an expensive resource for parents, but can be a useful addition to a classroom environment.
Show Me a Story by Emily Neuburger is also targeted primarily at parents or carers, but with a less academic slant. It is American, so the store suggestions at the back are redundant for the UK reader, but the rest of the book is illuminating and inspiring. Initially the start of the book is aimed at the parent, informing them how to start a discussion on narratives, to encourage inventive minds and demonstrate how children use stories to explore emotions and questions about the world, to solve problems and to answer moral dilemmas. Emily Neuburger then goes on to explore how to encourage storytelling – visiting inspirational places, starting a journal etc. She then describes different craft activities to help children form a story and storylines, from ‘story pools’ to collages, blocks, dice and games. She brings to mind the Simon and Garfunkel song (America) of sitting in a train carriage imagining what all the other people do for a living, exotic or otherwise, making up stories wherever you are.
The Usborne Write Your Own Story Book is a user-friendly book, spiral bound to lay flat, which encourages writing within it. It uses the same sorts of tools in a more basic way – setting and character suggestions, and possible story openers. In a way though, it is quite prescriptive – the blank pages have titles at the top that encourage the child to write within a certain genre: telling a story from a given picture, continuing a story already started, creating your own fairy tale, writing a story about time travel (all good training but more limiting perhaps). There are handy tips in the margins too: explaining motive, questions to ask, super verbs, sights and sounds etc. The crucial difference between this and Descriptosaurus, is whereas the latter looks like an academic text book, Usborne’s looks like a fun book to play with – which will help to get the creative juices flowing for enjoyment. Usborne’s more recent title is Write and Draw Your Own Comics, which is similar but of course with the drawing element as well – explaining speech bubbles, sound effects, exploring action drawings, and moving the story along frame by frame. Both encourage a love for writing.
These are all great tools for starting out, but again, for me there is no substitute for reading as much as possible and also discussion about stories with your child – be it stories from books, newspapers, TV, family history and the real world. It’s important to share views on what might happen next, why a character acted how they did, what emotions you feel after reading or watching something. From this, children can gather the tools needed to create their own wonderful imaginative adventures.
If completely stuck for a starting point for discussion, one useful book is You Choose by Nick Sharratt and Pippa Goodhart. For a while it was given free to toddlers in the Bookstart book pack in the UK, and although it is lovely to look at with a toddler, it is also an ever-useful tool to spark ideas for creative writing, in much the same way as the more advanced titles above. Each page aims to provide a different ‘choice’; where would you go, where would you live, how would you travel – all excellent tools for setting a story.