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 Autumn 2021

Passionate About Sharing Stories with Young People

In our autumn edition, three CWISL authors explore the topic of the environment and the very different ways it shapes their writing, sharing tips and writing prompts to inspire young writers. Christian Darkin, author of  eco-thriller #sharkgirl, considers some of the ethical questions raised by environmental activism. Ally Sherrick explains how poetry helps to evoke the historical setting of The Queen's Fool. Beverley Birch reveals how she uses language to create a sense of place in her most recent book, Song Beneath the Tides.

My latest novel, Song Beneath the Tides, is set on the east coast of Africa. Imagine curving bays of white sand, coral reefs, mangrove creeks, deep seas, a fishing village, a tiny offshore island and ancient Swahili ruins buried in a primeval forest. The place is at the heart of the adventure, inspired by my own experience growing up in a place just like that. I'm thrilled that readers and reviewers have said I've created it so vividly in words they feel they are travelling the landscapes of the story, that it's like a character in the novel. 
In fact, 'place' is, for me, always a personality, interacting with human and animal characters in my stories, affecting their senses, moods, movements, reactions, influencing events.  
It's also an exciting approach to explore with young writers - a powerful tool for exploring language, experimenting and playing with it. In my experience it prompts instinctive, adventurous 'writing from the inside' rather than describing a plot and characters from the outside. 
I focus initially on group discussion. Together we gather ingredients for a single scene in a single location, and develop the picture – language, imagery, mood, actions. I'm a great believer in having students close their eyes and imagine stepping into that chosen place, then use each of their five senses in turn: what can they hear, smell, taste, touch and, finally, see? How does each sense convey clues about the nature of a place, the possible effect on the body and how it moves, the choices a person makes – in effect what might they feel, think, do? Students suggest words and phrases; together we unpick how words – alternatives, combinations – have both meaning and subtler impression packed into them, how, by choosing a few most effective words or combination of words, we can reveal a great many things about character and story to bring it alive for a reader.  
Examples emerge from students: 'my shoes make sucking noises in the mud': tells you it's muddy, there's a sucking sound as you move, but nothing else. On the other hand, turn it round, 'mud sucks at my shoes': the mud acquires personality, a suggestion of motive (sinister?), hints how you move (with difficulty) and feel (a little intimidated or overwhelmed). 

In the opening scene of Song beneath the Tides I imagined wind blowing through trees. But I wrote 'The forest stirred', suggesting restlessness, even, given what happens, the forest's unease, adding to character (and reader) unease. Another example comes from discussing a 'hot' place, comparing 'hot' with 'scorching', 'searing', 'burning', 'parching' – these suggesting scale, pain, possible danger, without having to say it.   
The second part of the session is individual writing about their own, freely chosen, situation and place, entirely imaginary: wild – mountain, cave, forest, desert, sea, or constructed – room, shop, street, school, harbour. We review how each place has different sounds, from natural sounds of the earth, creatures, people, to machinery and structures, how weather, climate, quality of light, all have their effect on the senses, and all this can give clues to story and character.
Young writers are never short of exotic imagination: I've found that exploring 'place' through the senses and the range of vocabulary to build impressions leads to exciting results. It encourages writing as playing with language:  exploring, experimenting, combining and juxtaposing words for effect, trying different things out, as if conjuring it up or painting it.  It also encourages the idea of investigating a wide range of options, then narrowing down to precise choices to convey what they want most effectively, of achieving quality through experiment, reflection and choice.  
I'm consistently thrilled by the writing from even the most tentative student, always far beyond my expectations.
Trailer for Song Beneath the Tides
Raised in East Africa, Beverley Birch has been in children’s publishing, on both sides of the fence, for many years. Author of novels, picture books, biographies, retellings of classic works, and collaborations with her husband, photographer Nick Birch, she has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and shortlisted for several other awards, both in the UK and abroad. Song Beneath the Tides is her latest book. You can follow Beverley on Twitter @bevbirchauthor and find out more about her work here:

My latest, Tudor-set story, The Queen’s Fool, features a young orphan girl, Cat Sparrow, who, as the story opens, is growing up with her beloved sister, Meg, in the care of the nuns of a convent set deep in the heart of the countryside. Cat is what we would regard today as a child with learning difficulties, though that term was not used or recognized at the time her story is set. She is being helped to learn her letters by one of the nuns she is particularly close to, Sister Beatrice, or Nonny Sweet-Bee as Cat calls her. Nonny Sweet-Bee uses the names of the herbs, flowers and other plants in the convent herb-garden to teach Cat her alphabet and to spell out her name using a rhyming acrostic, which Cat enjoys reciting.
As an activity, ask students to research the names of things in the natural world – it could be flowers and plants, trees, birds, animals, fish – anything! Then, get them to write either a prose or rhyming acrostic spelling their name as in the example for Cat’s name. They could illustrate it too if time allows.

Ally Sherrick is the award-winning author of historical fiction for young people. Her debut, Black Powder, about two children who get caught up in the infamous Gunpowder Plot, won the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award in 2017. Her latest book, The Queen’s Fool, a tale of intrigue and treason at Henry VIII’s court, was published by Chicken House Books in February this year. She is currently working on a brand new story due out in early 2023. For more information about Ally and all her books visit her website: and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick

In my young adult thriller, #sharkgirl, the hero finds herself on board an environmental protest ship, battling to protect the rainforests from a greedy oil company. But where is the line between legitimate protest and terrorism? What constitutes justifiable action when your aim is saving the world? Do the ends always justify the means, or is there a limit to what is acceptable?Environmental crisis, and the protestors trying to avert it, are very much in the news right now. Here are a few discussion starters to stimulate interesting debates to explore in class: How would you rank the protests linked below? Which are acceptable, which aren’t, and why? How far would you go to protect the environment?

Additional questions:
Does it matter if protest is illegal? 

Does it matter if innocent people are inconvenienced or even harmed? 
What is your experience of protest? 
What would you do and what would you not do to protect what you thought was right?
Christian Darkin is the author of best selling "Act Normal" chapter books for children. For older readers, his credits include two young adult novels, "The Skull" and a detective technothriller, "@thelogician". He's also written six non-fiction books, two science documentaries, a Doctor Who spinoff film starring the sixth Doctor, and articles for dozens of magazines and most of the national newspapers. His illustration work can be found in hundreds of children's books but also in grown-up titles such as the scientific journal, Nature. He also works as an animator, creating an entire series for BBC Cbeebies, as well as special effects for film and TV. Website: Twitter: @AnimatedDad 

CWISL is proud to be part of the team organising Stepping Into Stories: Herne Hill Kids' Lit Festival 2022. The festival is taking place both in local schools and at Station Hall, Herne Hill, from 1-6 February 2022. As part of the festival, there's a children's story-making competition, which launches on 15th November 2021, with a closing date on 14th January. The winners will be announced at the festival, on 5th February. The theme of the competition is Bouncing Back. Discover more about the competition in the video below:

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