by Paul Mason
As a teacher, I met many young people who found reading a struggle. I looked for ways to help them discover the joy in reading – and in telling their own stories. The places they could go, the prospects that lay ahead! As a children’s writer, my aims are the same.
Creating engagement is essential in helping students learn. Engagement is also vital in writing for young people.
How do I try to engage readers with my writing?
- I write stories that reflect a child’s world.
- I create characters that children will care about.
- I walk in child-sized shoes. What would grab seven-year-old me?
- I spark curiosity in the world.
- I hit the ground running.
- I raise the stakes to keep readers turning those pages.
- I want one of my stories to light the reading fuse.
Before I became a children’s writer, I was a primary school teacher. It’s been a while since I stood in front of a class, whiteboard pen in hand or whistle dangling round my neck ready for dodgeball, but my teaching days still inform my writing.
Kids are honest. They’ll let you know if a lesson bombs. If it’s boring, they’ll tell you. They’ll tell you if they haven’t understood what you’ve been trying to get across.
Sometimes they’ll just say it outright. “Frankly Paul, I learned nothing today,” was a memorable comment at the end of one lesson. I took that one on the chin.
I learned to look at what I could do differently to make things meaningful and engaging. To remind myself, I had a proverb on my office wall at school:
Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.
Involvement or engagement is critical when helping children learn. It’s also critical in writing for young people.
How do I try to engage my readers in my writing?
Reflect a child’s world
I aim to reflect a young reader’s world in my stories. I look for settings or situations that will strike a chord. Even in my fantasy fiction, or stories based on historical events, my characters still find themselves in places that young readers will recognise:
A group of bored kids decide they’ll cut each other’s hair …
A child in Ancient Rome plays with his toys when he should be doing something else …
Kids have a thumb war at school …
A child tries desperately to get a prize from the claw machine at the arcade …
To be engaged in a story, readers need to connect with my characters and care what happens to them.
Many of my characters are children. In the face of problems or dilemmas, my characters sometimes make good choices, and sometimes they make bad ones. We all have our flaws and make mistakes. And that’s okay.
Just as importantly, I want readers to see that, like them, the children in my stories have strengths, dreams and imaginations. They create, they are brave, they can come out on top. There is always hope.
As I write, I try to remember what it was like to be a child. I take a walk in child-sized shoes. If I was seven years old, what would engage me, grab my attention? How would I feel about …?
Author Terry Deary worked out that when kids visited a castle, they didn’t want to know about dates and long lists of kings and queens – they wanted to see the dungeons and the toilets. He based Horrible Histories on delivering the engaging bits.
Kids read on if they are curious. They also learn if they are curious. I often find reality and facts are more interesting than anything I could possibly dream up.
Window cleaners that dangle on ropes 600 metres above the ground?
A lost city, hidden in a giant canyon for hundreds of years?
A pitcher plant shaped like a toilet bowl that gets a shrew to sit on its edge and poo, so the plant can get the nutrients it needs?
Tell me that isn’t wild!
I also try to get young readers to see the wonderful things that surround us all the time, if we just look. Stories are everywhere.
A bright blue feather that drops from the sky and lands on your shoulder.
A spider in a letterbox.
I carry around a small notebook to capture ideas when they strike me. I always encourage students to do the same.
Hit the ground running
The start of a piece of writing is crucial. Writers bait hooks. You want to engage your reader from sentence one.
For non-fiction, I try to find that piece of information that’s going to really catch attention. The first hot air balloon passengers? A duck, a sheep and a rooster …?
With stories, I try to start as late into the action as I can, as in this opening line: Two chariots raced down the track. The horses ran fast. They pulled hard.
There’s an old piece of advice for screenwriters: enter late, exit early. I aim for that.
What happens next?
Once I’ve caught my reader’s attention, I try to build momentum and keep them turning the pages. How are the stakes raised? How does the action rise? How does the character deal with the dilemma they face?
To build engagement, I need my reader to ask, “What happens next?”
When my own children were younger, I’d read my stories aloud and watch their reactions. If they wanted more when I tried to stop, I knew I was on the right track. But if they wandered off while I was reading, I knew I had work to do.
As a teacher, I met many young people who found reading a real struggle. I looked for ways to help them discover the joy in reading, in telling their own stories. As a children’s writer, my aims are no different.
The best comments I get are from parents or children who write to tell me that one of my stories is the one that lit the reading fuse. Then I’m happy.