Hagrid burst through the door and sat down in front of Harry. He told him he was a wizard. He then told the Dursley’s that Harry was going to Hogwarts and they went to sleep. Then they went to get the shopping and Harry got on the train to go.
Let’s be honest, we’ve all had writing like this. On first glance it’s OK I suppose. Correctly structured sentences, some good verb use and clarity within the paragraph. However it lacks, well, fun! It’s something I’ve wrestled with every year of my teaching and something that to this day remains arguably the biggest challenge faced in creative writing. A total lack of detail, meat on the bones, colour to the sky.
I don’t think it really hit me until I started reading more children’s books. Noticing the language and dialogue and all the extras that run alongside it. The Peculiars by Kieran Larwood is masterful at this, he creates a living, breathing, stinking London to support his mystery story. Children find it hard, we pummel them with so many different aims for each piece of writing that something inevitable tumbles out of their shell like. So what do we do to address it? How do we shift from reported speech to direct speech? How do we create the world for our characters to thrive?
I’ve attempted a few different approaches but this one is really making ground. It’s called, wait for it because this is special, Is it a bird is it a plane?! Original, witty and highly engaging I’m sure you will all agree.
Yet it works, so bare with me. Many children write like they are in an aeroplane, ‘this happened then they did this oh and then they went there’ a series of events, a listing of what happened. Perhaps acceptable in KS1 but not what we want as children get older. This is what I call the plane, a reporting of events from above. What we would see from the air, a limited view only capable of reporting basic facts.
Now let’s switch to the bird. A very particular bird. One that likes to frequent the shoulders of bearded men from the West Country. Ones that like treasure? Sail around? Ok, ok, pirates. Imagine that rather than being in a plane you, the narrator are perched upon the shoulder of the main character. Everything said, seen, felt or heard is shared by our feathered friend. He reports all, in direct speech, able to peer through the ear into the mind of our character seeing their thoughts and feelings. Suddenly Harry no longer merely goes to get the train. He notices a glimmering scarlet engine, throwing plumes of black smoke into the cramped air as children thronged around the platform calling greetings to each other.
A plane can’t see that. It’s too far away. A parrot can. A parrot on the shoulder is the best explanation I’ve come up with, want to describe a different scene with a different character? The parrot flies off on to the shoulder of that person. Want to write dialogue? The parrot reports it all. It can even pose rhetorical questions because it is wondering itself.
Believe it or not I’ve even used an actual parrot puppet in class. Perched him on a child’s shoulder and narrated what is happening.
Moving writing from basic reporting of events to beautiful, detailed prose is one of the biggest challenges of upper KS2. I’ve attempted many solutions and this, hands down is the best. Is it a bird? Yes! Is it a plane! Absolutely not!