NEVER – EVER – should we underestimate the power of the written word – the effect that reading and writing can have, especially on the lives of children.
My own journey into becoming a children’s author began with the birth of my first grand daughter, Lucy. My first attempt at story writing was a gift for Lucy, a story that she could call her own – a story that no other child had ever heard – a story that she would remember and pass on to her own children.
What a ridiculously pompous notion. How could someone like me possibly hope to produce such a piece of work?
Now, more than 20 books later, I can look back and understand what a crazy idea that was, but I wrote my story for Lucy and, if you read on, you will hear of the incredible ways that writing my stories has affected the lives of many, many children (and adults too) in ways that I could never have considered possible.
Probably, my most popular works are a series of short, illustrated bedtime poems called “The Why Series” – each little book being a funny explanation of why something is the way that it is. Titles include “Why Animals Don’t Talk” - “Why Pigs have Curly Tails” – “Why Stars Come Out At Night”.
You would be instantly forgiven for assuming that these are nothing more or less than pleasant tales for children to go happily to sleep to. The author never intended that they should be anything else, but time has proven that both you and the author would be very wrong.
In 2006 I read my story of “Why Animals Don’t Talk” to a class of nine-year-old children in a local primary school. This story was written for much younger children, but the idea of my visit to the classroom was to try to encourage and stimulate children to write their own stories and, having heard my tale, the class would come up with ideas for a new “Why” story – a story that I would help them to write.
I have used this formula in schools all over the U.K. to great effect and literally thousands of children have produced wonderful stories as a result.
In this particular class was a boy who we will call Jimmy.
Jimmy’s life was a horror story (though I had no idea of this at the time.) His parent’s relationship was one of violence and drug abuse. The violence often spilled over on Jimmy. He spent as little time as possible in his house. He roamed the streets. He was angry. He was insecure. He was frightened.
He began to steal – mainly food at first, and then on to items that he could sell. He was nine-years-old, already well known by the police. Jimmy was heading for a life of trouble. He was about to be moved from his school into special needs education. It wasn’t that he was unintelligent – it was just the fact that he was impossible for teachers to control. He was a disruptive child who had grown up with violence all around him. For society, he was a ticking bomb.
About a month after my visit to that class, I received a very unexpected and mysterious email that simply said, “Thank you for all that you have done for Jimmy.”
After some research, the full story became clear.
The email had come from Jimmy’s mother who had taken the trouble to obtain my contact details from the school.
After my classroom talk, Jimmy had gone home and had started writing his own book – a novel about how Earth had entered a second ice age and how the human race were coping with life on a frozen planet. (Jimmy was nine-years-old and I told you that he was not unintelligent!) His whole life became consumed in his writing. His personality changed overnight. His parents saw it. His teachers saw it. His grandparents agreed to take the new, improved Jimmy into their home, away from the violence and the drugs.
I received emails of chapters of his book – wonderfully imaginative writing – appalling spelling and punctuation. His story brought many tears to me eyes.
Jimmy began to love school. He thirsted for information, for education, for stimulation.
Jimmy’s life has moved on now. He keeps in touch with his old primary school teachers and they tell me he’s doing fine. His “ice age” book was never finished – it didn’t need to be.
For me, it wouldn’t matter if I never sold another book. Just the knowledge that – in a fantastically, roundabout way – my decision to write a story for Lucy could have saved one young boys life from disaster, is enough. I guess that it’s the sort of story that every author dreams of.
In 2008 I was in my local shopping center doing a public book signing session with my “Why Series” stories.
I was far too busy to notice individuals. It was always just a quick “Thank you for buying my books” and “Who would you like me to sign them for?”
Again, about a month later, it was an email that alerted me to a very special situation.
“Danny (not his real name) is seven-years-old. Autistic, dyslexic” his mother wrote.
This is what I later discovered.
I had signed two of my books for Danny and on the way home in a taxi, his mother had read him both of the short stories. From that moment on, Danny would not let those two little books out of his sight or touch. Everywhere he went he would take his “Why” books and demand that the stories be read to him. Soon he knew both stories by heart. He would complain bitterly – in his own way – if a reader altered or mis-read a single word.
At home, he would arrange his collection of toys in a semi circle around him, and pretend to read the “Why Stories” to them. He would play for hours with those two little books.
This was the first time in his whole life that Danny had ever concentrated on anything for more than a few seconds. It was a massive breakthrough for his parents and his medical helpers to witness. It gave hope. It gave the encouragement to battle on. It indicated a change in the right direction. It brought a little joy into such an enormously difficult life situation.
Jimmy is an autistic dyslexic. That hasn’t changed, but for me to know that he has my stories inside him and that those stories have meant something in his own, very different world, is more than enough to keep me writing.
In 2010 a South African journalist, working in the U.K. came across “The Why Series” books and contacted me with the offer of writing an article on my work.
She called at my house and, after many coffees and hours of chat she asked if I would sign a set of my books for her nephew back in South Africa. She was about to spend a holiday back home and needed a little gift for the young boy.
The next time I spoke to her she told me this story.
When her plane landed in South Africa, she was met by her brother. The two of them faced a long journey by car through some of the remotest terrain that the country could offer. They would be on the road for many hours before reaching their home.
The Wild Coast is a barren desert. The population, sparse as it is, has not escaped the ravages of the AIDS virus. Many children have been left parentless, to roam the landscape alone, just trying to survive.
Driving through this harsh environment the travelers were looking for a place to rest and to eat and drink. No roadside diners or motorway cafes out here. They came across a sign for an orphanage. There they were welcomed and refreshed.
The journalist was so touched by the plight of the children living at the orphanage that she had an idea. Her nephew was from a reasonably wealthy family. He had all the toys and books that he could ever want. These kids had nothing.
She asked about how many books the orphanage had and was told the answer – NONE!
She took “The Why Series” books – the present that she was carrying for her nephew and gave them to the orphanage saying, “Please let these five little books be the start of a library.” She promised that, when she reached home, she would make contact with as many people as she could think of to ask them to donate books to the orphanage so that the children could learn to read and to write.
She asked for my help too, and by contacting many of my author friends, we managed to get many books sent to the orphanage,
Once again, “The Why Series” stories had proved to be the catalyst for something that the author could never have conceived.
My final story, though there are many more that I could tell is maybe the strangest of all.
In 2011, two Brits were raising funds for a charity by taking part in a grueling race – a rowing race across the Atlantic Ocean.
Let’s call them Bob and Tim.
Bob is an extreme sports fanatic. You would not believe the feats that he has achieved but this row was going to be a test – even for him.
When browsing in her local bookshop, Bob’s mother happened to notice a tiny children’s book called “Why There Are Waves On The Sea”. She immediately though of her son and his epic journey. He was going to see plenty of waves! She then saw another title in the same series called “Why Stars Come Out At Night” and thought of the beautiful night-time skies that Bob would experience on his voyage.
She knew that the amount of kit that her son would be able to take onto the tiny rowing boat would be very limited, but these were tiny books and she was sure that she would be able to hide them amongst the clean socks and pants at the bottom of his kitbag.
She bought the books.
Again it was by email that I eventually heard the full story of what happened next.
After finishing his monumental race, Bob contacted me and recounted how one day, whilst resting in the covered section of the boat, he had come across the two hidden books. Tim was taking his turn rowing and the boat was being accompanied by a pod of whales.
Bob began to read “Why There Are Waves On The Sea” – the story of a baby whale called Wilberforce who is so in love with his gigantic tail that all the other sea creatures are sick and tired of him boasting about it.
Bob was amused by the story and went to read it to Tim.
The coincidence of the whales being around their boat as they read the story caused them to stop rowing and to swim with the whales and – you’ve guessed it – there was a baby with the pod.
Bob and Tim spent many hours on their journey thinking up their own “Why” stories just to pass the time.
The charity that they were fundraising for was an organization helping sufferers of a particularly nasty, incurable degenerative disease.
Bob and I had the idea that we could, perhaps, boost the money that they had raised by selling my books.
We agreed to both sign a few hundred copies of “The Why Series” books and give them to the charity to sell as fundraisers.
I still find it hard to believe that story – all of the different elements that had to occur at just the right time in order to make it to happen.
I began by saying that we should never underestimate the power of the written word and I hope that I have demonstrated how some seemingly insignificant children’s stories have impacted on the lives of those who have come across them.
Authors are probably as guilty as anyone of not realizing that their words can have almost incomprehensible consequences.
When I read my stories to children I always tell them that everyone has a story inside them to tell. Not only should we encourage our children to read and to love books – we should encourage them to write books too – to tell their own stories.
The world of publishing today makes it easily possible for anyone – young or old – to make their stories available for the world to read and who knows what consequences those stories will have.
I am just a very ordinary guy, not highly educated or qualified, who has found joy and great satisfaction in story writing. Whether my stories are good and entertaining is not for me to say. What I can say is that my books are not written with the aim of changing lives but there is no greater reward for me than hearing that sometimes they do.
Why not pick up a pen and write your story, or say to your child, “Let’s write a story together.” You cannot possibly know, in your wildest dreams, where doing just that may lead – not only for you, but for someone you have never met who somehow reads your words.