Some of the biggest names in children’s books started in teaching—J. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, Eva Ibbotson, David Almond, Michael Morpurgo, even J. K. Rowling and Julia Donaldson dabbled. So what is it about being a teacher that makes the step into writing so natural?
This question, which I recently posed on Twitter, elicited such a fabulous response from so many teacher–writers, including some of the extremely well-known names above, I felt I had to share their thoughts along with my own on the topic.
When writing for children, you need to know your audience in so many ways, from the practical—what are they able to read, to the inspirational—what do they want to read. A teacher works with children in the classroom, practically helping them to become readers. But it is at other times, perhaps outside on the playground or during dinner duty, that “You hear about their lives … so you get a sense of their ‘angle’ on life,” Michael Rosen explained. Brian Moses, who started his career in the classroom before he became a full-time poet and writer, said “watching how children interact with each other and with authority figures—there is no better preparation for being a children’s writer.”
As adults we can easily forget what it is like to be a child, but a teacher hopefully never forgets. As one aspirational teacher–writer described “I’m part of their daily lives. On the frontline to share their joys, celebrations, successes, struggles, hurt, battles, humour. It gives you a whole lot of empathy.” A number of teacher–writers confessed to being ‘a big kid at heart’. This awareness of their audience has more important ramifications as explained by Lindsay Galvin, author of Darwin’s Dragons, “working with children means I (hopefully!) never underestimate my reader.”
Within the classroom the teacher–writer is in a hugely privileged position. Catherine Bruton, teacher and award-winning author of No Ballet Shoes in Syria, described the position as “Witnessing first-hand the impact stories have on young readers”. The teacher will see what stories “open eyes, widen horizons, encourage questions, unlock imagination and switch on light bulbs in their heads!” Most teacher–writers will try out their books on their class—always a willing audience. This can have a very direct effect in that the teacher–writer is able to edit on the fly. Gaynor Andrews, a picture book writer, explained: “I read one of my stories aloud to my class and, as I was doing it, I found myself automatically tweaking the language to hold their attention. Perfect way to edit …”.
Teaching children to write lays bare the creative process for teachers. David Almond, who said that teaching is central to his life as a writer, tweeted “I … wrote stories with them, inspired their own stories, dramatised stories with them. [This] helped me explore the varieties of form, connection to voice/movement.” Every teacher–writer that I work with writes with their pupils. There is nothing more powerful than modelling writing for children, sharing what is good and exploring the difficulties. If children can see you struggle, change your mind, make mistakes, self-edit then it is fine for them to do it. This constant practice helps hone a writer’s craft.
And finally to a really crucial point. Reading and sharing books aloud with a class is the perfect way to develop an understanding of the market, but it does so much more. Mark A. Smith, author of Slugboy Saves the World, explained: “Reading aloud to [children] every day, I hone my performance skills and learn how to hold their attention, how to build suspense, what makes them crack up.” Perhaps an even more direct and visceral approach is not to read but to tell stories. Philip Pullman tweeted “I told stories (not my own—myths, folk tales) because I thought it was a good thing to do. I learned to tell them by doing it.” This deceptively simple act teaches so much about the craft of storytelling and plays into the raison d’être of all teachers—the desire to communicate and share what they love with others.
Not all great writers are teachers and not all teachers are great writers, but if you talk to any writer who has taught, they will tell you the experience was invaluable.