Monday 23 May 2011

Advice for reluctant readers and writers : Exclusive guest post from Pete Johnson, children's author

Since I started writing this blog, I've been amazed at the great interaction that I've had on twitter or by email with published authors. It still knocks me off my feet when a famous author emails me to ask if I'd like to review their new book or replies to my review on my blog. It's heartwarming to see that they really do pay attention to book bloggers and even read my own humble blog !

Well, this time, I have a real treat for you - a totally exclusive guest post written especially for my blog, full of sensible and helpful advice for parents from kids' author Pete Johnson, whose latest book The Vampire Hunters I just reviewed (here).


Often at the end of one of my book-talks a pupil will hang behind and say with a shy smile. ‘I’ve written a book too. Would you like to see it?’

Then with great pride they’ll dig out a manuscript (often beautifully illustrated) and there will be thirty or forty pages – sometimes even more than that – of a horror, or science fiction story, or maybe even a family saga.

Meanwhile the teacher will be watching all this with undisguised amazement. But this wasn’t homework. No, the spur here was nothing less than a love of stories. And there are few more powerful fuels than that.

It was a delight in story-telling which set me off as a writer. This was initially sparked by my mum reading to me at night, and my dad telling me stories with huge relish on a Sunday night. He’d always end on a great hook too, so I’d fall asleep, madly wondering what on earth was going to happen next.

Then I joined the library and each week I’d devour the six books I was allowed to take home (and, of course, six was never enough) I soon had my special favourites – like Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ books. They often made me laugh out loud. Later I had a go at writing my own funny stories.

I found some of them recently. I’d love to tell you they were undiscovered comic masterpieces. In fact, they were extremely poor copies of Richmal Crompton. But that didn’t matter. I was having fun writing. And that’s a great starting point. And I didn’t see writing as a chore. In fact, I often couldn’t wait to settle down with a pen and a note-pad. (The way I begin writing to this very day)

Later my writing became more personal and observational. I started, as they say, to find my own voice. Then I entered writing competitions. When I was twelve I won a first prize of ten pounds – and felt like a millionaire.

I also wrote a fan letter to Dodie Smith. She’d written my all-time favourite book: ‘101 Dalmatians.’ And I’d sent her my enthusiastic thoughts about her story. To my friends’ amazement (though not mine) Dodie wrote back. Over the next twenty years I received many more letters from her. In one of them she casually asked if I’d ever thought of becoming a writer as she was sure I’d make a good one.

Sometimes one question can change your whole life.

Now I’ve written over thirty books, many of them comedies such as: ‘How to Train Your Parents,’ and ‘Rescuing Dad.’ Actually, comedy creeps into all my books even spooky mysteries, like: ‘The Vampire Blog,’ and its newly launched sequel, ‘The Vampire Hunters.’

The idea for writing these stories in the form of blogs, came from my nephew, Adam. For his birthday and Christmas present he was given an iPod Touch. As well as using it to play video games and go on the internet Adam keeps a diary blog, hidden behind secret passwords (which he regularly forgets)

As a fellow-writer I have been allowed to see a few of his blogs. They are lively observations about what he’s been doing that day and often extremely funny too. Interestingly, he is not at all fond of writing at school (and that’s an understatement) yet this blog obviously means something to him.

So when parents ask me what they can do to encourage reluctant writers. I begin by saying don’t be afraid to embrace new technology. It offers many fresh opportunities for all kinds of writing. And by the way, don’t be embarrassed if your children often know more about this new technology than you. Adam absolutely delighted in teaching me how to use an iPod Touch.

I can’t stress too how important it is for children to be allowed to write what they like sometimes. NEVER make them feel silly for wanting to write about fighting giant aliens or a lonely ballerina. Nothing blights creativity more than feeling you are under a constant critical gaze.

Good writers are also good readers. So put books in children’s way whenever you can. Certainly visit the library regularly – but also have books lying casually around the house. And again, let them choose to read whatever they want. No rules. And no fuss if they don’t want to finish a book.

But don’t let your child put themselves in a box headed non-creative either. So often it’s just a matter of finding the right subject to release their creative flow.

For instance, one of my most popular books, ‘The Ghost Dog’ was inspired by an invitation to a boys’ spooky story telling night. Each boy in turn told a ghost story, while the other boys listened in rapt attention, even applauding the ‘really awesome’ ones.

None of these boys liked writing at school, but when I suggested they write up their ghost stories they all did, and with such care. Some of the boys went on to pen more horror stories. ‘Once I get started, I can’t stop,’ one boy told me. Another said, all day at school he looked forward to coming home and writing his ghost stories. I know exactly what he means.

For me, a day without writing is a madly dull one. And if through the power of writing you manage to create characters and scenes which live in people’s heads – that’s one of the most exciting and life-affirming things I know.



Surround your child with stories. Make regular visits to the library, but have books all around the house too.

Sometimes allow children to write exactly what they want. Make it casual and totally uncritical.

Embrace modern technology. It offers lots of opportunities for writing.

Let children see you reading and writing for pleasure.

If possible, let children meet authors. It can often transform the way they see writing. And the glow from the encouragement of an admired writer can last a life-time – as I know!
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