“Oh, it's the Orfer!” by Julia Jones

Peter Duck and me in Felixstowe
I was passing a traffic lights where there were two primary school girls waiting. My car window was open and I heard what they said. "Oh, it's the orfer!" I waved like crazy and they waved back. You can keep your red carpet and your paparazzi, popping flash-bulbs and I really can't be bothered with a paving slab in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. To be identified as an author by a couple of Felixstowe primary school kids (who almost certainly won't have read my books) made me deeply, deeply happy.

It happened last year as well. I was walking to Felixstowe Library to help give out the medals for the summer reading challenge and there were three or four children playing in a street nearby. No chance they were going to be getting a certificate for reading their six books over the summer holiday but still I heard them say, “That's Julia Jones. She's an Orfer. She came to our school.” That was what had mattered, nothing to do with me or with my specific books. My day in their school had confirmed that books are written by people, quite ordinary people. Maybe they could do it themselves, if they chose.Meanwhile they were happy as they were.

Suffolk coast by Claudia Myatt

I went on to the library. I handed out the certificates and I loved and admired the children who had were there with their parents / carers / grandparents waiting bright-eyed for their names to be called. It was especially good when I recognised several of the children from the schools where I'd worked. Yet it was that moment in the street that left me with the special memory. It made me feel part of something that was bigger than myself -- the community of writers.

Felixstowe (translating literally as this happy place) is a town on the Suffolk coast that stretches between the astounding realities of global commerce at the Port of Felixstowe (River Orwell) end to the delightfully dilapidated collection of shacks, houseboats and history that comprises Felixstowe Ferry at the entrance to the River Deben. For the last two years I've enjoyed the fantastic privilege of being invited into most of the local primary schools to run writing workshops and talk about 'being an author'.  And I've also been allowed on the platform at the official book festival (June 27th-28th)

Author Pippa Lewis & Peter Duck at last year's festival

The festival itself is delightful. It's now in its third year and happens over a single weekend, mainly at the Victorian redbrick Orwell Hotel, although, this year, there are several outdoor events and a nautical offshoot at the Felixstowe Ferry Sailing Club. I attended the Festival in its first year to listen to my fellow Authors Electric member, Linda Gillard, give two talks: one about her own novels, that eclectic mix of feyness, reality and romance that endears her to so many readers – and the other a 'how-to' session on successful self-publishing that had me scribbling notes from the safety of the back row. It was a small room but it was packed. I'm sure many of the people in there were getting the same sense of empowerment as the children -- we can do this too!

Linda Gillard talking about self-publishing
Not long afterwards I met Festival organiser Meg Reid, together with a member of the library staff, and I found myself telling them  how much I’d previously enjoyed being sent into Clacton area schools, when the much bigger Essex Book Festival had a bit of Arts Council money to spend on ‘outreach’. Money is not something that Meg and the FBF have in abundance but dedication, enthusiasm and openness to ideas seems to blow ashore with the sea breeze. Within a few months volunteer children’s festival organiser, Hannah Rowe, was writing round to local schools asking whether they’d like me to visit. Three of them said yes. This year the Rotary Club are involved. They and all eight primary schools have contributed to a central fund which allows each school to commission a day’s work from one of three writers, together with the opportunity to enter their pupils' work in a competition with the general theme of Wonderland. 

I was a bit uncertain about the competition idea to begin with. Competitions are lovely for people who win them but have to be very carefully managed if they are not to demoralise those who invest their effort and their hopes without success. Okay, for adults maybe – I'm not so sure about children. One thing that visiting schools has taught me is that there are many more children writing privately, for their own pleasure, than I had ever imagined.

When I visit primary schools I always spend lunchtimes in the library and ask the teachers to tell the children that anyone who wants to come and chat about their own writing will be welcome.I sit there for a while eating my sandwiches like Nobby No-Mates and sooner or later the children come. Generally they are the older ones but there's always at least one or two tinies. Sometimes they’re writing with a friend; more usually they have a notebook at home which they treat as strictly secret. Some are embarked on wildly ambitious projects – epic sagas or extended pieces of fan fiction, others admit to a few short stories or a newly started diary or to never quite finishing anything. They are simultaneously honest -- and gloriously aspirational. Sometimes the writing talent is already evident: other times the dream hasn’t yet made it into words. I was like that when I was a child. My private efforts meant so much in my imagination but I achieved so little on paper. It wouldn’t have done me any favours at all if any of this work had been dragged out from faded green notebook and set against the more articulate, better organised efforts of others.
Fortunately I don’t think the Felixstowe competition will trespass into these sensitive areas. The arrangement has been that the work has been done in the schools and it’s up to the teachers to select pieces of work to send on for the external judging. I'm guessing thet that real celebrations will have happened in-house, with pupils sharing their work in class at the end of a session or in show-and-tell assemblies where participation is voluntary. I’ve noticed skilful teachers seizing the opportunity to put forward children who have responded unexpectedly well in the writing workshops. It’s a rare day if someone doesn’t say in tones of surprise “Oh s/he never normally writes as much as that”  -- when often it’s a very few sentences indeed.

Children can be so heart-tugging – the bereaved little girl who wrote a story about her mother coming back in a dream, the boy who described a secret place in the woods where he and his estranged dad would both be together, fishing and camping, and no one would be able to see them or find them; the children whose "wonderlands" turn out to be the distant countries where their grandparents and the other members of their families still live. They can also be so funny and friendly and affirmative. One shy lad – perhaps on the high-functioning autistic spectrum – explained to me that his letters “wouldn’t join up any more” then allowed me to read neatly-printed pages of the most original and wryly humorous fantasy writing that I’ve ever had the opportunity to enjoy. It won't be eligible for the competition but I long to fast-forward another ten years or so and discover that this talent has been his route to success.

ready for the FBF, I hope
The Felixstowe schools don't have the sub-culture of intense personal competitiveness that I now realise was bred into the private education system where I grew up. The actual achievements have happened in the process of our busy, slightly chaotic, workshop sessions -- whether or not these are evident to the outside world, These children are sufficiently unsophisticated to respond positively to the very presence of a Norfer, even when I have to disappoint them by answering the inevitable question with a negative: "No, I'm not famous". 

I do hope that the Festival organisers (unpaid volunteers) and the sponsors and the teachers realise what a worthwhile initiative this has been. I’d also like to say from my own point of view that it’s absorbingly interesting to be allowed to work with children from so many different nationalities and with such varied abilities and problems and personalities. There are five child characters in my forthcoming novel, Black Waters (set in Essex, not Suffolk)  and each of them has been suggested by someone I’ve met on a school visit somewhere (not necessarily Felixstowe). I don't think I'm infringing the privacy of the children. It's part of the same process by which any character is created, just a flash of a personality trait, never a total portrait.

I find school visits challenging and exhausting and restorative and hugely stimulating. The next time I see a couple of kids waiting at a traffic lights I’ll probably whoop with delight and say “Ooh look, it’s a Ninspiration!”

Anna Bentinck, voice actress, coming to the FBF this year
Here's the list of speakers for the festival weekend (June 27th-28th) http://felixstowebookfestival.co.uk/speakers-2015 and here are the events - which begin well before that date http://felixstowebookfestival.co.uk/events Anna Bentinck and I are talkingabout the process of turing novels into audio books. My friend Philippa Lewis is talking about her book Everyman's Castle and Claudia Myatt is talking (and probably drawing) about illustration


Susan Price said…
Julia, you are quite obviously a warm, sympathetic, understanding, inspiring visitor to schools, and they are so lucky to have you.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Julia - what a lovely, hearwarming post!
Bill Kirton said…
I've had nothing like your exposure to primary level children but I have very fond memories of the 2 I did visit a few years back. There's so much energy, no-one's judgemental about the ideas of others, and their unfettered imaginings seem to come to them so naturally. Everything is possible. Thanks for a lovely warm post, Julia.
Nick Green said…
My dad's family's from around there - we used to have a beach hut at Felixstowe. It is indeed a happy place. What a heart-warming post all round - thank you for that.
Linda Gillard said…
Julia, you are a "ninspiration". Thank you for this brilliant blog. It took me back to my primary teaching days when I used to run an after-school writing club. Primary children, turning up to write after school! They loved it and so did I. Children show us what we could do if we wrote without fear, if we just told the story.

Sharing this on my FB author page.
Lydia Bennet said…
lovely post Julia, I'm sure you are a total inspiration and it's great you find so much joy in working with children to encourage their writing. I've done writing/poetry workshops for all ages, down to 4. Those tots started off sitting on a carpet in front of me on my chair, and gradually ooched forward more and more until some of them were climbing on me! Adorbs.

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