Weatherhouses and hearthstones by Sandra Horn

What is pc when writing for children? I was struck by the woman on a recent programme about children’s television who said that the early programmes were ‘too middle-class.’ They were certainly voiced by people with impeccable diction and no trace of regional twang. Now, one thing that seems to unite most TV presenters, whatever they are presenting, is an inability to pronounce the letter ‘t’. It has become a glottlestop. Oops, I’ve digressed into a personal gripe. Sorry. Where was I? Yes, this woman on the TV made me think about whether we should write from where people are (or where we think they are) or from where we would like them to be.  
          Aspirational, that’s the word. Is it wrong? The woman of TV mentioned Grange Hill as more appropriate to the needs of modern kids. Well, I’ve been there; spent two long terms in a local secondary school trying to interest and enthuse 14-year-olds in writing stories for younger children, while they surreptitiously played on mobile phones and plugged their ears in to MP3 players or similar. The teachers couldn’t hope to control it all. So, no, I didn’t start from where they were. I vetoed stories about Michael Jackson for a start – and anything else from that kind of pernicious, sexualised culture. Am I showing my age? I expect so. The stories they were working on were aimed at 5-year-olds, after all.
          In the end, 95% of the kids produced gorgeous, colourful , age-appropriate books and produced them with great thoughtfulness and care. We used a chunk of the budget to have the books colour-printed and bound and had an exhibition of them in the library. It was the hardest work I have ever done and by the end of each day I was so tired that I lost my way home twice (the school is about half a mile away from my house!). BUT what I hope and believe is that, for that one day each week, those teenagers were encouraged to come out of their cocoons and fly. Grow. Shine. Be proud. If this all sounds too, too middle-class, well, I didn’t start from there and I won’t apologise for wanting the same chances that I was given,  for those kids, so there. 

Now I’m going to write what I’d planned before the TV programme started me off on a rant. It’s not quite the same issue, but not entirely different either. Many, many moons ago, I wrote the first The Hob and Miss Minkin stories, set in and around my fictionalised home in darkest Sussex (dubbed Cold Comfort Farm by my husband). Someone in my writing group objected to the hearthstone where the cat and Hob meet each night, as ‘children in tower blocks will never have seen one or know what they are.’ 
Similarly, when I wrote the very first version of Rainbow! The response from a publisher was ‘children won’t know what a weatherhouse is’.  I’m not sure where or when I first saw one of those quaint little houses with two doors which were supposed to predict the weather depending on whether the man or the woman came outside. I do remember being enchanted by them. We were once given a ghastly version with a plaster ‘Red Indian’ wearing an apron bearing the inscription ‘Apron blue, sky is too. Apron pink, weather stink.’ Yuk.
          In the end, in my stories, the hearthstone stayed and the weatherhouse is there by implication in Samuel Sunshine and Rosina Raindrop’s world. DIY publishing – love it!

My latest WIP is about a silver cruet set in the form of a ship with a Phoenix figurehead. No, I’ve never seen one either.
          Children won’t know about X or Y or Z? They will after reading about them.  Isn’t that what stories are for?
          Lifting us from where we are to a new and different place – isn’t that what stories are for?


Dennis Hamley said…
Super post, Sandra. I agree with every word. I have long despaired of the claptrap which says that stories mustn't use words or ideas which children may not understand. Our function as writers is to extend experience, not restrict it. And I am sick to death of being told it's 'elitist' to do otherwise, rabid old left-winger that I am.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Brilliantly put Sandra. I agree reading should expand children's mind as and imaginations. That won't happen if they know every single thing in a book already.
Bill Kirton said…
I'm on your side, too, Sandra. We may all be definable by class but I prefer to think of aspirational as being other than social or intellectual climbing. Children (especially the very young) still have the openness and the imagination to accept and develop concepts they've never before encountered. My own contact with (primary school) children in the sort of context you describe was for just one day but they produced elements and exchanges in their stories way beyond anything I could come up with.
Rosalie Warren said…
I think children need a mix - they need to read about people with whom they can readily identify, in terms of familiar backgrounds, etc, but they also need to be introduced to new ideas, new things, new kinds of people, and to have their imaginations stretched and fired. As a child I remember reading about chidren who were very different from me. The 'pony' books I loved all seemed to be about rich children who lived in enormous houses, had nannies and went to boarding school. I kind of accepted that that was the world of books. I was happy to read about it but it had very little to do with my world. The first book I read about working class children struck me as 'all wrong' - books weren't supposed to be about my kind of world! Looking back, that all seems very odd and very wrong... and I think the redressing of balance has generally been a good thing... except that it is taken much too far by the 'weatherhouse' example Sandra gives.

Balance, as in all things.
Excellent post, Sandra. I think the problem often arises because of a sort of reverse snobbery among many young editors who don't understand the innate curiosity and endless imagination of children. There are parallels with the Victorians and their insistence on children reading moral tales. It is better than it was. Back when J K Rowling was trying to sell Harry Potter, I remember that there was a fashion for grim reality but nobody seemed to have actually asked the kids what they wanted. She was selling a stunning mixture of magic and old fashioned boarding school story at a time when you couldn't sell children's fantasy for love nor money. Her success wasn't down to any massive publicity drive at the time - it was, as far as I remember, mostly down to word of mouth among kids, who had discovered something they had been somewhat starved of but loved it when they found it: adventure, mostly minus parents. Roald Dahl is much loved for the same reasons but which publisher would dare to take him on now?
Susan Price said…
Yes, yes, yes, Sandra! Of course, as Rosie says, books should reflect children's experience and background, whatever that is - but does that mean they shouldn't also introduce new ideas and new experiences?
How would anybody ever learn anything if they were only allowed to know about what they already know?
If children don't know what a weather-house or a hearthstone is, they can ask somebody. A parent, a teacher, a grandparent, whoever. Then, as the old tales say, 'Their evening will be wiser than their morning.'
As a child I constantly badgered my parents with questions about what I was reading: what does this word mean? What's a panther? What's a vortex? How do you build a rude hut of branches? If they knew, they told me. (Or showed me.) If they didn't, we looked it up.
This is called Learning. The idea of only telling children about what they already know is stultifying.
And of course if you're reading on a Kindle or other device with an online connection, you can highlight the word and look it up.
julia jones said…
well done Sandra
glitter noir said…
I'm late to the party here and find what I'd like to say already said. But if any reader, regardless of age, is taken with a story and knows s/he's in good hands, that reader will stay with the tale till the end, knowing mysteries will be solved. Great post, Sandra.

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